Collaborations between teachers and scientists can generate novel classroom experiences that enhance students’ enthusiasm for science


By Alison Varty and Steve Bertman


Scientists satisfy their thirst for knowledge by asking questions, developing creative ways to answer their questions, and interpreting the patterns they see, expanding our understanding of the natural world as a result. Instead of giving passive lectures and emphasizing rote learning, we should be tapping into our science students’ innate sense of wonder and allowing them to discover and learn about the world the way scientists do. What better way to create these types of educational experiences than through scientist/educator collaborations? This article describes a collaboration between teachers and scientists, the goals of which were to create classroom-ready materials that get students thinking about and analyzing ozone pollution data like scientists would, and advises educators how to get involved in science out-reach of their own.

Why we need more outreach


While the number of students pursuing higher education across the globe is rising, the proportion of students pursuing degrees in science and technology fields is declining.1 Data from the US Department of Education indicates that only 16 per cent of American high school students are proficient in mathematics and interested in a science and technology related career. The world must train more people in science and technology to address global environmental challenges and keep our economies strong.


Decisions about pursuing STEM careers are often negatively influenced by perceptions of science and technology careers and lifestyles. Many students in developed countries believe incomes in science and technology are low relative to the difficulty of required schooling and amount of work expected from professionals in these fields. Furthermore, students often have inaccurate understandings of science-related professions and many are unaware of the range of career opportunities available to science and technology graduates.


As most scientists are passionate about their work, outreach efforts by professional scientists and engineers can help to combat negative trends and misconceptions about science and technology. Outreach collaborations offer scientists and engineers the opportunity to share their infectious enthusiasm for discovery, as well as their expertise, with teachers and/or students. Science outreach projects can dispel stereotypes about science, scientists, and their careers, while sparking student interest in science.


In addition, science outreach efforts can benefit teachers and generate science curricula that better engages students. Young children have a natural curiosity for science that can be squelched by teaching that focuses on memorizing rather than discovery or understanding. Furthermore, what is taught in science classrooms is often disconnected from the latest cutting-edge science and its relevant applications. Practitioners of science have access to real data and are poised to facilitate the development of inquiry-based teaching materials that demonstrate the true nature of science. As a bonus, teachers learn new and relevant science content and different ways to teach as a result of engaging in outreach efforts.


Since outreach partnerships are outstanding venues for scientists to improve their knowledge about teaching and to learn from professional educators, outreach activities also benefit scientists. Additionally, there is a growing need for scientists to show funders that their research reaches broad audiences. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF), which awards 20 per cent of the federal funding allocated to basic education, science, and engineering research in the United States, evaluates research proposals based on the intellectual merit and the potential of the research to have “Broader Impacts” on society.2 One option for meeting the Broader Impacts requirement is to show that one’s research promotes teaching, training, and learning. Our outreach collaboration described here was initially proposed to broaden the impacts of an NSF-funded atmospheric chemistry research project.


Creating a team


To develop our outreach materials, we brought a team consisting of three Michigan secondary school teachers with specialties in Physics, Chemistry, and Earth Science, a University of Michigan senior scientist with a long history of science education collaborations, a Western Michigan University atmospheric chemist, and two education consultants with backgrounds in biology and formal and non-formal teaching and curriculum development experience.


Although it may seem daunting to locate scientists who are receptive to collaboration, surveys have indicated that at least half of professional scientists are interested or engaged in some kind of outreach. One way to make connections is to determine if your state or provincial universities house a center or program for science outreach (sometimes it is called Education and Public Outreach). The personnel in these offices run collaborative programs with their institution’s scientists and educators from local communities and around the world. Another option is to contact your local science museum, arboretum, or zoo to ask about their outreach programs or to connect with outreach-friendly scientists on their staff. It may also be possible to directly contact scientists at local colleges, government agencies, or private research companies to inquire about outreach opportunities. Our experience is that scientists at field stations are very receptive to collaborations. Lastly, educators can work with local branches of STEM professional organizations, such as the American Chemical Society, to get connected to scientists interested in outreach.




Setting goals


Since many outreach projects are grant-funded, it will likely be necessary to articulate a clear set of goals and objectives before the project begins. The specific goals of our collaboration were to:

  • Design a high-quality web-ready tool that would allow high school teachers to connect their students to University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS) research data.
  • Help students understand the process of science and the career opportunities available in science while building critical-thinking and data analysis skills.
  • Facilitate student understanding of relevant atmospheric chemistry content.
  • Envision a larger outreach effort that uses UMBS resources and data to bring relevant science into classrooms.




Selecting a meeting site


When one tries to picture a scientist at work, the image that comes to mind may resemble “mad scientists” seen on television and in movies. To dispel these negative stereotypes and help educators better understand how scientists conduct their work, we feel it is important for an outreach team to meet at or at least visit the scientists’ work place.


Our lesson development team convened at the University of Michigan Biological Station3 (UMBS) which occupies about 10,000 acres of northern Michigan forest on the shore of Douglas Lake. UMBS hosts formal courses, training programs, and research facilities that attract around 300 undergraduates, graduate students, and scientists from the US and the rest of the world every year, including the two researchers we collaborated with on our outreach project. In 1997, a team of atmospheric chemists, the PROPHET group, began to study the chemistry in the atmosphere that creates ground-level ozone and how ozone affects the forest at UMBS. To do so, they built a 115 foot tower for collecting gases beneath and above the forest canopy. In 2011, the NSF funded scientists at PROPHET to better understand BVOCs, highly reactive compounds that are responsible for chemical changes in the atmosphere. These changes lead to products such as ground-level ozone, formaldehyde, and nanoparticles, all of which pose health risks for plants and animals. The classroom-ready lessons and videos we created for educators and students were proposed in the project goals mentioned earlier.




Building a lesson


We began our summer 2012 lesson development workshop with presentations by PROPHET scientists reviewing basic atmospheric science and the PROPHET group’s past and present research. We then visited the PROPHET field site. Our team toured the building where the atmospheric monitoring instruments are housed and met PROPHET students and principal investigators. We even donned climbing harnesses and ventured up the sampling tower. By the end of the first day, we had selected tropospheric ozone as the topic of our lessons.


We spent the following two days determining how we wanted to present the topic. To do so, we explored models of traditional and web-based lessons that members of the group thought were effective and discussed best practices for fostering critical thinking. Next we selected the education standards we wished to address. Finally, we developed a detailed outline of our lessons. During the workshop, most members of our team stayed in residence at UMBS and we all shared meals together in the field station’s bustling dining hall.


Two members of our group fleshed out the lesson outline over the fall and winter of 2012. Once the draft was complete, we made it available to the classroom teachers in our team so they could try it in their classrooms. After everyone had a chance to review the materials, share classroom experiences, and provide written comments/suggestion, we reconvened the group at UMBS in the summer of 2013 to revise and improve the second draft. We worked with the UMBS staff member who maintains their website to post the lessons. After the lessons were posted we asked our classroom teachers to once again provide feedback.


The results of all of this work include three classroom-ready lessons that aim to educate 10th-12th grade students in courses such as Earth Science, Environmental Science, and Chemistry about the causes and consequences of ground-level ozone pollution. As an alternative to a lecture about the topic and to help students hone their data analysis skills while learning about the world the way scientists do, we convey content knowledge about ground-level ozone through the interpretation of real research data. The lessons present both regional and national data in a variety of formats (graphs and tables) and charge the students to quantitatively analyze and think critically about the data. Finally, to get students thinking about career opportunities, we introduce them to the scientists who collected the UMBS atmospheric data through a video interview. All of these materials are available at


The lesson development collaboration we have described is just one of many ways educators can collaborate with scientists to create high quality educational experiences for students. Many scientists are willing to come in to local classrooms or host classes in their research laboratories or field sites to talk about their work and/or facilitate a related activity. Educators can get their students involved in authentic research through citizen science projects such as the Great Backyard Bird Count,4 which allows participants to input local bird abundance data or the US NSF’s Project Bud Burst,5 which asks participants to input phenological observations of plants. These projects involve students in the scientific process through data collection and the databases that are generated can be incorporated into classroom lessons or used in the generation of peer-reviewed science publications.


Reflections and next steps


The expertise of all parties involved makes outreach lessons both relevant and engaging. Teachers can provide guidance about the abilities of their students and advise researchers about the level of scientific detail to include in lessons so that they are practical in their classroom setting. The classroom teachers we worked with were also essential for translating the PROPHET team’s detailed atmospheric chemistry research into something that is engaging to high school students while also helping them meet required learning standards. Scientists have the cutting-edge content knowledge and access to authentic data sets. The PROPHET researcher in our group educated the rest of the team about the relevant atmospheric science and chemistry and could mine data from the PROPHET team’s database and transform them into something friendly to the high school user (with guidance from the teachers), while maintaining accuracy and integrity.


Members of interdisciplinary collaborative teams need to respect cultural differences and minimize misunderstandings. We found that we had to be careful about how language was used to discuss various topics. For example, our atmospheric scientist baffled the rest of the group when he referred to chemicals, not biota, as “species.” The teachers emphasized the difficulties they face in meeting the state mandated standards, something that generally does not dictate college and university science curricula that many scientists are more familiar with. The scientists on our team were surprised to learn how difficult it is for teachers to access scientific data and that they often lack access to basic equipment at their schools, like computer labs for their students. We learned that when developing collaborative outreach projects it is not necessary for scientists and educators to become experts in each other’s fields, but it is desirable for each to learn enough to be able to appreciate the viewpoints and constraints of each discipline.


The benefits of collaboration extend far beyond the materials produced. Getting to know scientists and seeing them in action in their laboratories or field sites helps teachers more accurately represent science to students. One of the teachers in our group mentioned that the experience of “rubbing elbows” with UMBS scientists helped him communicate the nature of science better to his students. He also mentioned that since our collaboration he has incorporated more analysis of local data sets into his classes. While “rubbing elbows” with scientists, some of their enthusiasm for research and discovery is likely to rub off. Another teacher told us that she felt our collaboration “rejuvenated” her teaching of science. The PROPHET researcher developed newfound appreciation for the challenges of teaching secondary science and understanding of how university scientists can assist in the preparation of students for advanced study.


In the future, we hope to foster educational collaboration more often. We envision creating a permanent outreach team at UMBS that connects more scientists with science educators in order to help scientists create and implement high quality outreach projects that utilize their data and/or focus on their area of study.


We believe we met our goals of generating classroom materials that help students grasp the nature of science while improving their data analysis skills and we know we will continue to benefit professionally from the relationships we formed in the lesson development process. We are grateful we had this opportunity and we hope more educators will get involved with science outreach. These collaborations represent powerful win-win situations in which all parties involved benefit, the scientists, teachers, students, and our global society.



Alison Varty has spent years teaching students ranging from primary school to undergraduate students in formal and informal settings and is currently a faculty member in Biology and Environmental Science at College of the Siskiyous in northern California. Steve Bertman is Professor of Chemistry at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. He serves the UMBS as the Associate Director of PROPHET.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. AGS-1120258. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


  1. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2006. Evolution of student interest in science and technology studies policy report. Web. Accessed July, 2014.
  2. National Science. Foundation. Web. Accessed July, 2014.
  3. University of Michigan Biological Station. Web. Accessed July, 2014.
  4. Cornell University. 2014. The Great Backyard Bird Count. Web. Accessed January, 2015.
  5. National Ecological Observatory Network. 2015. Project Bud Burst. Web. Accessed January, 2015.

Reprinted with permission from Green Teacher #105, Winter 2015.  Learn more about Green Teacher’s non-profit magazine and books at