Public Service

UNC Institute for the Environment makes hands-on geoscience learning possible for North Carolina students and teachers

Geoscience Teaching Outdoors in NC, also known as GET OUT in NC, will help teachers mentor students and encourage their interest in pursuing careers in fields like water quality, watershed management, geology and renewable energy.

A student holds a soil core while three women examine it.
Carson Miller, a Carolina graduate student in the Rodriguez lab, demonstrates for teachers how to take soil cores in the salt marsh in 2019.

The UNC Institute for the Environment recently received $319,000 to connect students and teachers in Northeastern North Carolina with field-based geoscience learning opportunities. Geoscience Teaching Outdoors in NC, also known as GET OUT in NC, will take advantage of the region’s unique coastal ecosystem and partnerships with nearby institutions.

“We plan to provide teachers with hands-on experiences in the field, connecting with geoscience research, so they can replicate some of that experience with their students in the classroom,” said Sarah Yelton, environmental education and citizen science program manager for IE’s Center for Public Engagement with Science.

The program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, will engage with approximately 40 teachers, and by extension 7,200 students, in two cohorts over three years. Yelton says the program will help teachers mentor students and encourage their interest in pursuing careers in fields like water quality, watershed management, geology and renewable energy.

Kathleen Gray, director of the Institute for the Environment’s Center for Public Engagement with Science, is the principal investigator; and Mike Piehler, the Institute for the Environment’s director, is a co-principal investigator. Gray and Piehler will advise on connections to current science and help to engage geoscience researchers across the state, while Yelton manages more day-to-day aspects of the project, including teacher professional development.

“We are excited to build on an existing partnership with the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and leverage the dynamic educational resources in the coastal region in programming to bring teachers and diverse youth into geoscience learning and ultimately into the workforce,” said Gray.

Partners in the region include the Greenville location of the Museum, North Carolina State Parks and UNC-Chapel Hill’s field sites in Morehead City and the Outer Banks. Partners plan to leverage resources available in the Triangle and throughout eastern North Carolina, connecting teachers and students with existing industry and academia.

“In my teaching, I have seen a real deficit in the understanding of the geologic system of North Carolina,” said Maria McDaniel, director of education for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences-Contentnea Creek and Greeville. “Learning how the mountains are connected to the beaches and how the different parts of our state are connected to each other geologically explains so much in the science world and opens up pathways to other branches of science.  This grant will give a much-needed perspective to teachers so they can plan great lessons for their students and turn students on to careers in the geosciences.”

Teachers will certainly be getting their hands dirty.

According to Yelton, teachers will have opportunities to create stream profiles and test water quality in the coastal plain, see firsthand the impacts of saltwater intrusion and explore the potential for wave energy on the Outer Banks, and compare soil profiles in the salt marsh to look for evidence of barrier island migration. They will visit the Aurora Fossil Museum and nearby phosphate mine to explore this window into the past and use of natural resources.

The NC Museum of Natural Sciences will lead the student science enrichment component of the project, conducting a weeklong summer camp where students will replicate many of the activities their teachers have participated in. Over 30 high schoolers will participate in these summer camps.

“Like teachers in the professional development program, youth will be in the lab and in the field, examining climate impacts currently being experienced in eastern North Carolina and evaluating potential solutions as they learn about different geoscience career pathways,” Yelton said.

The project team began meeting in December, and the first teacher professional development program will take place in the summer of 2021 and again in the summer of 2022. Summer camps will take place in 2022 and 2023. Nothing compares to firsthand experiences with science, like the ones provided by GET OUT in NC, according to Yelton.

“There’s no substitute for actually having your feet in boots in a stream, examining how erosion is altering the landscape, to help you see how impacts may be felt downstream,” Yelton said. “These tangible experiences bring classroom learning to life in a truly authentic way, and foster connections to scientists, industry partners, and other educators that may not otherwise be available to these teachers and youth.”

“This is an exciting project and I feel fortunate to be a part of it,” said Piehler. “Kathleen Gray’s Center for Public Engagement with Science does trailblazing work and this project is another example of their tremendous contributions to advancing translation of environmental research to K12 settings.”

Learn more about the UNC Institute for the Environment