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Cary Institute to offer immersive, paid research experience for teachers

National Science Foundation funding will enable teachers to conduct scientific research and develop innovative curricula for teaching STEM

Photo: Middle and high school teachers learning about aquatic ecosystems in Cary’s 2016 Summer Institute. Credit: Cary Institute

Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies is launching a new program to support high school and middle school educators in teaching global change and ecology. Starting in the summer of 2024, nine teachers will spend six weeks at Cary Institute conducting collaborative research in ecosystem science. Follow-up meetings throughout the school year will support the teachers as they develop and implement innovative curricula based on their research experiences.

The program is funded by a three-year award from the National Science Foundation as part of its Research Experiences for Teachers Sites in Biological Sciences (BIORETS) program. By building teachers’ scientific knowledge, skills, and confidence, the Cary BIORETS program will increase teachers’ capacity to develop and implement meaningful ecology learning experiences for their students.  

“Students need to engage with ecology and STEM early, to instill confidence in them that this is a field they can pursue throughout their lives,” said community ecologist Jane Lucas, who will lead Cary BIORETS. “When people are better informed about big ecological processes, they are more invested in supporting a sustainable planet. By talking about global change early and often, we hope to build a collaborative and educated public that is excited about keeping our planet healthy.” 

Who can participate in Cary BIORETS?

The program prioritizes educators from groups underrepresented in STEM, and those who work in schools that serve significant minority populations. Teachers from four under-resourced Hudson Valley school districts that serve both urban and rural populations have expressed interest in the program. Teachers from across the U.S. are invited to apply, with travel and housing covered. Participating teachers will receive an $8,800 stipend.

Rebecca Van Tassell, program coordinator for Cary BIORETS, emphasized that the program isn’t just open to biology teachers. “We would love math teachers to apply. We would love computer science and chemistry teachers to apply. The sticky, urgent problems of global change need to be approached through the thinking of many different disciplines so that we can come up with novel solutions.” 

Cary BIORETS structure

During the six-week summer program at Cary Institute, educators will develop and complete an ecological research project under the mentorship of Cary scientists. Projects will explore new dimensions of ongoing Cary research related to wildfire, aquatic ecosystems, disease ecology, forests, nutrient cycling, and more. Depending on which project the teacher works on, they will have the opportunity to create and run simulations of future forest and fire dynamics, conduct field surveys of tick density and distribution, explore soil food webs, and identify tree species, among other skill-building activities. 

Drawing on their research experiences, teachers will design new instructional materials to bring ecological concepts to their classrooms, with support from Cary Education staff and fellow teacher participants. Each educator is also required to share what they have learned, either by contributing to a professional publication, presenting at a conference, or conducting workshops in their school districts.

Throughout the school year, Cary Institute will host four virtual meetings to support teachers as they integrate their new curricula into the classroom setting. During these sessions, teachers will receive feedback on curricular materials, use protocols to analyze student work to determine the effectiveness of the new materials, and support each other to revise materials. 

The entire process is designed to be highly collaborative, with fellow teachers offering mutual support for each other’s learning throughout the program. 

A unique and empowering professional development opportunity

Cary BIORETS grows out of Cary Institute’s nearly 40 years of experience working with educators to co-create curricula and professional development programs.

Van Tassell said that one of the things that makes Cary BIORETS unique is that it is tailored to each teacher’s interests and classroom dynamics. “By letting teachers engage as learners in this authentic and inquiry-based way, we can work with them to develop materials that allow their students to learn in the same way,” said Van Tassell. 

“Science is always an adventure, and experiments require a lot of creativity and trial and error,” said Lucas. “We often expose students to science with pre-set ‘experiments’ that have known endpoints. Rarely is this the case in science, and by bringing more research into the classroom, I hope it will provide students and teachers insight into what it is really like to be a scientist.”

More information about the program and details on how to apply are available on the Cary BIORETS website.

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