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Battelle NEON STEM Grant offers educators a chance to work with national environmental data

NEON fish sampling

In 2016, Battelle began operating the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) under an agreement with the National Science Foundation. NEON provides open, standardized ecological data from across the United States, including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Now, to challenge educators to use NEON data in their K-12 STEM programming, Battelle has announced the Battelle NEON STEM Grant.

Educators can submit grant proposals for lessons that would use NEON data for topics ranging from climate change to animal population movements and much more. Final grant proposals are due by 5 p.m. EDT on Oct. 31, with awards announced in December. Technical assistance webinars will be held on October 10 and 22.

So, what kind of data is on the NEON site and how might teachers incorporate it into their curriculums? For answers, we contacted Kelli Shrewsberry, executive director of the Teaching & Learning Collaborative of Worthington, Ohio, who has examined the NEON web site and has used data with students in her teaching:

Q: Tell us about your background in education and your work at the Teaching & Learning Collaborative. What is the goal of this organization, and what kind of work does it do?

A: I began my teaching career in South-Western City Schools in central Ohio in 1994, however, it was around 1998 that I was a participant in a professional learning experience facilitated by the Science & Math Network of Central Ohio. My passion for science was fueled by the innovative ideas that were part of the learning experience.

I simply asked one day, “How did you get to do this?” and the rest just fell into place.  In 1999, I became a Teacher on Loan at the Science & Math Network and began to expand programs and my own leadership and facilitation skills while on staff.

I returned to the classroom for a few years, and, in 2006, the Science & Math Network changed its name, but not its focus. The Teaching & Learning Collaborative (TLC) continued to design and provide professional development programs in mathematics, science and technology through partnerships with universities, corporate foundations, ESCs and districts.

During the past several years, TLC coordinated several Ohio Mathematics Science Partnership (MSP) programs administered by the Ohio Department of Education. Programs such as K-2 IMPACT, a statewide mathematics initiative for Ohio’s K-2 educators, allowed us to research changes in content knowledge, instructional strategies and student achievement. The statewide structure for IMPACT is an effective model for what we want to be able to do as an organization: build networks and partnerships to help us scale programs that work, reaching more educators and students across Ohio and nationwide.

Q: What kind of experience do you have using primary source data such as that available through the NEON project? How have you worked with such data, and how did you begin to use it? 

A: We have always tried to find ways to design strong learning experiences for students in mathematics, science and computer science. Including primary source data when we can provides an authentic way to engage student thinking, analysis and discourse.

One of my favorite experiences was during a mathematics and computer science initiative for grades 3-4. The robotics module used shipwreck data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gathered off the coast of Lake Erie. Students used data and images to discover relationships between perimeter and area. Students then deepened the experience by programming an mBot (robot) to travel to the various shipwrecks with given constraints.

In lower grades, we have incorporated the use of photos and images. Images of sea stacks (pillars of rock in the water close to a coastline) taken at the same spot over the course of 50-plus years provided an opportunity to engage students in thinking about erosion.

Images taken over a period of 24 hours (at different locations) helped provide opportunities to think about seasonal changes in sunlight. Couple this with data sets, and you have a powerful learning experience for students.

With those examples, we started with lessons that we already thought were strong and thought: How do we make them stronger? How do we get students thinking about what is happening or making comparisons?

Often, data was the way we could do that. It provided opportunities for analysis and discussion.

Q: Why should educators use NEON data in their classrooms? What are the educational benefits? 

A: Visualizing, analyzing and interpreting data can be found in many content standards, not just mathematics and science. NEON provides an opportunity for educators and students to make connections across content standards and for teams of teachers to work collaboratively to create integrated learning opportunities for students.

In thinking about the use of NEON data, one of the most exciting aspects is the opportunity for students to engage in real-world examples. Whether you are looking for Citizen Science project ideas for a classroom learning experience or want to focus on data that is being collected in the field by scientists, there are many opportunities to think creatively about engaging learners using the resources on the NEON site.

Q: How can teachers initially dig into this data source and begin to use it in their curriculum? How do they go about preparing it for student use? 

A: The best starting point is really to “dig in.” Set aside some time just to look around the site. Check out the interactive data catalog and just look at some of the data products. When you get to one that makes you think of a lesson or topic, spend some time looking specifically at the related links. Download a data file to see what is there and be sure to check out the README files, which can also spark an idea.

Once you have a lesson or topic, think about ways you can include data. Maybe it’s for the launch of an activity or an “engage phase” of the learning cycle. Think about small ways to start having students organize and analyze data and let it grow from there. There are also some great starter videos on the site.

On the homepage of NEON (https://www.neonscience.org/), read the NEON Updates. There are several updates about projects being conducted, which might give insight to classroom/lesson ideas or ways to connect with scientists in the field.

Q: Can K-12 students benefit from using this database? How can each age group, in general, benefit? Can you give examples of possible ways to use it in various age groups? 

  • Elementary Grades (K-5): As part of NEON, take a look at the PhenoCam Network. These time-lapsed images provide a visual record of the environment in that area. Think about ways you could use the images to help address content standards. Comparing data over time has the potential to show trends and analyze sites. With a strong connection to the themes found outlined in Ohio’s science standards: “Observations of the Environment at K-2” and “Interconnections within Systems at 3-5,” you’ll find some great ways to use this section of NEON in the classroom.
  • Middle Grades (6-8): As students begin to think more deeply and strategically about scientific inquiry, NEON has the potential to support their learning in patterns, trends and relationships. With a focus on interactions within and between systems, NEON data sets can provide opportunities to find patterns, ask questions, compare sites and more. Soil samples and profiles can be connected to the images and data sets that have been collected. Soil measurements and the associated data from sites could be compared to a school site. Comparing soil findings and soil microbes from each field site might reveal interesting connections for students to discover.
  • High School (9-12): Such great opportunities exist here for some collaboration! If your building is looking to embed computer science into courses, this could be a great way to begin. While videos and support material are included on the site for running R-Script and/or Python, it would be even better to have departments working together to engage students in these areas. With rich data sets from more than 80 terrestrial and freshwater aquatic field sites located in 20 different ecoclimatic domains, you will have lots to choose from.

Q: What would you tell educators who might be wary of using such data in their classrooms? What would you recommend to those who might be considering applying for a Battelle grant to fund a data-based project? 

A: When you get ready to look at the resources on NEON, know going in there is a lot to discover. You’ll definitely have to spend some time exploring the site, getting to know what is there, and manipulating the information. The good news is that you’ll find creative and innovative ways to embed the resources into your classroom. There are some great questions being asked using the NEON data. Wouldn’t it be amazing if your students were investigating those questions, too?

Q: Is there anything else you would want to add on the subject of using data in the classroom? 

A: When we as educators give students opportunities to use and analyze data to explore questions, we provide them with experiences designed to use and understand content at higher levels. NEON provides multiple resources that can be used to evaluate, manipulate and combine data to solve problems posed by the classroom teacher or students themselves.

Edited by Patricia Bitler, freelance writer and editor.

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