Regional Partnership Creates Authentic Research Experience for K-12 Students

Collaboration among two universities, a high school and the local city government is creating authentic, hands-on research opportunities for high school students and valuable partnership experiences.

Colorado State University ecology graduate student Laurel Hartley helped coordinate a vertical partnership with Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colorado State and the University of Northern Colorado through the National Science Foundations’ Shortgrass Steppe Long Term Ecological Research Program and the GK-12 programs.

In 2001, a partnership was created among teachers, university researchers, local government agencies and individual classrooms after Colorado State was awarded a multi-million dollar grant from the NSF to support collaboration between graduate students and K-12 classes. A research project was developed that allowed high school students to collect long-term data related to how prairie dogs influence arthropod communities, plant communities and nutrient cycling on the shortgrass prairie.

Hartley taught lessons in 10th grade biology classes at the local high school during the ecology unit. "I primarily focused on teaching the students about ecology using the prairie ecosystem as a case study," she said.

Students collected data twice a year from the Cathy Fromme Prairie, a local natural area, and recorded all data for a final research poster that was presented at the Front Range Student Ecology Symposium at Colorado State. Data was collected by high-school students from 2002-2005.

"Students participated in gathering data about the plant communities on and off prairie dog colonies. They also collected data on nitrogen cycling and information for an arthropod census," Hartley said.  

Hartley’s program secured permission to conduct research on the city-owned natural area and, as a result, developed a partnership with the Fort Collins city government.

A schoolyard plot also was created so students could practice their experiments and data collecting techniques before going into the field.  

When all of the data was gathered, individual biology classes worked collectively to put together a research poster.

"We champion the idea of partnerships because they are necessary for providing authentic research experiences to students, they promote the growth of teachers as scientists and they illustrate the increasing importance of collaboration in ecological research," Hartley said.

"The research that we were conducting with the students had no known answers. This was an opportunity for the students to act like scientists and really learn about research techniques. This wasn’t a typical high-school experiment with canned answers. It certainly added authenticity to the experience," she said.

Hartley presented her experience working the high school biology classes at the Ecological Society of America annual meeting in Memphis, Tenn., earlier this month.

In the fall of 2006, Hartley will start her post-doctoral work at Michigan State University, where she will coordinate a similar K-12 program and continue her ecology research.