Improving Science Literacy and Earth Science Awareness Through an Intensive Summer Research Experience in Paleobiology

Monday, 15 December 2014: 4:45 PM
Noel A. Heim1, Jennifer Saltzman1 and Jonathan Payne2, (1)Stanford University, Stanford, CA, United States, (2)Stanford University, Los Altos Hills, CA, United States
The chasm between classroom science and scientific research is bridged in the History of Life Internships at Stanford University. The primary foci of the internships are collection of new scientific data and original scientific research. While traditional high school science courses focus on learning content and laboratory skills, students are rarely engaged in real scientific research. Even in experiential learning environments, students investigate phenomena with known outcomes under idealized conditions. In the History of Life Internships, high school youth worked full time during the summers of 2013 and 2014 to collect body size data on fossil Echinoderms and Ostracods, measuring more than 20,000 species in total. These data are contributed to the larger research efforts in the Stanford Paleobiology Lab, but they also serve as a source of data for interns to conduct their own scientific research. Over the course of eight weeks, interns learn about previous research on body size evolution, collect data, develop their own hypotheses, test their hypotheses, and communicate their results to their peers and the larger scientific community: the 2014 interns have submitted eight abstracts to this meeting for the youth session entitled Bright STaRS where they will present their research findings.

Based on a post-internship survey, students in the 2013 History of Life cohort had more positive attitudes towards science and had a better understanding of how to conduct scientific research compared to interns in the Earth Sciences General Internship Program, where interns typically do not complete their own research project from start to finish. In 2014, we implemented both pre- and post-internship surveys to determine if these positive attitudes were developed over the course of the internship.

Conducting novel research inspires both the students and instructors. Scientific data collection often involves many hours of repetitive work, but answering big questions typically requires big datasets. Our team of 20 used calipers and data-rich compendia of fossil species to collect copious amounts of data. Our interns experienced the joys, frustrations, tedium and excitement of being scientists and discovering something new about the natural world for the first time.