Brown students bring Earth science education to Providence elementary schools

Through DEEPS STEP, Brown postdocs, undergraduate and graduate students develop and teach a science curriculum, complete with engaging, hands-on activities, to elementary students in the Providence Public School District.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Earlier this fall, two third-grade classes at Pleasant View Elementary School in Providence took up an important challenge.

Six animals living at a local zoo were about to be returned to the wild, and it was up to the students to figure out where each animal should go. Over the course of the fall, they’d have to figure out where on Earth to find appropriate climate and weather conditions for each critter. Along the way — and with the help of Earth science students from Brown University — the grade-schoolers discovered some of the drivers of Earth’s climate system and learned a bit about how scientists go about answering critical questions.

The challenge was part of DEEPS STEP — the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences’ Science-Teaching Education Program — at Brown. As part of the program, Brown students and postdocs develop lesson plans that are in line with Next Generation Science Standards. Then they head out to classrooms in the Providence Public School District, providing materials and co-teaching hourlong lessons once a week alongside elementary school teachers. 

The animals the students helped to relocate are hypothetical, of course. But the learning outcomes are not.

“The DEEPS team has put a lot of hard work into the curriculum, and it really is something special,” said Seth Bower, a third-grade teacher at Pleasant View. “The focus has been to allow students to engage in the process of science — that is to ‘do’ science rather than to learn a set of facts about a scientific topic. This approach really is what science instruction ought to be if we want to foster the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

A deep dive into hands-on Earth science

The roots of DEEPS STEP go back about 15 years, to a National Science Foundation grant co-led by DEEPS professor Tim Herbert. With support from the grant, Brown graduate students developed grade-school science lesson plans and then helped to teach those lessons at Vartan Gregorian Elementary — where the University is working with educators on a separate project to transform an empty classroom into a hands-on, interactive space for students to explore science, technology, engineering, arts and math — and other local schools. 

In 2016, Olga Prilipko Huber, a research associate and outreach coordinator for DEEPS, worked with a new cohort of graduate students to revamp the program. In talking with elementary school teachers in Providence, Huber discovered that there was interest in developing lessons aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, which Rhode Island had adopted in 2013. She also wanted to develop the program into something that schools could sustain on their own.

“The idea was that for the first year, we develop the lesson plans, provide materials, and DEEPS student volunteers lead the lesson in class once a week,” Huber said. “The next year, the elementary teachers lead the lesson with the DEEPS volunteers helping out. By the third year, teachers have seen it; they’ve done it; and now they can teach it independently with us supplying the materials.”

So far, the DEEPS STEP team has worked with teachers at three PPSD elementary schools: Pleasant View, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Vartan Gregorian. About 30 volunteers from Brown work with DEEPS STEP in any given year, including faculty and staff members as well as undergraduate and graduate students and postdocs.

The focus has been to allow students to… ‘do’ science rather than to learn a set of facts about a scientific topic. This approach really is what science instruction ought to be if we want to foster the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Seth Bower Pleasant View Elementary teacher and Brown MAT alumnus
Image of Seth Bower

The DEEPS STEP lessons are put in the context of things young students love — zoo animals, around-the-world pirate journeys or butterfly migrations — and emphasize hands-on activities. Students learn about Earth’s water cycle, wind patterns and climate zones.

Bower, who graduated from Brown’s Master of Arts in Teaching program in 2013 and has taught at Pleasant View since, says students were particularly excited about an activity in which they built an anemometer — a wind-measuring device from Dixie cups, cardboard, a pencil and a push pin.

“Having opportunities to dive in and try to actually physically create something or solve a problem rather than just to read about it or watch a video has really been engaging,” Bower said.

In a lesson on a late November morning at Pleasant View, students worked to understand why it’s warmer at Earth’s equator than it is closer to the poles. The third graders split into small groups, each equipped with an inflatable Earth and a small flashlight. The students first shined the light at the equator and traced the circle of light with a marker. Then the students raised the flashlight so the beam landed nearer the North Pole, and traced that circle of light. 

They quickly saw that because of the curvature of the Earth, the circle of light at the pole was larger than one at the equator, even though they held the flashlight the same distance away. Sloane Garelick, a Brown Ph.D. candidate in geological and Earth science who volunteers with STEP, helped a group of students understand the ramifications of what the experiment showed.  

Image of a Pleasant View student
DEEPS STEP lessons tap into students' natural curiosity

“So is the light more concentrated at the equator or the pole?” Garelick asked one group of students.

“The equator!” one student answered.

“So does that make it warmer or colder at the equator?”

“Warmer!” the group yelled.

Garelick, a fifth-year doctoral student, has worked with DEEPS STEP since she first arrived at Brown. She says she’s always enjoyed working with kids, so she jumped at the chance to be able to share her passion for science with young students.

“This is not only something that interests me, but also something that could be really important,” Garelick said. “If we can have an impact on these students and their science education, I want to do what I can to help with that.”

Bower says he’s happy to have subject-matter experts like Garelick visit his class. 

“The DEEPS students brought invaluable perspectives and experience to our classroom,” he said. “The rotating cast has always been excited to work with us — happy to share their experiences, knowledge and background — and a great connection to the larger world of science for my students.”

For the University, the program is one among a wide variety of initiatives through which students, faculty and staff in the Brown community engage with PPSD schools through teaching, tutoring, after-school enrichment and more.

For the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, STEP is part of a broader commitment to promoting scientific literacy, says Jim Russell chair of the department. This year, DEEPS is piloting a new education outreach program at Providence’s Hope High School called CORES — Career Opportunities and Research in Earth Science — which introduces high school juniors with an interest in science to career paths they may not be aware of.

“DEEPS STEP educates Providence students about the changing world we live in, providing them with the tools they will one day need to make informed decisions about the environment, health and many other problems facing society,” he said. “Importantly, the program seeks to build a sustainable program through partnerships with both teachers and students.”

Organizers hope to continue growing the program in the coming years, and they’ve begun to recruit new science-minded volunteers from outside DEEPS to help.

Bower says that any expansion of DEEPS STEP should be welcomed by local educators.

“This program or something very much like it ought to be expanded into as many classrooms as possible,” he said.