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Grant brings Earth science workshop to PLU

May 9, 2008

Grant brings Earth science workshop to PLU

Next summer, K-12 and community college teachers will congregate at PLU for a five-day workshop on Earth science.

Along with classroom and computer sessions, the teachers will trek through salt marshes on the coast looking for ancient tsunami deposits and examine past mudflow deposits from Mount Rainier in the Puyallup Valley near Orting and Buckley.

Led by University of Washington professor and U.S. Geological Survey geologist Brian Atwater and state geologist Pat Pringle, the excursions will give the teachers valuable experience doing scientific work outside the classroom.

“It’s not just show-and-tell,” explained Jill Whitman, PLU geosciences professor. “We want to get them as scientists to engage in the process as a scientist.”

Whitman and three of her colleagues from Puget Sound institutions were awarded a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation totaling $447,703. The funding, from the NSF’s EarthScope Program, will support the development and implementation of the professional development workshops for teachers. Of the total, Whitman was awarded $127,006.

Titled “Collaborative Research: Teachers on the Leading Edge: Linking K-12 Earth Science Teachers to EarthScope,” the project is a collaboration between PLU, the University of Portland, Central Washington University and Portland Community College.

EarthScope is a 10-year program to explore the structure of the North American continent and advance understanding of the processes that control earthquakes and volcanoes. An array of seismic stations and a network of global positioning receivers are currently monitoring deformation and seismicity in the Pacific Northwest.

“The data is out there but it’s really inaccessible,” Whitman said. “Practicing scientists know how to get in and use it, but if you don’t know the distinct jargon and details, it just looks like gibberish.”

The workshops aim to provide a science education program that preserves the authenticity of cutting-edge research while making that science inviting, accessible and useful to K-12 teachers and students, she added.

Participants will learn how geoscientists developed the current understanding of Pacific Northwest plate tectonics, earthquakes and volcanoes, and how EarthScope research is advancing this knowledge. The University of Portland, the lead institution, will host the first workshop this summer, with the following two held at PLU.

“The location of PLU is excellent,” Whitman said.

With several K-12 schools and community colleges in the area, there is a ready supply of participants. Plus, locations with volcano, tsunami and mudflow deposits are within driving distance, she explained.

Along with giving teachers valuable science experience, participants will develop exercises to bring their experiences and knowledge into the classroom. Since field trip money can be hard to come by, Whitman said Web-based learning tools will be developed to help engage students.

Additionally, the community college teachers who participate will become resources and mentors for the K-12 teachers. Typically, community college instructors aren’t actively involved in research, but they are trained as scientists and can bring that perspective to educators, Whitman explained.

“There is a growing awareness about the need to teach teachers,” Whitman said. “To provide an opportunity to work with teachers and guide them about how to take back what they’ve learned to their classroom.”