May 25, 2019  

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NSF Program at Southern Miss Offers Hands-On Science Experiences

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Brison Thompson, a student at Hattiesburg High School, examines a longleaf pine at the Lake Thoreau nature preserve. Thompson participated in a field trip through the Southern Miss GK-12 project, an outreach effort that provides opportunities for students at local high schools to learn more about science through activities coordinated by Southern Miss graduate students. (Submitted photo)

A National Science Foundation (NSF) grant managed through The University of Southern Mississippi provides invaluable learning experiences for area high school students that include field trips to the Lake Thoreau nature preserve managed through the university’s Department of Biological Sciences.

The grant, sponsored through the NSF’s Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) Programand facilitated by NSF’s Division of Graduate Education (DGE), provides funding to graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines to help them gain valuable career skills and expose elementary and secondary students to the sciences on a broader scale.

One of the skills gained by graduate students is the ability to communicate science and research to a variety of audiences, including to students and their teachers at the K-12 level as well as the broader community. Other important benefits include stimulation of interest in science and engineering that contributes to the NSF’s goal of expanding the nation’s pool of researchers and professional practitioners in these fields.

Currently Southern Miss has seven graduate fellows in the program -  five in polymer science and two in biology - and four teachers from Hattiesburg High and three teachers from Forrest County Agricultural High School participating. 

Dr. Sarah Morgan, associate professor of polymer science at Southern Miss and director of the grant, said graduate students participating in the program emerge as better scientists and citizens, and the high school students they interact with are more likely to consider rewarding careers in the sciences.

“Being a good scientist means making discoveries that improve people’s lives, and this program provides an excellent opportunity for the graduate students to improve their communication and teaching skills, by trying to make science more “real” to high school students and teachers,” Morgan said.

Integrating the Lake Thoreau nature preserve, students participating in the GK-12 learn about the natural world beyond the classroom and the pages of textbooks through hands-on learning experiences managed by Southern Miss graduate students, who in turn put their education to work by sharing and communicating their research and expertise.

Monica Moss Watkins of Hattiesburg, a Southern Miss doctoral student in biological sciences and a GK-12 fellow, has worked with students from Hattiesburg High School both in their classrooms and as a field guide at Lake Thoreau. For her, participating in the program is personally rewarding.

“As a Hattiesburg native and graduate of Hattiesburg High School, I have a desire to give back by sharing my scientific expertise with the community, and the GK-12 program has given me the opportunity to work toward my commitment to improve scientific literacy in South Mississippi,” she said.

The program’s field trips to Lake Thoreau and other nature destinations are also valuable preparation for statewide high school exams in science, as well as practical teaching experiences for Watkins and other graduate students in the program. Southern Miss graduate students will also visit high school classrooms this spring to conduct research-related lessons. 

“The students gain an appreciation for the native longleaf pine ecosystem and a basic understanding of why prescribed fire is beneficial in this type of forest.  At the same time, we are reinforcing concepts and vocabulary that they will see on the state test, and the best way to learn ecology is to get outside and explore,” she said.  

Watkins’ career goal is to work as director of a natural resources education and research facility and be involved in research, teaching, and outreach. Learning the objectives and needs of the high school biology curriculum help her prepare for that career through design of successful outdoor educational programs, she said.

“Through the GK-12 program, the students are exposed to real scientists and real science.  In some cases, we are taking students that have not spent much time in nature and letting them experience it firsthand,” she said. “I hope to give them a practical appreciation for science and encourage them to pursue science as a career.” 

Desshondra Walker, a biology teacher at Hattiesburg High School, is a lead teacher in the GK-12 program. She said the collaborative effort between teacher and graduate student has allowed her students to learn concepts in creative ways, thereby engendering their interest in science and technology, while also enhancing her own passion as an educator.

“Being a part of this project has given me the opportunity to have current research brought into the classroom where my high school students work with a real scientist, something that otherwise would not happen,” Walker said. “The field trip experience bridges the gap between what is taught in the classroom and real-world application.

“I’ve also gained new energy to push my students to strive for success and that everything and anything is possible.”

The GK-12 program helps establish mutually beneficial relationships between the university and area schools and other institutions. Since its inception in 1999, the program has funded more than 200 projects at 140-plus different universities throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico. To learn more about this program at Southern Miss, online visit