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NSF Grant Will Groom Young Scientists October 16, 2006

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Calvin College a new grant that will position some 100 area middle school students to be part of a unique initiative to improve science education and to strengthen students' real-world science experiences.

With the funds Calvin plans to create Team Researchers in a GLOBE-al Environment (TRIAGE), a program that will help middle school students develop authentic scientific research skills and thinking as part of a comprehensive focus on environmental sustainability. Calvin will work with Forest Hills Public Schools, Grand Rapids Catholic Schools, Grand Rapids Christian Schools, Grand Rapids Public Schools and Wyoming Public Schools. It also will work with a quintet of area business partners.

Calvin will receive $721,754 from NSF for TRIAGE, which is slated to begin January 1, 2007. The college is one of seven prestigious institutions across the country to receive the funds as part of the NSF Academy for Young Scientists program (other institutions include the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University and the University of Chicago).

The 100-120 students in the program (two years of participants at approximately 60 students per year) will be part of a group of only 700 to 800 students nationwide with a similar opportunity.

Dr. Rachel Sytsma ReedRachel Sytsma Reed (right), an assistant professor in education at Calvin, is the program coordinator. A former middle and high school school science teacher, whose many degrees include a doctorate in educational psychology and a master's in chemical oceanography, says the time is right for this project for West Michigan.

"I feel like all of the pieces of the puzzle are right here in West Michigan," she says. "There is so much happening right now. This area has the potential to be an amazing scientific hotspot. I believe TRIAGE is part of that puzzle and can make a big contribution to what's happening here."

Reed, who spearheaded the idea and the proposal to NSF, notes that students value real-world science, but often by middle school report disliking school science. She and the project's lead team of scientists and science education professors at Calvin (Crystal Bruxvoort, Jim Jadrich, Ken Bergwerff, and David DeHeer) are hoping to show that authentic student research has the potential to re-invigorate middle school students' interests in science and research.

"Based on the literature from educational psychology and science education," she says, "student research may be an ideal way for students to engage science more intensely and deeply, leading to improved understanding of the nature of science and increased interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. To understand the inner workings of science they need opportunities to explore real world science."

Reed says that in light of national and local STEM performance data, and the access to innovative science programs for youth locally, the overarching goal of the TRIAGE project is to provide a team-based community program that involves students in science research and promotes interest in STEM fields.

With TRIAGE the emphasis will be on middle school student research as part of a larger collaboration. A TRIAGE team includes middle school teachers, middle school students, Calvin students in the teacher education program, Calvin research faculty and even the parents of the middle schoolers.

TRIAGE teams will utilize the Bunker Interpretive Center and Ecosystem Preserve at Calvin for their home base, where they will collect data for existing projects, develop data entry and analysis skills, design and execute their own research projects, and engage in team-building activities using resources, games, and exhibits in the Bunker Center.

Each month will include STEM career presentations and off-site tours utilizing business partners and advisory board members' community connections. The entire TRIAGE program is extra-curricular, occurring after school and during the summer.

Business partners for the project include Meijer Botanical Gardens and Sculpture Park, Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, Timmermans Environmental, West Michigan Environmental Action Council and the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum.

The TRIAGE advisory Board includes: Gordon Van Harn, Van Andel Education Institute; Janet Vail, Annis Water Resources Institute; Gail Heffner, Calvin College; Shawn Wessel, West Michigan Environmental Action Council; Linda VanderJagt, Forest Hills Public Schools; and Diana Payne, Connecticut SeaGrant, University of Connecticut.

In addition, students will spend two weeks during the summer engaged in a Student Research Institute (SRI), working alongside research faculty at Calvin College to develop their own research knowledge, skills, and questions. Their year-long participation in TRIAGE will conclude with a student-organized and led research colloquium.

Each partnering school district has a paid coordinator for the project: Bernard Stanko, Diocese of Grand Rapids Catholic Schools; Dan Hunsberger, Forest Hills Public Schools; Lois Brink, Grand Rapids Christian Schools; John Howarth, Grand Rapids Public Schools; and Thomas Reeder, Wyoming Public Schools.

Reed says the project's focus on environmental sustainability draws upon concerns and issues relevant to the immediate community.

"We live in the Great Lakes watershed, which is affected by and affects agriculture, land development, and resource management, says Reed. "Recognizing that students begin losing interest in school science by early middle school, TRIAGE draws upon science relevant to the lives of the students we will reach. As a focal topic, 'environmental sustainability' is broad enough to have relevant components in any community."

And she says the benefit for NSF and thus for the nation's science education efforts as a whole is that TRIAGE will inform NSF about what works and what does not work in developing grass roots, community-based initiatives for increasing recruitment and retention in STEM fields.

Interestingly, the GLOBE in TRIAGE refers to an interagency program funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, supported by the U.S. Department of State and implemented through a cooperative agreement between NASA, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, and Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. To date, more than 180 teachers have been GLOBE trained in the state of Michigan. This training has been a cooperative effort of the Regional Math and Science Center at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), the Michigan Environmental Council, and the GVSU Annis Water Resources Institute.

Calvin associate dean for teacher education Susan Hasseler notes that Reed's recent grant, and a multitude of other grants to Calvin faculty over the last four years, allow the college to develop very close relationships with local public and private schools while also providing an avenue for research and publication for Calvin faculty and students.

In fact the total amount of grant funding awarded to faculty members in the teacher education program at Calvin now stands close to $1.5 million.

"We are thrilled to be able to bring this exceptional opportunity to West Michigan students and the larger community," says Reed, "and we hope that students, teachers, and families are eager to join in this regionally unique project."