Building bioenergy-savvy educators

For most, the ideal summer vacation does not include donning lab goggles, performing hands on field research or analyzing data. The teachers who participated in the 2010 Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Bioenergy Institute for Educators, however, looked forward to being students again.

“I think [the GLBRC] did an excellent job [of] providing us with in-depth instruction and training relating all components of biofuels, while providing us with a first-hand look at the complexity and potential gains from their work,” said Craig Kohn, an agriculture science teacher at Waterford Union High School who participated in the institute. “Their emphasis on the highest-quality science education possible was incredibly motivating and caused me to re-evaluate all of my instructional methods.”

For eight days, 12 teachers ranging from elementary to high school worked directly with GLBRC researchers and learned more about biofuels. The goal of the program was to engage teachers with new tools and hands on participation, said John Greenler, co-director of education and outreach for the GLBRC.

“The focus was to provide K-12 teachers with the opportunity to both understand more about the work of GLBRC and how to incorporate that into their classroom activities in a way that would really enhance student learning,” Greenler said. 

This year, partnering with Wisconsin Fast Plants, the GLBRC was able to give the institute a broader focus on biofuels. Teachers participated in activities ranging from using Wisconsin Fast Plants as model organisms to study bioenergy to taking a tour of a research field. The teacher teams are encouraged to continue brainstorming, evaluating the material they learned or asking questions through an online community page that was created for the institute.

Sara Krauskopf, co-director of education and outreach for the GLBRC, is proud of the program’s successes this year and hopes the teachers will apply what they learned to their classrooms. 

“I was really pleased with the caliber of teachers we had participate. It was fun to work with such a dedicated and interested group of teachers,” said Krauskopf.

Krauskopf also stressed the importance of going beyond just the surface-level issues and teaching about the complexity of biofuels and the contemporary issues in education. The participants agreed. 

“I never want my teaching to be about just facts and trivia. I think my experiences at GLBRC will be helpful in ensuring that my classrooms are always about the ‘big picture,’” Kohn said.

Next year, both Krauskopf and Greenler hope to see more teams of teachers apply to participate in the institute and to continue facilitating more “light-bulb” moments.

“A lot of my satisfaction comes from [the opportunity to] set the stage and then step back and watch things really happen,” Greenler said. “For the teachers to be standing in this field of over 10,000 different varieties of corn and have this conversation with a professor about what it represents… was very profound. You could see the light bulbs going off for these teachers to understand what this diversity means and how they can integrate it.”

Greenler understands the challenges facing teachers today and hopes the institute inspires them to continue striving to recognize and teach students about the current issues in the science world.

“There is a lot of exciting work that’s being done today in science that we can bring into education in a real time fashion,” Greenler said. “Teachers know when they’re teaching old science and students really know when it’s not contemporary. The GLBRC has a contemporary project.”