Every summer from 2012 to 2016, Bruce MacFadden and a team of scientists accompanied K-12 teachers on an expedition to collect fossils around the Panama Canal. During this National Science Foundation funded professional development program, educators learned from paleontologists how to identify fossils and worked with scientists to develop lesson plans to bring back to their classrooms. These scientist-teacher partnerships continued long after the expedition ended, as scientists made visits to the teachers’ classrooms.

While many studies have documented how these types of programs benefit teachers, few have looked at the impact on participating scientists. But a new case study led by MacFadden and published in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach shows that after working with teachers, scientists improved their communication skills, had a better appreciation for the K-12 teaching professions, and many wanted to continue K-12 outreach as part of their careers. The participating scientists spanned many career levels, including graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and professors.

Group of people sitting on a beach
Teachers gathered shells from a beach in Panama to compare with fossils they excavated near the Panama Canal.

Photo courtesy of Megan Higbee‬ Hendrickson‬‬‬

“Speaking for myself as a scientist, I also think the excitement the teachers brought with them into the field reenergized us about our own work,” said MacFadden, distinguished professor and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History and director of the University of Florida Thompson Earth Systems Institute.

“We also learned valuable lessons in patience and willingness to learn and grow from the teachers.”

Because of the documented benefits to teachers, and by extension K-12 students, several programs have prioritized funding for teacher professional development programs led by scientists. For example, from 1999-2011, the National Science Foundation’s GK-12 program awarded more than 300 grants for universities to host these programs in a variety of scientific fields.

During the Panama expeditions, more than 30 scientists and 44 teachers collected fossil vertebrates, invertebrates and plants. When they were not conducting field work, they attended talks, seminars and laboratory tours at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. After a day’s work, scientists and teachers assembled at their hotel for poolside chats to reflect on what they learned that day and to plan for future activities.

Group of people working along the banks of the Panama Canal
Scientists instructed teachers how to search for and excavate fossils along the banks of the Panama Canal in 2013.

Photo by Joe Kays in MacFadden et al., 2022 (CC.BY)

In this case study, MacFadden and his team conducted both qualitative interviews and focus groups and distributed quantitative e-surveys to find out how participating in the Panama expeditions with teachers and follow-up classroom visits impacted the scientists’ work.

All the scientists surveyed reported that working with teachers changed their understanding of teaching and learning, particularly in K-12 settings. Specifically, the scientists learned how to develop lesson plans and incorporate standards, how to make opportunities for learning fun and engaging and how to emphasize the importance of classroom management.

“My experiences working with teachers in the field and back in their classroom were among the highlights of my Ph.D. career,” said Catalina Pimiento Hernandez, a biologist and paleontologist at the University of Zurich who participated in the program.

Those that visited a classroom more than once after the field expedition ended reported that they became more comfortable working with students and were able to better communicate their ideas and answer questions.

“The experience demonstrated a pathway to merge my love for scientific research and discovery with education, especially K-12 education in low-income communities,” said Jeanette Pirlo, who was a graduate student during the field experience and is now an assistant professor of evolutionary biology at California State University, Stanislaus.

“It also taught me what works well in classrooms and how to teach to my audience’s background knowledge and life-experiences, as opposed to just teaching the material.”

The key to making these programs effective and engaging, MacFadden said, is to ensure there is two-way communication between the scientists and teachers so that everyone’s expertise is valued equally.

“In this model, the teachers and scientists collaborate and learn together.”

While this case study is one of the first to document how these programs benefit scientists and teachers alike, MacFadden believes the literature will continue to grow. These mutual benefits were part of his inspiration for developing the Scientist in Every Florida School program, which matches teachers with scientists who can help them develop and deliver lesson plans on science topics.

“During our Panama project, we developed a model and framework that helped us develop best practices for subsequent successful scientist-teacher partnerships,” MacFadden said.

Funding for the scientist, teacher collaboration was funded in part by the National Science Foundation (grant 0966884 with supplements 1237203 and 1321453 as well as grant 1358918).

Sources: Bruce MacFadden, bmacfadd@ufl.edu;
Catalina Pimiento Hernandez, catalina.pimientohernandez@pim.uzh.ch;
Jeanette Pirlo, jpirlo@csustan.edu

Writer: Rebecca Burton, rlburton@floridamuseum.ufl.edu, 850-316-1555

You Might Also Like