Research to Practice, Practice to Research
By Brett Taylor, David Jones, Carolyn Hester, Anna Kiley, Michael Coe, Tony Ward
A Montana high school student wanted to conduct an independent science investigation focused on air quality that would compare indoor volatile organic compound (VOC) levels with outdoor VOC levels. In collaboration with the University of Montana, this student completed the investigation and had a positive, rewarding experience. More important, the student learned not only fundamental organic chemistry but also how to conduct a scientific investigation from the ground up. Representatives from the high school/university partnership brainstormed ways to provide similar science research experiences for more students, creating the first iteration of what is now the Research Education on Air and Cardiovascular Health (REACH).
The University of Montana’s School of Public and Community Health Sciences REACH program is designed to engage students in scientific research focused on the timely and relevant themes of population health, cardiovascular health, and air quality. REACH provides participating teachers the equipment, curriculum resources, professional development, and authentic assessment required to incorporate research practices in their classroom instruction. This allows students to learn foundational science concepts alongside science practices with a focus on learning the impacts of air pollution on human health.
The REACH program was originally developed to support middle and high school students’ participation in authentic science learning activities focused on air pollution and respiratory health. REACH introduces teachers and students to the importance of indoor air quality, as most people spend over 90% of their time indoors (Fishbein and Henry 1991; Jenkins et al. 1992) and thus can have significant exposure to indoor air pollution. REACH is designed to reinforce the importance of air quality for public health and to provide students with real-world experience using scientific research methods to study their local air quality.
Through REACH, teachers receive professional development, curricula, and air sampling equipment for their classrooms (Delaloye et al. 2016; Delaloye et al. 2018). Teachers implement REACH in their science classes, enabling students to design their own research projects, collect data, analyze results, and present their findings related to indoor air pollution (e.g., particulate matter, radon, carbon monoxide) and potential impacts to cardiovascular and respiratory health.
Annually, REACH engages approximately 1,000 students in 50 classrooms in Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, and New Zealand. A primary goal of the program is facilitating authentic student scientific research experiences so that students learn about science by doing science, rather than reading about someone else’s research results. Using novel air quality monitoring equipment, students design and participate in scientific research practices while acquiring important content knowledge and learning about the impacts of air quality on cardiovascular and population health. REACH emphasizes working with rural and underserved communities including Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Pacific Islander students as these populations can face significant educational disadvantages and often do not have access to educational opportunities that can stimulate and support an interest in science (Johnson 2014; Showalter 2019). Using citizen science, science communication, student mentoring, and teacher professional development (the program’s four aims), REACH facilitates students’ air quality–based research experiences to increase student interest in science and science-oriented careers.
Over the years, REACH has gathered feedback from students, teachers, and stakeholders in an effort to continually improve program quality. Evaluation findings from an earlier version of the REACH program (known as the Clean Air and Healthy Homes Program, CAHHP) were reported in Delaloye et al. 2018 and Ward et al. 2016. In spring 2021, REACH conducted structured interviews with a sample of teachers and other stakeholders to elicit their perspectives on the program, issues they encountered during the Covid-19 pandemic, other challenges for science education in their schools, and recommendations for improvement or extension of the program. This article shares teacher and stakeholder views of the perceived benefits of the program for students, teachers, and air quality stakeholder partners based on the structured interviews.
Interviews were less than an hour, and an external evaluator designed the process and questions. Two similar versions of the questions were used, one for teachers and one for other stakeholders (Table 1, see Supplemental Resources). Given the relatively small pool of available teacher respondents (29 participating teachers during the 2020–2021 school year), a non-random, purposive sample was selected based on duration of experience with the program (some new to the program, others with several years of experience or more). Eleven teachers were interviewed, which is 38% of all current REACH teachers. The teachers’ years of participation ranged from 1 to 18, with a median of 6 years. Additionally, five air quality stakeholder partners (staff members from local and state departments of environmental quality, tribal health department staff, and a tribal communities indoor air quality program manager) were interviewed. Each interview was conducted via Zoom, with one REACH staff member conducting the interview and another recording and transcribing the responses.
Using a process designed by the program’s external evaluator, the REACH team used thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke 2006; Braun et al. 2019) to identify patterns across the responses. A four-person panel of REACH personnel reviewed responses. The panel read the responses to each question a total of three times. Initially, each reviewer read the recorded responses separately while independently identifying themes in the responses. The reviewers then convened and developed consensus on a framework for coding the major common themes in the responses to each question. During the second reading, again done separately, each reviewer assigned these thematic codes to statements in each interview. A single interviewee statement could be coded with more than one theme. Finally, the reviewers reconvened to compare their individual coding and resolve any discrepancies on how they had assigned codes. During these discussions, five themes emerged, as follows:
Generally, the five themes focused on benefits to students, benefits to teachers, and benefits to stakeholder partners. The findings presented below also speak to the importance and challenges of incorporating science research practices in the classroom, as well as illuminating potentially useful insights and feedback for improving, scaling up, or replicating REACH.
As discussed in Stuckey et al. (2013), international surveys suggest that science education is often seen as not relevant by students; making science learning personally relevant to the student and to the society in which he or she lives should be a primary goal of science education. One key problem is that not enough science programs around the world teach how science is linked to current issues that are relevant to students’ lives, environment, and role as citizens (Hofstein 2011).
REACH addresses these shortcomings by having students explore the links between relevant topics of population health, cardiovascular health, and air quality. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed population health and indoor air quality into the public spotlight. Also, since indoor air quality is directly linked to outdoor air quality, wildfire smoke and urban smog have made air pollution one of the most pressing environmental problems facing society today. Global air quality was the feature story in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic, with the subtitle proclaiming “Air Pollution causes 7 million premature deaths a year” (Gardiner 2021). By engaging students in research projects focused on air quality, REACH teachers are incorporating both global and local relevance into science instruction.
Common themes apparent in the interview responses included observations of increased student awareness of the relevance of science in their lives along with greater student engagement and confidence in their ability to participate in science. The most common student benefit reported by teachers was increased student engagement because REACH made science more relevant. One REACH teacher commented that “The program definitely engages students and it gives them an ‘eye-opening’ experience as to how we do science; how we really understand how things work.” Another teacher reported that “The challenge presented by developing and conducting scientific research really appeals to students who enjoy learning by doing things (hands on, experiential learning), they enjoy the challenge of solving problems and being in control of their own learning.” A third teacher noted that the air quality research project is accessible to anybody, and therefore potentially engages all students with an experience of what it means to do actual research in real-world settings rather than in a simple lab exercise where questions, procedures, and variables are controlled by the teacher. Another teacher emphasized that the air quality research project spurred students “to have more interest—more curiosity.”
In addition to increasing science relevance and providing students with opportunities to engage with science practices, several teachers noted that REACH instilled in their students greater confidence that they are able to do science. One teacher stated, “Another thing the REACH program does for those kids is it shows them that science is not this mysterious hocus pocus thing that is pursued mostly by pointy-headed people and they are the only ones who can understand it—it’s this process and I think they learn that most people can sort of master this process and achieve some degree of success in pursuing it.” Another teacher reported, “It empowers them. It gives them that sense of confidence that they can do scientific research, they can be a part of a growing body of knowledge.”
Teachers seek new ways of enhancing and improving course content while maintaining sufficient time for required curriculum in their states and districts. Student time for education competes with sports, part-time work, and social activities. In essence, both sides of the education equation are seeking flexibility (Goode 2007). REACH is designed to provide that flexibility. The two main components of the program—guided inquiry curriculum activities and student-designed air quality research projects—can be implemented in tandem or separately. The four modular curriculum activities can also be used individually or as a series. REACH curriculum resources and equipment are provided at no cost to participating teachers. Teachers aren’t required to complete specific activities; the level of engagement is solely at the discretion of the teacher.
Most of the interviewed teachers reported that they benefit from the program in three ways: curricular flexibility, their own engagement as lifelong learners, and opportunities for networking and collaborating with other teachers. These findings, illustrated in more detail below, were valued by the teachers and perceived as being beneficial to the students as well.
REACH teachers appreciate the program’s flexibility. One of the interviewees noted this was one of the most important aspects of REACH, saying, “It meets teachers and communities where they are.” A longtime program participant teacher reported, “Given the multi-disciplinary nature of the project, teachers have flexibility in choosing a direction to complement their curriculum goals. For instance, a chemistry class might emphasize the instrumentation and analytical component, whereas a biology or physiology class might emphasize the health component.”
Teachers also reported that REACH encouraged them to be active lifelong learners and increased their engagement as educators by introducing them to new and relevant ideas. Referring to their repeat attendance at the two-day summer workshops and monthly hourlong webinars, another teacher mentioned they appreciated the ongoing professional development opportunities focused on an inquiry-based classroom approach and incorporating student research into their curriculum. Another added, “I think anything that allows the teacher to learn as well as the students is a great program.” A longtime program teacher concluded, “It’s just reinvigorating.”
Teacher collaboration has been shown to improve student performance and it benefits teachers by adding to their repertoire of teaching tools, activities, and effective teaching practices (Vangrieken 2015). The annual REACH Summer Teacher Workshop includes sessions where veteran teachers interact with their less-experienced colleagues. REACH teachers reported valuing the opportunity to network and collaborate with like-minded peers and public health professionals. One teacher appreciated that REACH “gave me professionally a group of folks to connect with, other teachers involved in the program as well as the faculty and staff at the University.” Another teacher added, “I think building connections with other teachers is a great opportunity with this program.” A veteran REACH teacher concluded, “Some of the confidence as a teacher, the support as a teacher, is connecting with you [the REACH program] and with other teachers who are similar; this journey with everyone involved has been awesome.”
Stakeholder partners including the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the Missoula City-County Health Department, and members from tribal health departments and other universities have been important REACH advocates and network members over the years. Air quality professionals representing these groups were also interviewed in spring 2021 about their perspectives on the program. The interviews with this group highlighted several benefits, which they saw as important to their public health and education work in communities.
Several stakeholder partners reported that they incorporate REACH program ideas, themes, and curriculum activities into their community work. One stated they appreciated the program’s efforts in local classrooms because it supplemented and reinforced the work they were doing in the community. Several of the stakeholder partners emphasized the importance of the program’s use of scientific practices to identify, investigate, and propose solutions for specific and relevant local air quality issues; one emphasized that the REACH research design experience was invaluable. They reported that this supported and championed their work as air quality professionals.
The REACH stakeholder partners unanimously reported that the program substantially increased student awareness of public health and air quality issues. One individual commented that REACH “Builds awareness of the things that happen in the background of our lives that we are not aware of in the public health arena, in this case clean air and healthy buildings. I think it’s very important so we don’t go backward that, not only is this program teaching about the scientific processes, but it’s also building awareness of public health issues—very important to the people like me who work in public health and health departments.” Another stakeholder reiterated these ideas saying, “Students are learning about how important clean air is, clean water, healthy indoor air, things such as radon, that may not necessarily be in their normal sphere.” Another interviewee stressed that the program educates people when they are young so they can better understand environmental issues and how to take appropriate actions to protect themselves and their communities. This same individual added they hope to see some kind of community behavioral change as a result of student participation in REACH.
Several of the stakeholders described transformations they had observed in REACH program students. One air quality official mentored a student who conducted air quality research for their capstone senior project. The official appreciated the student’s ability to demonstrate that their research “applied to the real world” and how the student’s conclusions could “show a difference” in the community. A tribal air quality specialist mentioned two high school students who were involved in REACH. Both became air quality interns, which subsequently led to their current positions as field biologists with the tribe. Another student from the tribe earned an air quality internship with the University of Montana. That individual now serves on the tribe’s executive council and routinely inquires about “What projects are you [the air quality specialist] doing with students?” This same air quality specialist also related how watching one of the area students present their air quality findings at the Annual Air Quality Symposium was both poignant and affirming. They reported that this experience of conducting and presenting research exposes students to some of the “tools of the professional world” and credits this experience with helping the student secure their current position working for tribal enterprises.
Research shows that the primary barriers to introducing any new science curriculum into classrooms are time and resources. Science teachers are pressured to offer a broad and balanced curriculum that often results in a smattering of many topics and an effort to cram more information into a diminishing amount of time (Osborne 2007). If the goal is for students in a science classroom to experience the fundamental practices of science, which can be time-consuming, then teachers must adjust their priorities so their students can engage in these active practices. “Covering” a huge amount of content in a rushed or scattered way may not engage students, and successful curriculum delivery is contingent on relating content to the culture and society in which the curriculum is being implemented (Holbrook 2007). To address this, the REACH program affirms what Jonathan Osborne concludes in his article, Science Education for the Twenty First Century: “Surely it is the quality of the experience, rather than the quantity, which is the measure of good science education” (2007). These perspectives were also reflected in the REACH interviews with teachers.
When teachers were asked about challenges they faced in implementing the program in their school settings, three issues were frequently mentioned: time and resources, logistics of incorporating research in classroom activities, and assessment difficulties. While noting these as challenges, teachers expressed appreciation that the program provides them with support on these issues.
For teachers considering incorporating scientific research practices in their classrooms, the logistics can be daunting. Groups of students going in many directions requiring different equipment and supplies and different levels of assistance and expertise would challenge even the most experienced teachers. The teachers interviewed expressed that REACH addresses these issues by providing teachers with curriculum resources and a supporting framework and infrastructure for engaging students in air quality research activities. They also pointed to the curriculum resources as helping students learn background content and develop research questions centered around the unifying theme of the impact of particulate air pollution on air quality and human health.
The low-cost air quality monitoring equipment selected for its ease of use and durability in the hands of teenagers is supplied by REACH at no cost to the teachers, students, or schools. Teachers indicated that the instruction they received as well as support in the operation, maintenance, and troubleshooting of the air quality monitors was important in the continued use of the equipment. Additionally, students can refer to the REACH website for instructions and suggestions regarding the use of the air quality monitors as well as seek assistance any time from University of Montana faculty and staff through email, social media (Instagram and Facebook), or the Student Research Portal on the REACH website, thus the responsibility of doing the air quality research project is shifted to the student. When students need help with their research, teachers can direct them to research professionals rather than having to address every question or problem themselves.
To alleviate concerns teachers have about the difficulty of assessing student research projects (e.g., “grading”), REACH provides teachers assistance with air quality research assessment by encouraging students to present their projects as a five-minute oral presentation or poster presentation at the annual REACH Air Quality Research Symposium (Vanek et al. 2011). Held on the University of Montana campus, the symposium brings together 200–300 REACH participating teachers and their students who present their research findings to peers and a judging panel of air quality professionals. For those unable to attend the symposium, a virtual symposium or other culminating event such as a classroom presentation or community event is offered. Using a standardized scoring rubric, university faculty and staff and local air quality professionals assess the student presentations. The interviewed teachers conveyed that using the results as their assessment for the research projects or using them in conjunction with their own assessment tools was invaluable.
The REACH Air Quality Research Symposium offers an additional educational experience as well as an authentic assessment as it requires students to present and defend their research findings in a public forum, a skill and experience that is often not available in high school science courses. Argument is the predominant form of critical thinking in science, yet science education often gives students little experience with explaining or justifying their thinking, evidence, and conclusions (Osborne 2007). Students’ presentation of their findings gives them experience with this as well as providing an objective basis for assessment of their efforts.
The phrase “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” or “You can't get anywhere unless you're willing to take a risk” seems appropriate here. REACH and programs like it require a lot of risk-taking on the part of students and teachers alike. For students, the risks involved in trying to plan and carry out their own research project are many: What if I can’t come up with a good question? What if my community partners won’t work with me? What if my data collection or analysis is flawed? What if my data does not support my hypothesis? What if I run out of time? What if I dislike presenting in front of people?
For teachers, the risks involved in incorporating research in their curriculum can be unnerving: Where do I find the time in the school year to incorporate research projects? What part of my curriculum do I drop to make time for something new? What if I have never done science research myself? How do I manage numerous different projects all happening at once? Where does the equipment come from and how does it work? How do I assign a grade? How do I know if my students are actually learning something?
The Next Generation Science Standards Executive Summary begins, “There is no doubt that science—and, therefore, science education—is central to the lives of all Americans. Never before has our world been so complex and science knowledge so critical to making sense of it all. When comprehending current events, choosing and using technology, or making informed decisions about one’s healthcare, science understanding is key” (NGSS, 2013, p.1). However, international studies and initiatives have largely concluded that students do not find their science studies motivating or relevant because science content and pedagogy are not aligned with the needs of most students (Hofstein 2011).
For students, doing a science research project is, for some, a first-time venture into the unknown. The teacher is there not as a conveyor of knowledge, but rather a facilitator of learning. Teachers support students’ endeavors by providing a structure, setting some goals or perhaps due dates, answering questions, providing resources such as materials and equipment, engaging students in solving their own problems during the course of the project, and providing relevant feedback and encouragement along the way. The students’ job is to ask questions; think about how they might be answered; collect, organize, and analyze data; be flexible and willing to adjust their research plan; be open to different ways of looking at their experimental results; and use their data to support their conclusion(s). For both students and teachers, the goal is not solving a problem to get the “correct” answer but pursuing an improved understanding and appreciation of how to apply the tools and practices of science to answer interesting questions and solve important problems for their families and communities.
A longtime REACH teacher concluded their interview with an anecdote about one of their chemistry students. “Early in the school year, this student relayed that she did not like science classes because she could not do science. The air quality research project was introduced during the fall and this particular student seemed to really enjoy the challenge, the self-directedness, and the flexibility of doing her own research. She developed a good project and presented it as a poster at the REACH Air Quality Symposium, where she earned the top award for a poster presentation. This success in research translated to excelling in chemistry – a subject that is often difficult for high school students. Four years later, this student graduated from a university with a degree in chemical engineering. She learned, through doing science research in high school, that she could indeed do science.” The REACH program and programs like it that incorporate a research-based focus within the classroom show great promise for increasing students’ interest in science and science careers—meeting society’s needs to address environmental and public health problems such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. There is certainly some risk involved, but our experiences have been that it is worth it.
The REACH program is funded through a National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) Grant Number: 1 R25 GM129849-01A1.
Brett Taylor is an Education Coordinator at the University of Montana School of Public and Community Health Sciences in Missoula, Montana. David Jones is a Pedagogy Specialist at the University of Montana School of Public and Community Health Sciences in Missoula, Montana. Carolyn Hester is a Research Scientist at the University of Montana School of Public and Community Health Sciences in Missoula, Montana. Anna Kiley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Education and Outreach Specialist at the University of Montana School of Public and Community Health Sciences in Missoula, Montana. Michael Coe is a program evaluation researcher and president of Cedar Lake Research LLC Portland, Oregon. Tony Ward is a professor and chair at the University of Montana School of Public and Community Health Sciences in Missoula, Montana.
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