CSU researcher examines learning that occurs at biological field stations

A study conducted by a Colorado State University faculty member and collaborators at Texas A&M University has determined that the nation’s biological field stations are not just places to collect scientific data — they also serve as important educational outposts for the public.

Jill Zarestky, an assistant professor in CSU’s School of Education, along with collaborators Rhonda Struminger, Michelle Lawing and Rachel Short from Texas A&M, recently had their research published in BioScience, one of the most highly ranked, peer-reviewed scientific journals in the field.

From left to right: Rhonda Struminger, Jill Zarestky, Rachel Short

It is the first publication of the collaborators’ findings from a project funded by the National Science Foundation on advancing informal science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning. The project, intended to study informal learning at biological field stations across the United States, is the first of its kind.

“Field stations are generally sites of biological, environmental, and ecological interest where scientists conduct research based on the special qualities of that place,” said Zarestky, a faculty member in the school’s adult education and training master’s degree specialization. “Field stations are also where scientists and education professionals run outreach programs that are open to the public, teaching ‘K through Gray’ through field trips and summer camps, nature hikes, citizen science projects, and more. Learning opportunities for the general public exist at field stations precisely because they are unique and interesting places.”

Innovative and comprehensive

The innovative study provides the first comprehensive look at what has been happening at field stations across the country for years: field station personnel engaging with the public and teaching science in an environment where that science is experienced in nature.

“No one has studied learning at field stations as a whole – what they are doing, what their priorities are, how they all fit together, and possibly how they could be improved,” said Zarestky. “We’re trying to find out how educational outreach supports the mission of field stations as a whole. How does it support the science that’s out there? How do field stations leverage resources to help the general public learn about, engage with, and think about science?”

The team has used a survey to gather data from more than 160 field stations across the nation – nearly half the total number of field stations in the U.S. Since the survey can take up to two hours for stations with extensive programs to complete, said Zarestky, the fact that so many stations have opted to participate is an indicator of the buy-in from the profession.

The article is a combination of survey data and conceptual framework, with examples and specific details from selected field station programs that illustrate how the pieces of the framework fit together. It tries to answer the big questions around how the missions of field stations connect to educational opportunities.

Biological field stations in the U.S. (Courtesy photo)

Building a community

Recently, Zarestky and the research team traveled to the Organization of Biological Field Stations’ annual conference, held in Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine, to offer professional development workshops to field station education professionals. This is the second year in a row they’ve been invited to conduct these workshops, said Zarestky. The workshops are well-attended and teach field station personnel how to pay attention to outreach, connect their outreach to their field station’s goals, and think about engaging participants. The goal, said Zarestky, is to help build a community among field station professionals, who are typically trained biologists rather than trained educators.

“We’re preparing to build a wiki that will allow stations to search by different facets of learning – content, location, approaches to learner engagement, program type, participant demographics,” she said. “Our goal is to support these field stations in their education mission. We want people to be able to find who among their peers has done something similar to what they want to do, and to learn how it was done without reinventing the wheel.”

As their research progresses, and support from field station professionals grows, Zarestky and her team are already working to fund further research initiatives focused on geographic analyses and qualitative case studies. In addition to collaborating with field stations associated with CSU and Texas A&M University, their list of current collaborators includes stations affiliated with Auburn University, Clemson University, the University of California campuses in Davis and Berkeley, the University of Utah, and Michigan State University.

“There’s a huge enthusiasm for the project from our collaborators,” said Zarestky, “and from other field station personnel who have heard about the project and want to know more.”

Scenes from Zarestky and team’s visit to Acadia National Park, Sept. 2018

Making an impact

While biology isn’t Zarestky’s area of teaching and research, she is enthusiastic about improving STEM learning opportunities at field stations.

“Science really matters – right now, and in our everyday lives,” she said. “One thing I really like about connecting science learning to actually being in nature is that you can see the way things are happening; you can look at the evidence. That gets at people who enjoy nature but don’t necessarily know that they enjoy science or come for the science. Field station learning makes science and nature accessible to people who might not otherwise seek out such opportunities.”

For Zarestky, being published in a journal with the prestige and impact of BioScience feels surreal. She just started her third year as an assistant professor at CSU and feels like she is finding her research groove.

“To have my work be accepted in this way is incredible,” she said. “It has provided visibility and credibility for me and for my work. That opens opportunities to build relationships with faculty members across campus and elsewhere.”

To learn more about the field station research and how to participate, visit the project’s website.

The School of Education is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.