Science Education with Trees and Canoes
A flock of young researchers from New York City, Singapore and the Netherlands are testing their skills in the field near Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory this weekend — canoeing on Sparkill Creek to take water samples, counting forest species in Tallman Mountain State Park and analyzing soil chemistry.
The fun outing – including camping out in tents at the Alpine Boat Basin – will bring 47 students, eight teachers and 10 volunteer scientists and historians together as part of the International Student and Teacher Exchange Program. It’s also serious science: The students, mostly high school age, are learning how to conduct research at the feet of experts like Brendan Buckley of the Lamont Tree Ring Lab and Lamont geochemist Terry Plank.
The power behind the program is Sau Ling Chan-Lee, who for a dozen years has directed the Advanced Science Research program at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics High School. The upper East Harlem school’s science program takes a select group of students each year and launches them into a three-year, college-level research project. The students choose their own research subject, find a scientist-mentor and commit to two summers in the lab.
Of 125 applicants last year, 15 were accepted. They’re selected not for their grades, but for motivation, Chan-Lee said. Each day “they start at period zero,” she said, with a 7:30 a.m. science lecture before regular classes begin.
For the past two years Chan-Lee has brought in students and teachers from abroad for the two-week international exchange program. After time in the classroom, those students join the city students for the weekend expedition to Lamont-Doherty.
“We had a teacher give a lecture yesterday on the physics of canoeing — that was fun,” Chan-Lee said. That may help some students unfamiliar with a paddle when they launch onto Sparkill Creek.
Buckley and Michael Passow from Lamont-Doherty and Glen Kowach from the City College of New York are taking part. Passow is founder of the Earth2Class program at Lamont-Doherty, which runs workshops for teachers at Lamont and helps them develop science curricula.
On Saturday, the students will spend half the day canoeing the creek into Piermont Marsh, along the Hudson River, to take temperature readings and scoop up water samples. They’ll spend the other half of the day digging up soil samples or counting and measuring species in the woods to assess biodiversity. After an evening setting up camp and cooking at the Alpine Boat Basin, they’ll head for the labs at Lamont on Sunday to analyze their data. Buckley hopes the effort will add up, year by year, to a better understanding of the area’s ecology.
The educational data from the Advanced Science Program is impressive: More than 90 percent of students who graduate from it choose to continue studies in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, Chan-Lee said. More than three-quarters of them received full scholarships to college, and all of them graduated from college on time.
“I’m impressed by how advanced the kids are,” said Buckley. He seems as impressed by Chan-Lee, who has convinced him and others to keep volunteering for the program. “She’s one of those people you can’t say no to.”