An educational Web site called Earth Exploration Toolbook (EET) has been tapped to win the prestigious SPORE award by the journal Science. Like a key to the kingdom, EET provides students with all they need to enter the world of real scientific data.
“Using real data allows students to see a real connection between science and the world,” said Tamara Shapiro Ledley, EET’s principal investigator and a former climate researcher. “Too often data sets can only be understood by scientists themselves. That’s where Earth Exploration Toolbook comes in.”
The journal Science developed the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) to promote the best online materials in science education. The acronym SPORE suggests a reproductive element adapted to develop, often in less-than-ideal conditions, into something new. In a similar way, these winning projects can be seen as the seeds of progress in science education, despite considerable challenges to educational innovation. Each month, Science publishes an article by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The article about the Earth Exploration Toolbook was published on 30 September.
“We want to recognize innovators in science education,” said Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “At the same time, this competition will promote those Web sites with the most potential to benefit science students and teachers.
The publication of an article in Science on each winning site will help guide people to important online resources, thereby promoting science literacy.”
Each “chapter” of EET focuses on a different Earth science topic, like weather, climate, environmental quality, or the hydrologic cycle. Each presents a data set such as stream-flow rates or earthquake records and a case study, which is the context or “story line that makes the data interesting, and answers the question, ‘Why do I care about this?’” said Ledley. It also includes step-by-step instructions for understanding and working with the data using analysis tools such as spreadsheets or image processing software.
Ledley’s interest in science education dates back to her early years in school. Growing up just outside of Washington, D.C., she said she always had an interest in science, and by doing science projects each year in middle school and high school, she realized she had a talent for science education. “I found that I was very adept at taking my understanding of the science [of the project] and explaining it to people.” While on the research faculty at Rice University, she worked with a colleague who was involved in science education, including reviewing textbooks for schools in Texas. From there, Ledley’s professional emphasis slowly shifted to science education.
The narrowing of that focus, to the subject of how best to make Earth science data accessible to students, came about after Ledley went to TERC (Technical Education Research Centers) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There she had the opportunity to work with high school students on a project to study the effect of El Niño on Antarctica’s Ross Sea. What she experienced was that much of the time allotted to the project was spent on accessing the data the students needed and putting it in a form they could use.
The more Ledley looked into this issue of scientific data not being accessible in educational settings, the more she realized that in general a big gap existed between the scientific and educational communities, and that little productive communication occurred between the two.
“It became really clear that this wasn’t a simple problem,” she said.
To create the chapters of EET, Ledley and her colleagues attacked the division between the scientific and educational communities head-on. Teams were assembled, and each one had a scientist, a data provider, a data analysis tool specialist, a curriculum developer, and an educator. “The idea was to bring these communities together so they could communicate in a meaningful way,” Ledley said.
Often, the educators didn’t know what was available in the way of real-world data that could be conveyed to their students, and the scientists didn’t know what the educators needed in order to be able to present in the classroom. For most of the team members on both the technology and the education sides, the interaction was a first. Ledley said the exchange affected not only the evolution of the EET Web site but also the way the scientists presented their data generally, inspiring them to make sure the formats they used were as clear and familiar as possible.
“The teams had time to appreciate the needs and abilities of team members from other communities,” said Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science. “While EET does tend to focus on Earth science topics, their Web site provides a take-home message that will resonate through all disciplines of science: Simply providing access to large databases without guidance does not result in an educational tool.”
By simplifying the process of using the data, EET allows teachers to access information that is of particular relevance to their students and is therefore more likely to capture their interest. Teachers can lead their students to data about stream flow in the Sudbury River in Massachusetts and to corresponding weather records from Logan Airport in Boston. They can, however, opt instead to get information from a river and a weather station closer to the students.
“The whole key is teachers should learn how to use it and then customize it for their students,” said Ledley.
One student was introduced to a global climate model by EET, and ended up bringing a resultant project that she did on coastal erosion in Alaska to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. She was in her sophomore year of high school at the time.
Interestingly, the potential of EET goes beyond formal educational settings. Members of the general public who wish to access Earth system data can use it, and even decision-makers could draw on it to educate themselves about changes in Earth’s climate. On the most basic level, EET offers lessons in inquiry skills, or being able “to look at a data set in a way that will help you answer questions that you have,” Ledley said. EET could also be adapted to other fields, ranging from biology to math.
In the meantime, Ledley hopes the SPORE award and corresponding essay in Science will help more people know about the Web site.
“I’m really hoping that it will heighten its visibility so that people will use it more at all levels of education,” she said.
Visit Earth Exploration Toolbook, winner of this month’s SPORE award from the journal Science.
Read the essay, “Making Earth Science Data Accessible and Usable in Education,” by Tamara Shapiro Ledley and colleagues.
30 September 2011