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$2.8 million NSF grant supports science education

Fairbanks, Alaska—A new $2.8 million National Science Foundation grant will help the University of Alaska Fairbanks bring climate change research to Alaska classrooms and prepare graduate students to be better teachers.

The grant is part the NSF’s GK-12 program, a national initiative to improve science education. It will fund CASE: Changing Alaska Science Education, a partnership between the UAF College of Natural Science and Mathematics and the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

CASE will pair 10 UAF graduate students each year with elementary and high school teachers and their classes, using the climate change theme to teach scientific methods and concepts. UAF biology and wildlife department chair Rich Boone, museum education director Laura Conner and museum curator of birds Kevin Winker developed the five-year program.

“We know that young students learn more effectively when they can relate to the topic, and climate change is something everyone in Alaska has experienced,” said Conner. “From longer growing seasons in Fairbanks to coastal erosion in Shishmaref, we have real-world examples that we can use to teach science at different grade levels.”

The graduate students and future university students stand to benefit as much as the younger students. For most science graduate students, their sole teaching experience is as a teaching assistant, according to Boone. When they move on to faculty positions, he said, they know the science but not how to communicate it.

“Explaining complex climate change topics to sixth graders will really make them focus their messages, which will make them better science communicators in general,” Boone said. “Working side-by-side with the teachers, they’ll also learn to be better teachers. In the long run, that’ll improve university-level science teaching as well.”

The graduate student fellowships are one-year positions open to students in science degree programs with two years of research experience. Ten students will be selected each year, with eight of them working in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, one in the Southeast Island School District and one in the Bering Strait School District.

The graduate students will be paired with teacher partners during a two-week workshop in early summer. Over the summer, the teams will work to develop curricula and classroom activities that meet grade-specific learning objectives for Alaska students. During the school year, the graduate students will spend 10 hours a week in with their assigned classes. The two graduate students working with the rural districts will spend one week visiting their classes in early fall and then communicate through regular videoconferences throughout the school year.

Lesson plans, activities and other resources developed through the grant-funded program will be available to teachers across the state through podcasts and other materials posted on the CASE website and through hands-on kits available for check-out from the museum.

Teachers interested in hosting a graduate student in their classes during the 2010-11 school year should visit http://www.uaf.edu/cnsm/gk12project for more information.

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