'Invasion Ecology' curriculum from Cornell helps middle-schoolers do real science by asking questions and developing own research

It's June 2002 and the desks in Alan Fiero's seventh-grade science classroom are empty. But the students from Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland, N.Y., aren't on vacation: They're in a nearby wetland, releasing the tiny Galerucella beetles they have spent months raising in mesh "bug houses." This spring, Fiero and his students will return to the wetland to find out how the beetles -- whose forebears were imported from Europe to combat the spread of the highly invasive purple loosestrife plant -- have fared.

In short, Fiero's students are doing serious science -- by using research methods developed at Cornell University as part of a new curriculum designed for teaching middle- and high-school science. The curriculum guide, Invasion Ecology , was published in October 2002 by the National Science Teachers Association Press. The series is designed to teach broader concepts in ecology and environmental science by focusing on some of the most pressing issues scientists currently face.

"Invasive species is a very contemporary issue," says Marianne Krasny, a professor in the university's Department of Natural Resources and lead author of the curriculum. "Our hope is that we can engage kids, because it's an issue that the news media are paying attention to."

Invasion Ecology is the second in the Cornell Scientific Inquiry Series for teaching environmental science. The first, Assessing Toxic Risk, was published in 2001. Two more curriculum guides, on watershed science and processes of decay and renewal in nature, are planned for release in 2003.

The series is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The publishing effort is led by Krasny and Nancy Trautmann of Cornell Center for the Environment (CfE). Other collaborators include two former researchers in Cornell's education department, William Carlsen, now at Pennsylvania State University, and Christine Cunningham, now at Tufts University, and CfE researcher Adam Welman.

Federal and state standards for teaching science increasingly are recognizing the value of "inquiry-based" learning that goes beyond memorizing facts and figures. The best way to get students interested in science, according to the theory behind the new standards, is to give them the opportunity to develop and ask their own scientific questions.

However, says Krasny, most science textbooks still focus on facts, memorization and "cookbook" laboratory exercises that require none of the creativity or ingenuity that are the hallmarks of good science. With the Scientific Inquiry curriculum series, Trautmann and Krasny hope to provide a resource for teachers who are looking for ways to bring more inquiry into their classrooms and to connect their classroom teaching with current scientific thought and practice.

"The purpose of the series is to get kids involved in authentic research, as much as possible," says Krasny. "We're trying to pattern it after a graduate student experience, where you might begin by learning some basic science and research methods, then go on to develop your own research."

Unlike most laboratory exercises used in science classes, the research projects described in Invasion Ecology pose real questions. Neither the students nor their teachers -- nor, indeed, a working scientist -- can predict exactly how a project will turn out.

Each research protocol used in the guide is a set of clear, simple instructions for a standard technique used by ecologists, such as laying transects for sampling in the field, measuring rates of decomposition in soil or determining the density of plant cover in an area.

Cornell faculty and graduate students worked closely with science teachers to develop the research protocols. The object in pairing scientists with teachers, says Trautmann, was to determine which methods would work well in a classroom setting. "Obviously, not everything works," she says. "Some techniques are too hazardous or too complicated or require too much expensive equipment. But our partner teachers have helped us choose appropriate research techniques and adapt them for safe and effective use by students."

According to seventh-grade teacher Fiero, who worked with Bernd Blossey, Cornell assistant professor of natural resources, to develop the purple loosestrife protocols in Invasion Ecology , the series already has proved valuable.

"Students are excited about being part of an authentic research project," Fiero says. "They like the idea that what they are doing may make a difference by improving the ecology of our area."

This release was prepared by Cornell graduate student Lissa Harris, a science-writer intern with Cornell News Service.

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