UCSC researcher teaches young scientists to engage with the public

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Graduate students Calla Schmidt and Kathyrn Snell teach fourth-grade students from Soquel Elementary School about tide-pool organisms as part of the Communicating Science course at UCSC.
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Cleo Chung, a summer intern from Los Altos High School, prepares samples for carbon isotope analysis at UCSC.

As a research scientist in the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, Adina Paytan studies chemical and biological processes in the oceans, how they have changed over time, and how they are affected by human activities. But Paytan considers science education and public outreach to be just as important as her research.

Throughout her career, Paytan has made teaching and public outreach a high priority, working with public schools and developing programs for high school students, among other activities. At UC Santa Cruz, she teaches a course for graduate students called Communicating Science, in which she tries to pass on her enthusiasm for public outreach while giving the students practical instruction on teaching and communication.

"It is the responsibility of scientists who do the research to participate in educating the general public about the work they do," Paytan said. "They are in the best position to communicate the relevance of their work and to inform the people who make decisions that will affect the health of our planet."

Paytan is affiliated with two departments at UCSC--ocean sciences and Earth and planetary sciences--and she teaches classes and mentors students in both departments. In the Communicating Science course, young researchers learn to explain their work in understandable terms, and they learn teaching skills that can help them as they progress in their academic careers. They practice talking to reporters, community groups, family members, and children about topics in Earth and marine sciences.

For the first half of the quarter, students learn about instructional philosophies and get a handle on activities they can use to teach students at many different levels. For the last five weeks of the course, the students go into a local public school and use what they've learned to teach ocean science to elementary school children.

"I bought a frozen squid down at the wharf and brought it into a fourth-grade classroom, where we dissected it. The kids were mesmerized," said Matthew Brown, who took the course in 2008.

Brown is currently a postdoctoral researcher in ocean sciences at UCSC and teaches oceanography at Monterey Peninsula College. He said Paytan's course was refreshing because it was the first time in his education as a scientist that he was taught how to interact with a room full of people and deliver information in a way that they could understand it.

Paytan offers graduate students other opportunities to develop their communication skills and get involved in public outreach. Last year, she piloted a program that brought eight students from local high schools to UC Santa Cruz to work as summer interns in campus laboratories, where they worked with staff and graduate students on actual research projects in Earth and ocean sciences.

Paytan matched interns with researchers using interviews and questionnaires to assess their interests and abilities. One student worked with Elizabeth Derse, a graduate student in Earth and planetary sciences, helping to raise cold-water solitary corals at Long Marine Laboratory. Another student worked with Matthew Clapham, an assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences, on a database used to study the distribution of fossils over time. Graduate student Melanie Michalak had her intern start by crushing rocks.

"I wanted to show him the whole process, from start to finish," Michalak said, adding that her intern was shocked to see the low-tech tedium that is as much a part of science as fancy equipment and computers. The intern, a high school junior, crushed rocks into powder, identified mineral components in the powder under a microscope, and then used Adobe Illustrator to modify geological maps of Peru where the rocks had been found.

"He was a good sport, and very efficient," Michalak said. "I'll definitely look for other opportunities to work with young students like this again."

Students in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department won't have to look far to find ways to get involved. Paytan is piloting another program this year that will bring second-graders from West Lake Elementary School to the university for a day of activities designed to get kids excited about geology and Earth studies. She calls it GeoKids, and it is modeled on a program by the same name that Paytan started at Stanford University.

When second-graders show up for GeoKids this spring, they'll each get their own field notebook and spend time with graduate students on a variety of geology activities. "It's not about giving information, it's about the visuals--looking at colorful crystals and simple ways to tell different minerals apart," said Joseph Street, who was involved in the program at Stanford and is now a research fellow at UCSC.

In addition to the programs already under way, Paytan said that she now has funding from the National Science Foundation to develop a weeklong summer camp in conjunction with the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley. Students from three schools in Oakland will have a chance to work on projects with researchers at Long Marine Laboratory while living in dormitories on the UCSC campus.

Paytan said that she hopes that all of these activities eventually blossom into ongoing, university-supported programs with their own budgets and a coordinator. For now, she manages them with the help of graduate students and others who answer the call to get involved.

"One of my goals is for graduate students to get familiar with the idea of including outreach and education programs in their future careers," Paytan said.