In the Classroom: A Scientist's-Eye View

My day as a "scientist in the classroom" was a fun, collaborative experience with Robin Bulleri, an energetic AP Biology teacher, and her awesome class. Once we were connected through NCSE's Scientist in the Classroom program, Robin and I discussed what aspect of evolution I would cover with her class. As a visiting scientist, we decided it made the most sense for me to talk about the tools and evidence that scientists use to study evolution.

In the classroom, I presented information on how scientists use the fossil record, extant species, and DNA evidence to build phylogenetic trees. In the process I touched upon some bigger concepts in evolution (e.g. homology) and talked about evidence of evolutionary processes observable within our lifetime (e.g. pesticide resistance in some insect species). Since her students had been studying evolution for a couple weeks before my visit, they were quick to offer their ideas and suggestions when I posed questions. I had come across a group of science-savvy young people!

For the classroom activity, the students worked in groups to construct phylogenetic trees using an imaginary animal called Caminalcules. The activity, which I found on the nifty resource bank on NCSEteach’s website, required students to think through several challenging concepts surrounding relatedness. One of the main challenges of the exercise was piecing together the incomplete fossil record while also considering which species were still extant. It was rewarding to weave around the classroom and answer questions as students puzzled over the project and worked together to complete the phylogenetic tree. This was my favorite part of the classroom visit because it allowed for me to get to know the students on a personal level and answer their insightful questions about the activity at hand, as well as what it is like to be a scientist.

Beyond the topic of evolution, I also spent a portion of my time in the classroom talking about my life as a scientist. As I described my field of work and specialty, I incorporated the day to day questions and thought processes that all scientists go through in order to “do science”.  My goal was to broaden their ideas of what scientists do, how they do it, and even what they look like (i.e. not just an older gentleman).  Finally, I touched on my own academic path, which was circuitous at times, to show them that it is not essential to have a defined career path at the beginning of college.  Rather, I encouraged them to let their interests guide their academic journey. Interestingly, this aspect of my visit piqued the interest of several students. They asked a lot of questions about local institutions and the science and engineering degree programs available. Who knows, maybe I’ll be having some of the students join me at North Carolina State soon!

Scientist in the Classroom was a really fun opportunity for me to dip my toes into teaching, contribute to evolution education, and connect with educators and students within my community. This journey isn’t over quite yet; Robin and I have continued to work together into the spring!

Allison Camp is a graduate student studying Environmental Toxicology at North Carolina State University. She was a part of the Scientists in the Classroom pilot program and is an enthusiastic supporter of science education in her community.