Science communication and outreach program brings Earth scientists into SLC classrooms

The Williamson Fellowship pairs geoscience grad students with seventh- through 12th-grade classes.

A middle school student may not know yet about the chemical processes deep in the Great Salt Lake, about sulfate-reducing bacteria or about the toxic methylmercury that forms as a byproduct of the bacteria’s respiration, alongside pungent sulfide gas.

But they know that the lake smells funky. And that’s a place to start.

Bernau (center) during a field trip to the Great Salt Lake.

On a field trip to the Great Salt Lake earlier this year, Jeremiah Bernau and Sam Lopez used the sights, sounds and, yes, smells of the lake to teach about its natural systems. Outside of the classroom, Bernau could point to a 1,200 foot tall Kennecott Copper smokestack and compare it to the position of ancient lake shorelines to show how much the lake’s water levels have changed over time. And Lopez could point to the dead brine shrimp that washed on shore after a storm, along with the birds who happily gulped up the shrimp, to show the range of life supported by the seemingly lifeless lake.

These experiences, shared by hundreds of students from SLCSE Bryant Middle School and SLCSE Rose Park, were made possible by the Chuck and Cathy Williamson Science Communication Fellowship, a program of the University of Utah Department of Geology & Geophysics that is “aimed at increasing geoscience communications,” according to the program website, “and encouraging diversity in the geosciences.”

Fellows in the program (Bernau and Lopez, both Ph.D. students, are the fellows for the 2021-22 school year) spend the year working with seventh through12th graders, teaching geoscience, leading field trips and building relationships with the kids who may form the next generation of Earth scientists.

“I really enjoy the experience of going into the classroom every week and developing one-on-one relationships with students,” Bernau says. “I’ve been able to work with the same class or classes week over week. So now they feel comfortable asking me questions about geology or what the campus or college is like.”

Creating an opportunity

The Williamson Fellowship is named for Chuck and Cathy Williamson, who fund the fellowship. They are a family of scientists. Chuck is a U alum, a research scientist, and the former chairman and CEO of Unocal.

Marjorie Chan, a distinguished professor in the department of geology and geophysics, reached out to Chuck and Cathy in 2018 with an idea to create a fellowship to bring the department’s students out into the community. That’s something the Williamsons value highly, Chuck says.

“We are strong believers in the value and importance of education for all, and support several programs to produce more STEM graduates and teachers, particularly for the underserved,” he says.

Thanks to the ARUP (Associated Regional and University Pathologists, Inc.) Graduate Fellowship Initiative through the U’s graduate school and to support from the Department of Geology & Geophysics, the Williamsons’ donations are matched two to one, strengthening the program year after year.  The ARUP initiative was designed, under the leadership of Dean of the Graduate School David Kieda, to encourage new external gifts to support graduate students.

Lopez (standing, front) and Good (standing, back) during a field trip to the U’s Frederick A. Sutton Building.

The fellowship owes gratitude to Darryl Butt, dean of the College of Mines and Earth Sciences and TJ McMullin, development director for the college as well as Thure Cerling, chair of the Department of Geology and Geophysics, who all contributed in establishing the fellowship.

In this exemplary case of the Williamson Fellowship, all the pieces came together to generate a new program to increase science literacy, support graduate students and provide geoscience education resources with a long-lasting impact.

Now in its third year, the Williamson Fellowship is open to graduate students in geology and geophysics and accepts up to three fellows each year.

“Our goals were to expose as many students as possible to the joys that science discovery can bring, to introduce them early to societally relevant principles of science and to allow experimental learning and dialogue with practicing research scientists,” Chuck Williamson says. “We want students to be exposed to science and scientists as early and often as possible to mitigate many of the fears of science and math that can derail students early in their education.”

How the fellowship works

Each week, Bernau and Lopez work with classes at either SLCSE Bryant Middle School or SLCSE Rose Park (seventh through 12th grade). Both are Title I schools and campuses of the Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE).

In one of these visits, Bernau led a lab activity using crayons to demonstrate the rock cycle.

“Take a crayon and break it up into pieces,” he says. “That represents erosion. Compress and it becomes a sedimentary rock. Partially melt it and it becomes metamorphic, and then totally melt it and it’s igneous.”  The students loved it.

“Some of them got really into it,” Bernau says. “One said, ‘oh my gosh, this is so cool. I have to show it to my little brother. He loves rocks.’ It’s been really cool to create the environment for learning and then see them interacting with each other and asking questions and talking about it. That’s really when I feel the greatest sense of reward and that we’re doing something that’s working.”

Tommy Good, a teacher at SLCSE, is the program coordinator. “One of the greatest influences on student learning is their perception of how “credible” the teacher is,” he says. “Since the Williamson Fellows are ‘REAL scientists from the University of Utah!’, and as such are clearly passionate about what they do, they are almost automatically viewed as credible by the students.”

Bernau (standing, right) and Lopez (standing, left) during a Citizen Science Water Fair at SLCSE Bryant Middle School

The Fellows bring a new perspective on science into the classroom with their subject-specific knowledge and access to University resources. “This combination of content/resources of the fellows and the delivery/engagement techniques from a seasoned teacher is potent,” Good says.

Field trips are also a major component of the program and are a focus of this year’s fellows. In addition to the Great Salt Lake field trip, students also recently traveled to the U’s Frederick A. Sutton Building.

“Research shows clearly that experiential, in-situ experiences help students make connections to academic learning, increases student awareness of our community, and helps to shrink the opportunity gap,” the program’s website says. “These field trip plans will be widely shared to be accessed by educators in Salt Lake City and beyond.”

Changing trajectories

It’s not just the seventh- through 12th-grade students that are affected by time in the classroom. Good is a U alum who earned a master’s degree in geology in 2013. During his graduate studies, he participated in a Think Globally, Learn Locally fellowship, similar to the Williamson Fellowship. The experience of writing lessons, leading field trips and participating in fellow and teacher retreats changed his career trajectory. He earned a master’s degree in secondary science education and taught in Chicago Public Schools before returning to Salt Lake City to teach at SLCSE.

Lopez tells a similar story in his family. His father saw a need to engage students with science education and left his career as a pharmacist to teach middle school science for 16 years before recently retiring. “I drew a lot of inspiration from my dad,” says Lopez, who is now in his second year as a Williamson Fellow—and hopes to teach someday as well.

Switching to remote learning—and back again

 When schools moved to remote learning in March 2020, the Williamson Fellowship faced the need to adapt. Holly Godsey, former Williamson Fellowship coordinator, says that the fellows created online learning modules that could be used beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They used their own research as a way to tie into the Utah state science teaching standards,” Godsey says. Building on the theme of cycles, Lopez and two other 2020-2021 Fellows developed remote learning modules about the rock cycle, carbon cycle and water cycle. Students, after watching videos introducing the Fellows and their research, would engage with them in online classrooms, exploring in Google Earth and examining 3-D models of rock samples.

With a return to in-person learning in 2021, Good says the Williamson Fellowship has returned to what it was meant to be.

“While we now know that remote learning didn’t work very well for a majority of students, it offered an opportunity for folks in the education business to think outside the box, find new resources, explore new ways of connecting with students, and experiment with new ways of engaging with and assessing students,” Good says. “Most importantly, remote learning helped us to see the value of teaching and learning in the same physical space. It’s good to be back!”

Lasting impact

Students explore rocks outside the U’s Frederick A. Sutton Building

Chuck Williamson says he met with Fellows and teachers in an end-of-year Zoom meeting last year—and that he’s delighted with the program’s impact. “These are gratifying to see as donors, to gain insight into the success of the program,” he says.

Student and teacher feedback indicate strong support and interest, he says, and the Fellows have developed curriculum materials and an educational model that can be shared with others. Godsey and now Good, as program coordinators, have guided the Fellows in preparing lessons and measuring results, greatly strengthening the program.

“The graduate student fellows have embraced the challenge of teaching in a COVID-restricted environment and translating complex topics,” he says, “giving great enthusiasm and time investment at a busy time in their lives.”

He notes that the Fellows recently presented their experiences at a meeting of the Geological Society of America and hopes that other institutions will adopt similar programs to improve diversity in STEM and specifically geoscience fields.

“It is so important to be exposed to exciting relevant science early, experientially and often if we are to increase the scientific literacy and STEM teacher pool,” he says.

Watching lights go on

Students during a field trip to the Great Salt Lake

Back in the classroom after the Great Salt Lake field trip, Lopez walked the students through the “nitty gritty” process of respiration, a critical process of life that can look very different for different organisms. The details of the chemistry and how toxic methylmercury is formed may have been lost on the students except for the sensory experience that brought it all into focus.

“I asked if they’ve ever noticed a foul smell coming from the lake,” he says. “That’s actually sulfide gas being produced at the bottom of lake. And their eyes lit up. They were able to learn about these processes and relate them to what they’ve seen out in the field. It clearly clicked. They asked a lot of great follow-up questions. It was really cool to see.”

Learn more about the Williamson Fellowship here.

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