by Gene Stowe
Eighteen local K-12 teachers participated in a two-day Teachers as Scholars program led by Professor Jennifer Tank of the College of Science at the University of Notre Dame.
The program included a day of classroom instruction at Innovation Park by several guest speakers and a day of hands-on learning at Notre Dame Linked Experimental Ecosystem Facility (ND-LEEF) at St. Patrick's County Park.
“It was the best seminar I have attended through Teachers as Scholars by far,” said Sherry Sill, a physical education teacher at Northpoint Elementary School who has studied fossil bones from Egypt and the changing effects of media at previous events.
“Jennifer was very interesting to listen to and talked on our level. The first day we met, we were in the classroom and she had five different speakers. On the second day, we were at St. Pat’s for the day for field experiments in the ponds and streams.”
Teachers as Scholars was started by the College of Arts and Letters in 2000 but moved to the Office of Public Affairs two years ago and has expanded to include more colleges on campus, said Jay Caponigro, director of community engagement.
“Our goal with Teachers as Scholars is to give teachers an opportunity to work with a faculty member who is an expert in their field, who is passionate about their research and teaching and who wants to share that with teachers so that our teachers go back to their classrooms refreshed and energized from being learners for a couple of days,” he said.
Tank is director of ND-LEEF, a partnership between Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative and St. Patrick’s Park that involves two constructed experimental watersheds, each with an interconnected pond, stream and wetland on 6 acres in the park.
The interconnection closely resembles nature, but the environment is sufficiently controlled for field experiments that bridge the gap between nature and the lab.
“We wanted to do it around those sort of grand environmental challenges, given that that is what the students of these K-12 teachers are going to face in their lifetime,” Tank said, listing the impact of invasive species, climate change and land use on fresh water. “We brought them up to speed on the latest research in those areas.”
A series of speakers on the first day of the program presented a broad range of environmental challenges affecting fresh water. Presenters were Peter Annin, Managing Director of The Environmental Change Initiative; Brett Peters, Assistant Director of ND-LEEF; Christopher Jerde, Research Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences; and Patrick Shirey, a graduate student in Biological Sciences.
“They asked great questions of all the different speakers,” Tank said. “They were very engaged. They had all done the reading. We gave them science papers, the primary literature on these different areas. It was a very diverse set of readings and they clearly had all done them.”
On the second day, Oct. 9, participants donned boots and got their hands wet with graduate students for real research at ND-LEEF.
“I wanted the teachers to see that the research enterprise at Notre Dame is not just faculty,” Tank said. “It’s a diverse group going all the way from undergraduates to research assistant professors and faculty.”
St. Joseph County Parks Director Evie Kirkwood said the program signals community benefits from the partnership.
“From the Parks Department perspective, as all of us began working on the concept of ND-LEEF, one of our goals was to be able to offer educational opportunities for a variety of folks – kids, adults, teachers, high school classes – and this was a really, really nice fit,” she said.
“During the Teachers as Scholars program, they were able to use some of our resources within the park as well as ND-LEEF. It was a great outreach program.”