H2O, the Harte Research Institute and River Systems Institute:
Partners in STEM Education and Building Tomorrow’s Conservation-Minded Citizens
Rudolph Rosen, Ph.D.
Research Professor, Texas State University, River Systems Institute
The Harte Research Institute (HRI) and River Systems Institute (RSI) are cooperators in H2O’s breakthrough K-12 education projects. Both institutions are young major centers of research located at universities, and both are focusing attention on educating future scientists and engineers. But instead of just supporting university student education, leaders and funders at HRI and RSI know the mission of great scientific institutions today must run deeper to find, motivate, and educate the next generation of U.S. scientists and engineers, as is now also being demonstrated at leading marine science institutions such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. This is the genesis of H2O’s K-12 education emphasis, and implementing H2O will provide a pathway to effectively implement a science mission for HRI and RSI that is both grand in accomplishment and meaningful to society and U.S. national security.
Education in the U.S. has failed to maintain a competitive edge in the sciences internationally, as fewer and fewer U.S. students have entered the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in recent decades (1). We now know that offering students their first opportunity for a career path in STEM at the point they enter college is too late.
Studies show that if a student is not introduced, excited by, and motivated to pursue STEM studies before, or about in middle school, the odds are overwhelmingly against them pursuing STEM by the time they enter college, or even high school (2)(3)(4).
The message is clear: future scientists are created early in student life.
New research also shows that for effective water education, methods such as H2O’s experiential (hands-on outdoors education) approach, coupled with H2O’s innovative use of new technology further enhance the success of education delivery to young students (5). These methods not only help create future scientists, engineers and doctors, but they also help foster conservation-minded citizens with critical thinking skills that are necessary for ensuring a sustainable future for America.
At stake is more than just marine science and water sustainability, as the failure to maintain a competitive edge in STEM subject areas affects U.S. society and security in many ways. But for HRI and RSI the path is clear. Both institutions are well-poised to take effective action in their own areas of expertise and research.
H2O funding has allowed HRI and RSI to develop education implementation networks and build experience-based, technology-enhanced K-12 educational content. These will enable an immediate and effective response to the STEM crisis. This can be done through implementation of projects now under development, in phases of design, and proposed.
Top-tier institutions are responding
The great private and university-based science institutions of our time are now investing heavily in directly and indirectly providing experiential educational opportunities for K-12 students.
In the marine sciences, for example, major institutions such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Scripps Institution of Oceanography have major direct educational outreach programs to K-12 students and teachers (6)(7). At Woods Hole many partnerships further and greatly extend the K-12 educational outreach, and at Scripps the Birch Aquarium has served a major role in youth education for decades (8)(9). The reach of the science delivered by these institutions is much greater because of the educational opportunities that have reached so many young people at a critical stage of their intellectual development. There is example after example of young people exposed to the educational offerings of these institutions who, because of their experience, have pursued science in high school through college, to become today’s practitioners in the sciences as well as committed conservationists.
In addition, major federal granting programs offered by the National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Interior are adding outreach requirements to their grants to address the deficit of STEM education for K-12 students. Today to effectively compete for top federal funding in the marine and watershed sciences, the institution making the proposal had better be able to demonstrate effective STEM education outreach and delivery.
What good is a major science institution that fails to create new scientists at the point in time and place where new scientists can be most effectively created?
The Texas potential: STEM plus Hispanic student attainment
For RSI and HRI, the focus of STEM education is on developing marine scientists, watershed managers, physical oceanographers and engineers, groundwater experts, and other specialists in the institutes’ fields of research.
But there is more that HRI and RSI can do. In fact, it is more than most of the other great marine and water institutions can do, because of the unique nature of the local and university communities HRI and RSI serve. Both institutions are part of federally recognized and accredited Hispanic Serving Institutions and are located in communities and a region that is predominately Hispanic. Some elementary and secondary schools in the local area are over 80% Hispanic.
While U.S. STEM educational systems are in a dire state caused by our national failure to maintain or increase students entering STEM studies, the same educational systems have been even less effective in increasing Hispanic student attainment in STEM. Despite efforts to entice Hispanic students to Ivy League schools and top-tier private and state universities, education of Hispanic students at the university-level has fallen on the schools located where there are large Hispanic communities.
While both HRI and RSI are in largely Hispanic areas, proximity to Hispanic students is still not enough when it comes to increasing Hispanic attainment in STEM. The motivation to study the sciences, engineering, and technology must be developed early, and for Hispanic students who see few scientist role models in their communities, it is especially important to give young Hispanic students experiential opportunities in the marine and water sciences early on. Implementation of H2O by HRI and RSI will address this dire need, and do so at Hispanic Serving Institutions and in largely Hispanic communities and schools.
HRI and RSI are uniquely poised to provide students from largely Hispanic communities the kind of science experience, provided at the exact point in time that research shows will most likely motivate those students to take up STEM studies and make science, engineering, and technology a career. This is the potential H2O has brought to HRI and RSI. All that’s left to do is implement what H2O’s groundwork has laid.
(1) National Science Foundation. 2007. A national action plan for addressing the critical needs of the U.S.science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education system. http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/documents/2007/stem_action.pdf
(2) Goudarzi, S. 2006. U.S. Leadership in Science May Depend on 8th-Graders. (http://www.livescience.com/10473-leadership-science-depend-8th-graders.html)
(3) Pike, A.G. and M. Dunne. 2011. Discussion of Student reflections on choosing to study post-16. Cultural Studies of Science Education. 6(2):501-508. (http://www.livescience.com/10473-leadership-science-depend-8th-graders.html)
(4) Lind K.K. Dialogue on Early Childhood Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education. First Experiences in Science, Mathematics, and Technology. Science in Early Childhood: Developing and Acquiring Fundamental Concepts and Skills. (http://www.project2061.org/publications/earlychild/online/experience/lind.htm )
(5) Water=Equals (http://www.waterequals.org/), a project supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Water Program.
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H2O (Headwaters to Ocean) is a cooperative project sponsored by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University and funding partner, the Ewing Halsell Foundation which supports the project H2O. H2O is an experiential, technology-enhanced education program focused on water, from headwaters to the ocean (https://www.water-texas.org)