Summer Research Programs Bring...

Summer Research Programs Bring Home Atmospheric Lessons Learned

Some organizations and scientists, particularly in areas of emerging science, approach research as an opportunity to consult with the public and decision makers to identify questions that may gain from societal input. Building from these ideas, they design a research protocol with community needs in mind. The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research’s (UCAR) education and engagement team, Spark, has shifted some program designs to take just such a societal-questions-first approach.  

“Too many people think science isn’t relevant to their lives and where they come from – so they turn away from research and research careers. We hope to change that by helping our current and future scientists consider community priorities, especially the priorities of historically under-served communities, before thinking up research questions.” say Raj Pandya, Director of UCAR’s Spark program. “If we go a few steps further and invite those same communities to be partners in our science – helping collect, analyze, and apply the data – then we can combine science education and relevant research.”

Spark’s focus on identifying societal needs as a way of designing scientific research questions stems to some degree from its several-year history of working with the professors and students of Haskell University, who applied the “societal impacts first” model in their internships with NASA. Haskell leaders suggested that, rather than sending students to NASA research centers to work on NASA-defined projects, the agency might bring their scientists to the Kansas campus to work with students on community-relevant research that would also benefit NASA. As part of this NASA internship effort, NCAR scientists visit Haskell University for almost a week each summer to teach geographic information systems and research-interview techniques to the students.

In 2012, a group of Haskell students brought this model to NCAR, requesting lectures and hands-on lessons from scientists that would help them address community-related research questions. After a series of lectures and tutorials on research tools, the students spent a day and a half in Rocky Mountain National Park studying a recent wildfire, as well as fires that had occurred 10 and 30 years earlier. They measured air and water quality, and interviewed locals to get their perceptions on these issues. At the end of the visit, the undergraduates presented their findings and considered how the techniques they learned might support community-based research at home.

With a similar intent in mind – to develop atmospheric science expertise, and bring this knowledge back their community – Casey Thornbrugh brought four students to NCAR as part of the internship program he runs at Tohono O’odham Tribal College. Thornbrugh, a graduate student at University of Arizona and former Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric and Related Sciences protégé – a UCAR-run program serving underrepresented students – teaches atmospheric science and climate change at the college. The 27 week-long internship included a 9-week introduction to atmospheric sciences, nine weeks in which the students explored a locally relevant issue (e.g. the changing North American Monsoon and the potential for developing solar-generated power on the reservation), and nine weeks dedicated to having the students share what they had learned with their community.

At NCAR, each student met one-on-one with an NCAR atmospheric scientist who had a shared research interest. This gave individual students a chance to hear how each scientist made his/her career choice, and allowed an opportunity to share with and get advice from the scientist on the student’s academic and career aspirations.

The students also worked with the Spark team to learn hands-on activities to hone their scientific understanding. Upon returning home, the students did these hands-on activities across the Tohono O’odham nation, sharing what they learned at NCAR.

“The lessons developed by the Spark team and taught by Tim Barnes and Marc Mueller to the students contributed significantly to the overall success of the program both at NCAR and once the students returned to the Tohono O’odham nation,” says Pandya. “More importantly, the lessons were chosen for how they related to the communities’ priorities – because even science education can follow a ‘societal-questions-first’ approach.”