BEACON Researchers at Work: The KBS GK-12 program: Graduate training in science communication through K-12 classroom engagement

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work blog post is by MSU postdoc Sarah Bodbyl.

It is 6 AM on a Wednesday. Graduate student Di Liang is preparing to head in to the lab to collect data on a set of research plants. He wonders if one set of plants will be showing yellow leaves, a sign of nitrogen depletion, then considers whether or not a student will ask if he can eat the experimental plants again. Wait, what?! Di is not working in a typical MSU research lab–it is a middle school classroom. Di is one of many graduate student fellows that share their research and bring hands-on activities to K-12 classrooms as a part of the W. K. Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) GK-12 program.

GK-12 Fellow Di Liang and students display their hydroponically grown plants. Photo credit: Di Liang

GK-12 Fellow Di Liang and students display their hydroponically grown plants. Photo credit: Di Liang

The Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) Program is a training program for graduate students to develop broad science communication skills and prepare for advanced careers. Specifically, GK-12 fellows learn to place their research in a broader societal and global context, integrate research with teaching, collaborate across disciplines, and more effectively communicate their research to professional, K-12, and public audiences. A unique aspect of the GK-12 program is the partnership with K-12 educators, fostering transformative learning opportunities for students, teachers, and graduate fellows alike. Fellows spend up to 15 hours a week in K-12 classrooms, learning how to effectively convey advanced concepts and their love of science to broad audiences.

The participation and support of the many K-12 educators involved in the GK-12 program stems from a rich history between KBS and local school districts. In 1999, KBS professor Phil Robertson established a partnership with 11 nearby districts as a way to share current KBS research with the community. This collaboration between the teachers, administrators, and students of K-12 classrooms and the graduate students, faculty, and staff of MSU is called the KBS K-12 Partnership for Science Literacy. The partnership continues to grow and there are currently 140 active teachers representing 15 school districts.

Two awards have shaped the GK-12 graduate fellow experience since 2006. The first, Ecological Literacy in the K-12 Classrooms of Rural Michigan, focused on one-to-one graduate student and mentor teacher classroom partnerships. Fellows spent over 5,000 hours in the classroom over the three-year award, testing the KBS GK-12 model and searching for ways to enhance the experience. When applying for a second award, project leaders and partner teachers developed a plan to bring two KBS research strengths, bio-energy and sustainability, directly to the schoolyard. They posed the question, “Can we grow our fuel and have our birds and butterflies, too?” This was the birth of the BioEnergy SusTainability Project plots, or BEST plots. The plots, planted with experimental biofuels, are modeled after large-format experiments established at KBS by the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) and the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program. Since the second award was granted in 2010, 304 research plots have been established at 22 school sites across the K-12 Partnership. GK-12 fellows assist teachers and their students as they use the plots to gain experience with the scientific method: making observations, generating hypotheses, collecting field data, and making claims from evidence.

A BioEnergy SusTainability, or BEST plot, part of the GK-12 schoolyard network. Photo credit: Dani Fegan

A BioEnergy SusTainability, or BEST plot, part of the GK-12 schoolyard network. Photo credit: Dani Fegan

It is a beautiful summer day at KBS and there’s a commotion on the soccer field. Three GK-12 fellows are calling out instructions to a pack of K-12 teachers as they compete to find cryptic green twist-ties lurking in the grass. The fellows have designed this game to illustrate how biological competition for resources can affect population trends; the teachers provide critical feedback. Will the game engage students? How and what will students learn from the exercise? Fellows learn the art of pedagogy by working with experienced teachers, not only in the classroom, but also at professional development workshops held at KBS multiple times per year. Fellows have also found that their mentor teachers help them discover specific aspects of their research that are relevant and inspiring to others–a useful skill for grant-writing and applying for professional careers! 

The GK-12 model of pairing graduate student researchers with K-12 educators is a unique opportunity to create interdisciplinary educational and scientific products.

Together, GK-12 Fellows and teachers have designed over 110 freely available lessons addressing topics in ecology, evolution, and sustainability. These lessons meet the guidelines of the Michigan Core Curriculum, High School Science Content Expectations, and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and are available to the public on the GK-12 website “Lessons” page. Four GK-12 Fellows have published their lessons in peer reviewed teaching journals.

Beyond shared goals of graduate student training, science education, and public outreach, BEACON has direct connections to the GK-12 program. Current BEACON members Elizabeth Schultheis (GK-12 fellow 2010-11 and 2012-13) and Melissa Kjelvik (2008-09; 2010-11) collaborated with their partner teachers to create Data Nuggets: worksheet and graphing activities designed to give students practice interpreting quantitative information and making claims based on evidence. The Data Nugget project is now sponsored by BEACON and the Nuggets are undergoing testing, revision, and implementation in classrooms across the nation.

Greeted by cheers, applause, and fist-pumps, GK-12 Fellow Amanda walks into the classroom to spend another day honing her science communication skills with high school biology students. Feedback on the GK-12 program’s impact on the fellows, teachers, and K-12 students has been overwhelmingly positive. Fellows and their advisors report that fellows are more confident, competent, and comfortable placing their research in broader societal and global contexts, and explaining it effectively to professional peers, college students and non-technical audiences. Teacher partners report enhanced professional development; fellows provide them with a variety of real research experiences that help them understand what science is all about. Teachers explain that their students are given the opportunity to work with practicing scientists who differ from the conventional ‘scientist’ stereotypes. The program has shifted classroom emphasis from teaching to the standardized tests to training students to think more like scientists – being able to make arguments based on evidence, reflect on their thinking process, and integrate knowledge across subjects, predicting outcomes based on things that they know. The graduate students serve as role models by communicating, not only the excitement of engaging in research that
addresses national needs, but also the pleasure of learning.

The GK-12 project is currently in its final year. The current set of nine GK-12 Fellows is hard at work in the classrooms, learning to share their research, being relatable role models for students, and inspiring the next generation of STEM students. To continue supporting the K-12 partnership in bringing KBS research to the classrooms, the Graduate School will fund two additional fellowships over the following two years. However, the KBS K-12 partnership is looking for new project and faculty sponsors to continue training MSU students and K-12 teachers in science communication, education, and outreach. If you are interested in joining the partnership, please contact coordinators Sarah Bodbyl ( and Kara Haas ( and check out the GK-12 website at

The 2014-2015 GK-12 fellows, partner teachers, and support staff.

The 2014-2015 GK-12 fellows, partner teachers, and support staff.

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