Penn State centers collaborate on pollinator education project

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Kathy Hill, associate professor of education (science education) in the College of Education and director of the Center for Science and the Schools (CSATS), and Christina Grozinger, Publius Vergilius Maro Professor of Entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Center for Pollinator Research (CPR), are leading a team that has been awarded a $300,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The grant will allow the team to partner with elementary school teachers in Pennsylvania to develop cross-disciplinary curricula to support their students in understanding pollinator research in the areas of food, agriculture and natural resources.

“We are providing opportunities for teachers to integrate science across the curriculum and pollinators are an excellent context for doing that,” said Hill, the principal investigator (PI) on the project.

The grant, from USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, will support the project, “Agricultural science in elementary education learning in gardens at school (Ag-Seedlings).” Hill and Grozinger are collaborating on the project with Amber Cesare, an instructor in CSATS; Natalie Boyle, an assistant research professor in entomology and director of education programming at the CPR; and Harland Patch, an assistant research professor in entomology and director of pollinator education programming at The Arboretum at Penn State.

According to Hill and Grozinger, CSATS and the CPR have collaborated on several prior projects to support curricular development for K-12 classrooms.

“Our team has been working together now for about five years,” said Grozinger. “It’s very exciting because we have so many cool things we would like to tell people about pollinator behavior and ecology, and strategies to support and conserve them. Most of the members in our center are biologists and we are not trained as educators or communicators. This partnership is important because it helps us disseminate ideas about pollinators in a format that is more accessible to different groups of people.”

Christina Grozinger, Publius Vergilius Maro Professor of Entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

One of the motivators for the Ag-Seedlings project, Hill and Grozinger said, is that reforms in K-12 STEM teaching recommend using the practices of scientists to teach concepts in science. However, they added, teachers often lack a background in scientific research and thus find it challenging to generate science learning opportunities that do not involve simply leading students through linear, stepwise exercises, which contrasts with the actual dynamic, interactive work of scientists.

“Elementary teachers are not subject area specialists, they’re trained to be generalists,” Hill said. “They rely on curricula that are provided to them. And often, that curricula are following the stepwise process of the scientific method, and we know that’s really not how scientists operate.”

Another problem with using protocol-driven exercises to teach science, she added, is that they are set up with a goal of generating a “right answer.”

“And oftentimes students that don’t arrive at that right answer end up feeling that they’re not good at science,” said Hill. “Failure is a part of science. The results of your experiments are often not what you expected, and that’s OK.”

In developing a framework for the project, Hill, Grozinger and their colleagues will use the USDA strategic goal of "food security,” particularly the crucial role of ecosystems services of pollinators on food production. They will recruit elementary teachers from rural and urban communities that work with underserved populations to co-develop and test science curriculum at the K-1, 2-3 and 4-5 grade bands. This curriculum will involve hands-on activities in school gardens and yards and be integrated with other subject areas important in elementary teaching such as language arts, math and computer science.

“It’s important for teachers to have these opportunities to tie the curriculum together rather than teaching them as discrete subject areas,” Hill said.

Grozinger emphasized that the science curriculum the team is developing is rooted in real-world observations that are not limited to a specific type of setting.

“We are really trying to encourage the teachers and students to go outside and observe these interactions in the real world,” she said. “I think this is the power of the pollinators — they are everywhere. Even in an urban school that might not have a dedicated school garden, as long as there’s a container garden or some type of green space around them, (classes) should be able to do observational studies.”

By developing a robust technological component, Hill and Grozinger said, the Ag-Seedlings program will have a lasting influence on elementary schools in Pennsylvania. To start with, a dedicated website will be created for the program. Using content provided by the project team, an instructional designer will develop and organize the online modules.

In addition, the project team will develop and offer a hybrid (in person/remote) professional development program for 16 elementary teachers, engaging them in activities using the practices of pollinator research accessible to young learners. Additional modules will be created to offer a fully online version of the professional development program. Ultimately, the tested and validated elementary curriculum from the project will be disseminated broadly to multiple communities through conferences for agricultural professionals and educators and posted through an online learning portal.

“The materials and the approaches that the teachers are developing, I’m hoping we can make them available more broadly,” said Grozinger. “Once we create these approaches, it can be repurposed in multiple fashions and reach many different kinds of teachers and classrooms, all over the world.”

Last Updated September 02, 2021