WISE Program Promotes Biodiversity Learning in K-12 Schools
University of Arizona interns worked in K-12 schools this semester to get students excited about biodiversity and to increase the diversity of people involved in environmental sciences.

By Lori Harwood, UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
April 24, 2017

WISE Photo 2.JPG

A UA intern working with students to collect biodiversity observations using iNaturalist.
A UA intern working with students to collect biodiversity observations using iNaturalist.

This spring semester, the University of Arizona Women in Science and Engineering Program, or WISE, launched the Bio/Diversity Project to increase K-12 student access to environmental science curriculum, and to provide training to University o Arizona students.

Funded by a grant from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice, the Bio/Diversity Project is a collaborative effort between WISE, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Friends of Saguaro National Park. Jill Williams, director of WISE, which is housed in the Southwest Institute for Research on Women in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, leads the two-year project.

The goals of the Bio/Diversity Project are to get students excited about environmental science through the lens of biodiversity and to increase the diversity of people involved in environmental sciences — particularly women, Latino/a and American Indian populations.

"Research has shown that more diverse scientific communities are more innovative and creative," Williams said. "It produces better science. If we want science that is accountable to the breadth of society, we have to have diverse people participating and coming up with scientific solutions."

This spring, 11 interns from the UA partnered with nine teacher from five local K-12 schools. The UA students receive weekly training on the science of biodiversity and discuss why fostering diversity in the sciences is so important. The class has included guest speakers from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the Community and School Garden Program and Saguaro National Park.

The students help develop and implement culturally relevant and place-based environmental science programming for the classrooms. In addition, the interns spend a minimum of five hours per week delivering the lessons to K-12 students in their assigned classroom.

"It has been great working with our UA interns this semester," said Kirsta Mosconi, who teaches eighth-grade English Language Arts at Mansfeld Magnet Middle School. "The Mansfeld students are going beyond just doing the assignment and they're actually delving deeper into the content and making connections. Our interns have used a number of hands-on, high-interest activities to deliver their curriculum, which goes a long way."

Mosconi said that the class recently began talking about honeybees, their importance to the food chain and their endangered status.

"On Thursday, the day that my interns are here, we actually had a portion of the school cordoned off because there was a little swarm of bees in our courtyard," Mosconi said. "The eighth-grade biodiversity students were quite upset when they found out that the bees were killed instead of being relocated and we had great discussions the following day."

Katherine Scout Ahern, a senior majoring in environmental science, is working in the third-grade classroom at John B. Wright Elementary and an eighth-grade class at Roberts-Naylor K-8 School.

"It is very fulfilling to teach kids something — to pass on info and watch them have their 'a-ha' moment," Ahern said.

One of her favorite assignments happened at the beginning of the semester when students were asked to draw a picture of a scientist. Most of the third graders drew Einstein.

"We had a follow-up lesson with 10 to 15 slides of scientists, which included women, minorities, people with disabilities," Ahern said. "That really impacted them."

General studies major Alex Wolfe has been working with the third-grade class at John B. Wright Elementary and the fifth-grade glass at Roberts-Naylor K-8 School.

"The most interesting thing I have learned from being an intern with this project is just how capable kids are of understanding concepts like biodiversity and conservation," Wolfe said.

Wolfe appreciates the engaged learning, hands-on aspect of the course.

"I want to work in wildlife and conservation education, and this internship has offered me an opportunity to get real-life teaching experience," Wolfe said. "I've been able to learn and build my skills as an educator in a way I couldn't get from a typical classroom experience."

Adds Lauren Olson, a philosophy and computer science major: "It's helped me immensely to be able to talk for five hours in front of these children about the material in an interesting and enthusiastic manner. I think the presentation skills I've gotten from this internship will be invaluable in any job I choose to go into."

Upon completing the internship, the UA students will be given the opportunity to apply to the Next Generation Ranger Program offered by Friends of Saguaro National Park.

"Students can work in our environmental education program, on biological research projects, or on ecological restoration in the NextGen internship program," said Don Swann, a biologist with Saguaro National Park. "It is a great opportunity for students to get experience with the national park and also get paid for it."

Swann added that it has been fun to work with the UA, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the K-12 schools on the Bio/Diversity Project.

"We want to protect the biodiversity of the park for future generations, and what better way to do that then to work with kids in Tucson."

Extra info

Girls Who Code
This semester, WISE also launched a local meeting of Girls Who Code, which is a national organization. Eight young women, from grades 8-12, meet on Saturdays in the UA Main Library to learn the Core4 coding concepts, get to know one another, and learn about women who use computer science to address real-world problems. The activities are facilitated by UA undergraduate students from the Colleges of Science and Engineering. The club ends in April, but this free program will start again in the fall.

Check out the video on the UA’s Girls Who Code project, made by UA+/AZ Public Media here.


Resources for the media

Jill Williams
Women in Science and Engineering Program