Engaging Students in Atmospheric Science: A University-High School Collaboration in British Columbia, Canada

By Sinclair, K. E.; Marshall, S. J. | Journal of Geoscience Education, March 2009 | Go to article overview
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Engaging Students in Atmospheric Science: A University-High School Collaboration in British Columbia, Canada

Sinclair, K. E., Marshall, S. J., Journal of Geoscience Education


Five high schools in British Columbia, Canada, participated in an atmospheric sciences project during the winter of 2006-07 established by researchers at the University of Calgary. Precipitation gauges and temperature and relative humidity probes were installed at each school and students were asked to collect a water sample each day that precipitation accumulated. These samples were used to trace the evolution of stable water isotopes across southwestern Canada. Researchers visited schools to talk about water resources and climate change, and data were collated and given to teachers to use in an atmospheric science project. The participatory nature of this project gave students exposure to data collection and basic analytical techniques used in atmospheric sciences. This was a first attempt at collaboration between our research group and secondary schools, and we point out a number of issues that arose in our study with respect to a successful two-way engagement between researchers and students. These include school engagement, the geographic distribution of the participating schools, the time span of the project, and the time available to schools. There are also a number of data quality considerations, but we were successful overall in acquiring a unique, high-quality dataset that satisfies our research objectives.


While it is common for research scientists to involve undergraduate students in data collection and analysis (e.g. Woltemande and Stanitski-Martin, 2002), it is comparatively rare for the university research community to extend their activities into high schools, despite the obvious advantages associated with students engaging in 'hands on' scientific activities (Ledley et al., 2003). Part of the difficulty in collaborating with high schools is due to the technical nature of most physically-based research. The logistics associated with measuring environmental variables are often too time-consuming and specialized to be of use to high school classes, and scientific research results are typically unavailable until many months, or even years, after the initial data collection. This makes it difficult to fully engage high school students and provide a rewarding return on their time investment. In addition, from a researcher's standpoint, the amount of time and training needed to set up a project in high schools often outweighs the value of the data collected.

Despite these limitations, researchers who have undertaken collaborative projects with high schools have found the process personally rewarding and valuable to their research (e.g. Hobson et al, 1999; Denzais et al., 2002; Kiene et al., 2002; Calhoun et al., 2003). From an educational perspective, research projects expose students to scientific theory and practice, including different methods of data measurement and analysis, and collaboration between secondary schools and universities can result in successful learning initiatives (Morse and Sabelli, 1991; Jackson et al., 1997). However, as Ledley et al. (2003) argue, the main requirement for a successful student-teacher-scientist partnership is that all involved benefit from the collaboration.

This paper describes a university-high school collaboration that was designed to introduce students to techniques used in atmospheric sciences. As researchers at the University of Calgary, we needed to find a way to collect rain and snow samples from winter storm systems that traverse southern British Columbia from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains. This required the almost simultaneous collection of samples across an 800 km transect in southwestern Canada (Figure 1). These samples are being used in a research project that considers the effect of air mass trajectories and weather conditions on stable water isotopes in winter snowpacks in the Rocky Mountains. This is of interest because the isotopie character of the snowpack reflects the sources and pathways of moisture, and snowpack isotopes can be decoded to reveal the dominant weather systems and the meteorological controls of moisture for the region.

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