NSF GK-12 Project Flowing Waters PhD graduate students collaborate with San Marcos science teachers
Texas State faculty leading Project Flowing Waters include (left to right) Drs. Rich Earl, Weston Nowlin, Julie Westerlund and Tim Bonner.
Humans have lived near San Marcos Springs for 12,000 years. Today, this life-sustaining resource, an incubator for eight endangered species, bubbles up into a pristine lake on the Texas State campus. The lake, the springs, the river they feed and the aquifer that lies beneath them make Texas State a natural site for research that can help preserve and manage the world’s precious freshwater resources.
Thanks to the hard work of a faculty team led by Dr. Julie Westerlund, the principal investigator for Project Flowing Waters, and her fellow biology professors Drs. Tim Bonner and Weston Nowlin, and geography professor Dr. Rich Earl, Texas State was awarded $2.3 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a “Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12)” program in 2008.
The grant provides generous support for the critical aquatic research being conducted at Texas State. It will also benefit San Marcos CISD students and science teachers, who will have science graduate students acting as “resident scientists” in their classrooms each week. The Texas Pioneer Foundation, a local San Marcos educational foundation, generously provided additional support for graduate students and teachers for Project Flowing Waters.
The grants allow Texas State to pay stipends of $30,000 and cost-of-education allowances of $10,500 per year for eight to10 doctoral students for each of the next five years. These doctoral students have two jobs: to conduct scientific research and to partner with teachers in San Marcos-area public schools to offer students hands-on experience with science.
The Impact of Flowing Waters
“Project Flowing Waters will enable PhD students in the aquatic resources and in the environmental geography doctoral programs to devote most of their time to scientific research,” Westerlund says. This is because the grants have made it possible to offer these students assistantships with salaries sufficient to cover both their tuition and fees and also their living expenses. This allows them to concentrate on their research without needing a second job.
According to Bonner, the grants will allow Texas State to almost double the salaries for Project Flowing Waters doctoral students. “This was a huge score for us,” he says. “It allows us to offer a very enticing salary to attract quality PhD students to the program.”
While the Project Flowing Waters grants benefit the doctoral students involved, the impact has a much wider reach. “[This program] gets these PhD students, who typically are really excited about their research, or on the cutting edge of their research, and puts them in the high school and middle school classrooms,” Bonner says. “You get someone in their early career and you put them in the classroom, that enthusiasm and excitement radiates from them.”
To ensure the doctoral students are prepared for teaching inquiry-based science in a junior or high school science classroom, they take a new course, BIO 7100 Professional Development – Inquiry Science Teaching. Westerlund, who previously taught high school biology, trains the doctoral students in inquiry-based science teaching before they begin working with students in San Marcos CISD schools. “The goal of this course is to polish the communication and teaching skills of the doctoral students,” Westerlund says.
Enhancing Science Instruction
Under the guidance of Westerlund, Bonner, Nowlin and Earl, the doctoral students began using those skills in San Marcos CISD classrooms in fall 2008. Each of the 10 students, called NSF GK-12 Fellows, was paired with a San Marcos CISD science teacher. The Fellows will spend 10 hours each week of the academic year in middle school and high school classrooms.
“Our NSF GK-12 Fellows will serve as ‘resident scientists’ in the classroom,” Westerlund says. “They will discuss with students exciting research that is being conducted at Texas State University and also mentor students in research by conducting scientific research with them, one-on-one.”
Westerlund says the Fellows’ most important role in the science classroom is to help the students understand scientific concepts. They will do this through inquiry-based science lessons and small group discussions; tutoring and mentoring individual students; and arranging field trips.
The teachers couldn’t be happier. “The San Marcos CISD teachers are enthusiastic and having a lot of fun with this,” Bonner says. “They are really excited about the program and its potential.”
The Fellows can bring science lessons that are related to the San Marcos River, which flows through the students’ hometown of San Marcos as well as the Texas State campus. “One [lesson] could be a bio-monitoring project,” Bonner says.
“With bio-monitoring we use animals as indicators of river health,” he explains, “So what they might do is collect and identify bugs from the San Marcos River and from ponds on Texas State campus. By comparing the bug assemblages, students can make predictions on how aquatic communities would change between flowing systems and non-flowing systems. Federal and state agencies use similar procedures to infer health of stream systems impacted by wastewater effluents, sedimentation and urbanization.”
For Westerlund, Bonner, Nowlin and Earl, the goal of these types of hands-on lessons and of Project Flowing Waters as a whole is to make science exciting and real for the students. “We hope that by having San Marcos CISD students together with Texas State science graduate students every week, more students will decide to seek higher education, and more may seek science careers,” Westerlund says.