Kicking Off Real World, Real Science

Last week I had the pleasure of traveling to Portland, Maine to meet with colleagues at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI). I had never been to Portland, coming from California, but had been told that Portland was a great foodie town, with the largest number of small brew-pubs per capita east of Portland, Oregon. That sounded great to me, and in truth, it was even better than that! Portland is filled with local shops, charming side streets, as well as restaurants right on the water.  

While it was a treat to visit Portland for the first time, the purpose of our meeting was to kick off a project called Real World, Real Science, which we had proposed to NASA’s CAN program last May. It was a big project—$6.5 million over 5 years total, $2 million of which was earmarked for ODI. The idea of the project is to get middle school kids using real NASA data to explore weather patterns in their local region, and to understand how their local weather relates to the larger climate. GMRI and ODI were joined in the proposal by collaborators from the Montsire Museum of Science, the Maine Discovery Museum, and the AAALab from Stanford University.

Central to the project is the development of a learning experience for students visiting GMRI’s Cohen Center on field trips. So before our meeting actually started, several of us got to watch a group of enthusiastic sixth-graders working through their field trip experience. As an education researcher, this was a highlight for me.

The experience began as the students filed into a large, high-ceilinged room, with a stepped platform of bleacher seats in the middle, facing three large projection screens, and surrounded by high-tech, interactive touch screen kiosk stations. After seeing an introductory multimedia presentation to provide background and context to their experience (which happened to be about ecosystem function and inter-specific connections), the students were divided into teams of 3-4 kids each and spread out among the different kiosks.

For the next hour and a half, the teams moved from kiosk to kiosk, being challenged at each one to learn something about connections found within the Gulf of Maine ecosystem. For instance, at one station they learned about microscopic plankton, which form the base of the food web. At another station, which worked like a video game, they took on the role of lobsters trying to avoid predatory cod. And in a third interactive station, they played the role of commercial fishers, choosing gear type and fishing location to optimize their catch and remain within their allocated catch rates. After they completed their work at each of the kiosks, the teams re-assembled in the bleachers for the grand finale, where their findings were brought together (along with photos and videos taken during their adventures) to help them see the broader connections that pervade the ecosystem just offshore, and to more deeply appreciate their connection to it.

Although the Cohen Center experience had been described to me before, I was struck by how rich and complex and cool the experience really is! It was clear that this is an experience that has been refined and refined again, until each piece of it really works well. And the overall experience is so well choreographed and refined that it looks effortless–even though it requires immense coordination among people, content and technology.

So the challenge with our Real World, Real Science grant is to create a whole new learning experience for the Cohen Center, along with a suite of associated materials that the teachers and students can use to extend that learning into their classrooms. We’ll also be working with other museums to see how we can adapt this work to other environments, using different technologies and with different audiences. And our unique role at ODI is to ensure that students gain experience in using authentic scientific data to explore and learn about the world around them. This is going to be a big project, and the bar has been set very high by the excellent program that is already in place. But with the time, talent and resources we have been promised by our NASA funders, I am optimistic that we will be able to make great things happen!

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