Employing field-based and hands-on research curricula in public schools is logistically and financially challenging. Teachers interested in utilizing such pedagogy are often dissuaded by lack of training or institutional support. Even in instances where STEM curricula deliver strong ecological and statistical content, the development of critical thinking skills lags far behind. Here we describe a transferable and low-cost model for building inclusive inquiry-based science to students.
The University of Arizona’s Sky School has developed a year-long “Research Apprenticeship” mentoring program that provides scientifically rigorous, inquiry-based ecological research experience for Arizona students. The program is structured in a tiered format, with graduate student scientists providing scientific training and consultation to undergraduate mentors, who lead small groups of middle- and high school students in field research in the Sonoran Desert. Over several months, students follow the scientific method from observation to analysis to presentation at their regional science fair. Related programs using schoolyards / public parks as field sites are also now being piloted.
In the initial 2 years pilot programs have reached ~45 diverse students, with 94% of participants completed the program, and in year one, 67% of projects received awards at the science fair (approximately 5 times the average rate). All students indicated an improvement in their understanding of how to conduct an inquiry project and the associated skills they used in their own projects. Feedback from many students and their parents indicate an increase in confidence related to science and self-esteem in general. Many students and parents also reported greater comfort accessing the University of Arizona campus and expressed interest in other outreach programs at the University. All undergraduate mentors participating have reported an improvement in their own scientific inquiry skills, as well as leadership and professional skills.
We will also share a set of resources and best practices that will enable this approach to be replicated by other institutions of higher education.