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Teaching Science through Research

AIBS Eye on Education

Cathy Lundmark

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a new series, appearing quarterly, that will look at success stories in education.

Alan Berkowitz recognized he had an opportunity to develop an innovative education program when he became the Institute for Ecosystem Studies' first head of education in 1985. His plan was to infuse scientific inquiry in ecology into education at all levels. At the time, Gene Likens, the institute's founding director, was setting out to create a vibrant community of ecologists who would influence not only how ecological research is done but also what impact this work has on public perception of environmental issues and on resource management decisions. Improving the scientific literacy of as many people as possible was a high priority.

"In 1985 the sky was the limit," Berkowitz says about his aims for IES. Engaging undergraduates in research was an important part of his larger mission to inspire interest in ecology, and, with funding from the National Science Foundation, he launched the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at IES in 1988. The program, now entering its 15th year, is by any measure a great success. Of the approximately 90 percent of program participants whose career paths could be traced, a remarkable 85 percent of alumni go on in careers in science, and they credit the IES-REU program as the most important experience underlying their success.

"To nurture a diverse ecological work force for the future, a more diverse set of educational strategies was needed. It was important to get away from the lecture approach, which was an overly narrow passageway into science," Berkowitz explains. In 1993, the REU program at IES made another leap forward with additional funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, allowing greater outreach to minority students. Over 1600 students have applied to the IES-REU program since 1988, and of the 135 students who have participated in the program, 32 percent are minority students, 66 percent are female, and 62 percent hail from schools where undergraduate research opportunities are limited.

"IES is well poised to offer rewarding research experiences," Berkowitz enthuses. "We have an outstanding group of scientists who have tremendous potential to serve as mentors." Located 70 miles north of New York City, amid the 2024-acre Mary Flagler Cary Arboretum in Millbrook, New York, IES is now one of the largest centers for ecological research and education in the world.

At IES, undergraduates who have little if any prior research experience are immersed in the research process, pursuing an independent project of their own design. While students spend the lion's share of their time on their projects (approximately 90 percent of the 12-week summer program), they also engage in activities that explore the intellectual and social context for their research. For example, students thoroughly examine and discuss a case study of a local environmental issue, culminating in an essay requiring them to relate the scientific basis of the case to its broader social context. Another feature of the program is near-peer teaching, in which REU students teach urban high school students about ecology.

Each year, 8 to 11 students are selected to participate in the program. In the initial screening of applications, REU project directors select the top 70 to 80 applicants on the basis of several criteria, the more salient of which include whether the applicants come from institutions where research opportunities are limited, and whether they demonstrate enough understanding of ecology to know that it is "not just saving the world," Berkowitz laughs, "but that ecology is a science and that research is an intellectual pursuit. What we look for are students who can grow the most, but who aren't too much at risk of not succeeding." The applications that make the first cut are then sorted according to the research project the students have indicated interest in, and the mentors who head each research project determine whom to accept. How the final choice is made is left up to each mentor, as it's the student-mentor relationship that is the key to the program's success.

One gauge of that success comes from self-assessments in which students evaluate their understanding of science before and after the program, rate their own growth, and write about the program's impact. The most frequently cited factors in students' growth are having the chance to do independent research, working on a project from start to finish, having a supportive and stimulating community in which to do research, working closely with mentor scientists, and learning specific research strategies.

Another mark of achievement is the list of publications that have come out of the REU program. Students are expected to give an oral presentation of their research in the final week of the program, but they also have the opportunity to submit a paper the following fall. Over 85 percent of students complete their papers, all working hard after they have returned home. The papers are edited by the project directors and published every few years as IES Occasional Publications. In addition, although not a stated program goal, more than 30 peer-reviewed articles coauthored by IES-REU students have been published in numerous journals.

The institute's REU program is now one of close to 70 that have sprung up around the country, but it is one of few that gets the whole place involved. "It really is remarkable. We have a unique research environment where the whole place breathes ecology and intellectual curiosity," Berkowitz says. Even though mentors are the primary contacts for students, "there is an open-door policy so students can go to anyone to discuss their work. A lot of our success hinges on the quality of our scientists and how friendly and supportive the community is."

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