Science Magazine Prize Honors Environmental Research Course

Chemistry students from Jones High School in Orlando, Florida visit a UCF lab to analyze local water samples. [Courtesy Erin Saitta]

When science educator Erin Saitta was a graduate student, she was invited to participate in a program in which students from kindergarten to high school age would do inquiry-based science — conducting real research labs without known outcomes, with the emphasis on learning how science works. Although skeptical about how such labs could succeed in the classroom, Saitta accepted the invitation, which came with a tuition waiver and a stipend. It was only after she started co-teaching the labs with middle and high school teachers, however, that she was won over.

"Here were these students and teachers and scientists, and we had these amazing discussions about science concepts that were supposed to be quite simple. It was phenomenal," Saitta said. "I couldn't go back to teaching the other way."

Now, Saitta and her colleagues are being recognized with the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction. Their award-winning curriculum, "An Inquiry into the Water Around Us," allows undergraduates and high school students to conduct real research into the water quality of their local communities.

Science's IBI Prize was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students' natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing "module," the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay by Saitta and colleagues was published on 30 August.

"Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science," said Editor-in-Chief Emeritus Bruce Alberts. "We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding laboratory modules promoting student inquiry to reach a wider audience. Each winning module will be featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to these valuable free resources."

As a child, Saitta was always interested in science, but when she started high school, she also dreamed of being a fashion designer. Surprisingly, her two interests merged in a high school chemistry class as she contemplated why a certain fingernail polish seemed to change color. That brought her to her next plan, to work in chemical applications related to cosmetics and medicine. It was only after becoming a chemistry tutor in her senior year that she discovered how much she loved teaching.

It was when Saitta was a graduate student that she started teaching inquiry labs and became a committed advocate of inquiry-based learning. Her students did exceptionally well, and the administration at the University of Central Florida asked her to instruct other teaching assistants in how to conduct inquiry labs in the classroom.

Now the assistant director of the Faculty Center of Teaching and Learning at the University of Central Florida (UCF), Saitta has helped develop "An Inquiry into the Water Around Us" as a three-pronged teaching tool. The unit allows students to collect and analyze water samples in their own community. In the spirit of true inquiry, the students design their own research procedures, with guidance only as needed.

"They're the ones who are in charge of telling us what's in the water," Saitta said. "They feel that they get to actually use what they're learning."

The second element of the curriculum's approach is "service learning," an emphasis at UCF, where students use what they are learning to give back to the community. In this case, the undergraduates give back by working with high school students and by investigating local water.

The third focus of the module is communicating science, which allows the undergraduates to learn by doing as they communicate with high school students via Skype or FaceTime and through personal letters. Through this, the students have learned about words that are routinely used in science but can be misconstrued by non-scientists. The phrase "negative correlation," for example, can be construed by a lay audience as something bad, rather than simply as a relationship between two variables.

Melissa McCartney, associate editor at Science, lauded the approach. "College students get to serve as the ‘experts,' which motivates them in their studies, and younger students are able to see science as challenging, interesting, and relevant, which may motivate them to choose STEM majors in college."

To Saitta, winning the IBI prize and having an essay published in Science is thrilling. "Science is the best platform for sharing this module," she said. "The module is simple and so easily implemented, so it's very exciting to show it to just the right people, who can use it and bring it to so many other students."

Read the essay, "An Inquiry into the Water Around Us," by Erin Saitta and colleagues.

Read more about the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.