Scientists and Low-Income City Schools to Link in Field Studies


Dr. Robert Newton and students sampling in marsh

Scientists at the Earth Institute and other parts of Columbia University will join with schools in New York City and the Dominican Republic this year in a hands-on program to involve students directly in environmental field studies. The program links graduate students and their research to middle and high school classes in low-income schools. Funded by a $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the Learning through Ecology and Environmental Field Studies (LEEFS) program will focus on improving the quality of science education, and motivating students to pursue careers in science and technology.

The program integrates and expands on existing partnerships between the Earth Institute and New York City Title I/III schools, which have a high percentage of students from low-income families. “The team believes this kind of innovative training is necessary to produce the next generation of scientists and educated citizens, who will have to find solutions to the complex environmental challenges of the 21st century,” said principal investigator Robert Newton of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which is a member of the Earth Institute.

Others working on the project include co-principal investigators Stacey Brydges from Columbia’s graduate department of chemistry; Nancy Degnan from the Earth Institute’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation; and Shahid Naeem from Columbia’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology.

LEEFS will pair graduate fellows from the Earth Institute with public-school teachers from 13 schools in the New York area, and one high school in the Dominican Republic. The fellows will be selected primarily from graduate students in ecology, and earth and environmental science. The project will focus on field and field-related laboratory science, with a strong emphasis on biodiversity and conservation, ecological sustainability, geochemical cycles and land-use issues. It builds on recent research into the benefits of field-based learning for students, and explores innovative ways to enhance graduate students’ pedagogical training. The project leaders hope to improve graduate fellows’ communication skills by pairing them with experienced teachers and placing them in direct contact with young learners.

Public-school teachers from grades 6-12 will join LEEFS fellows for four to eight weeks prior to the start of the next academic year in a program of science internships, professional development, and curriculum planning. During the school year, the partnership will support teachers as they undertake environmental field and laboratory science projects with their classrooms through weekly visits by the LEEFS fellows.

The LEEFS partnership is closely linked with New York City Department of Education initiatives in inquiry-driven, hands-on learning. It is linked also to CERC’s existing educational outreach in the schools, as well as Lamont-Doherty’s current summer field program for high-school teachers.