Skyline teacher shares science project with statewide gathering

Jennifer Stultz
Pratt Tribune
Ten secondary science teachers are participating in the Ecosystems of Kansas Summer Institute at the Free State Prairie site at Lawrence Free State High School.

Pam Lucas, science teacher at Skyline High School in Pratt, led a science camp discussion on the high school project she and four other teachers developed during the first Summer Institute for four high schools in central Kansas, as sponsored by the Kansas Summer Institute earlier this month at the University in Kansas in Lawrence. 

Lucas was also awarded an NSF Research Experiences for Teachers grant to write up the results of that project and to develop an ecological unit on the Konza Prairie. Her unit will soon be available at KU’s NSF Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research website under a section with resources for high school students and teachers. 

Lucas joined 10 high school science teachers from across Kansas at the KU Field Station, just north of Lawrence, to gain new knowledge and skills to share with their students. They spent the week together working with KU scientists to learn about current research and methods that link to K-12 science standards. 

Summer Institute participants carry out an exercise using standard field research methods for plant species sampling at Free State Prairie. The teachers — the third group to benefit from a five-year program — serve in school districts representing a diversity of students, urban and rural. Through the program, known as the Ecosystems of Kansas Summer Institute, participants are immersed in field ecology and GIS mapping projects.


“I came here this year because environmental science is a new class we’re starting at our school,” said Duane Knoll, science teacher at Newton High School, on the second day of the institute. “This is a great chance to collaborate with other teachers to make sure that we have opportunities to study all the areas of environmental science; it’s a hands-on approach.” 

Referring to the group’s first day, at the Field Station’s Cross Reservoir, he added, “Yesterday we spent quite a bit of time on the lake; that’s not something we have in central Kansas.” 

The institute, funded by a National Science Foundation grant-within-a-grant, was developed and is overseen by Peggy Schultz, a Kansas Biological Survey researcher and a faculty member in KU’s Environmental Studies Program. Schultz said the goals for the program were to encourage scientific and ecological literacy, to provide support for teachers and to encourage students in their education. 

“An important aspect of the institute is to provide teachers with an opportunity to learn about the ecological research at the University of Kansas, Kansas State and other state universities,” Schultz said. “We want to link what we’re doing in basic research with their work with high school students, to promote understanding of the scientific method at every academic level and to create partnerships for students to participate in research.


“Another important part of this program is to let teachers know they’re appreciated. They’re expected to do so much, especially this last year, and we are grateful for their work educating the next generation,” she said.


Schultz said the program promoted higher education in a broad way — encouraging critical thinking skills and a basic understanding of research. She said she also hoped it would encourage students to notice and appreciate the natural world in their midst and inspire some to choose a career in ecology. 

Through the institute, the teachers spend mornings outdoors at various Field Station sites, including the Rockefeller Native Prairie, as well as a nearby stream and the Free State Prairie site at Lawrence Free State High School. Morning field studies focus on three areas: aquatic invertebrate ecology, terrestrial ecology, and the interactions of plants and the organisms that live within them. In the afternoons, the group works indoors at the Field Station’s Armitage Education Center, developing inquiry-based curriculum for their classrooms. The program also includes a GIS component.


This is the third year the Summer Institute is taking place; it began in 2018 but was not held in 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions. The NSF will allow an additional year of the program. Participants are selected through an application process, with information available at the institute’s website.


Teachers participating in the Summer Institute in 2021 were Derek Berg, Shawnee Mission South High School, Overland Park; Brianna Bosley, Derby High School, Derby; Leslie Campbell, Manhattan High School, Manhattan; Jim Cera, Riverside High School, Wathena; Liam Conroy, Hope Street Charter Academy, Topeka; Maria Henderson, Kickapoo Nation High School, Powhattan; Duane Knoll, Newton High School, Newton; Donna O’Neill, Goessel High School, Goessel; Angelica Ann Tesch, Remington Whitewater High School, Whitewater; and Jeff Witters, Olathe South High School, Olathe. 

Participating KU researchers were Fola Agusto, KU assistant professor of ecology & evolutionary biology; Ted Harris, assistant research professor, Kansas Biological Survey; Terra Lubin, postdoctoral researcher in the Bever/Schultz Lab at the Bio Survey and KU; Susan Magnoli, postdoctoral researcher in the Bever/Schultz Lab at the Bio Survey and KU; Dana Peterson, assistant research professor, Kansas Biological Survey; Peggy Schultz; Ben Sikes, survey associate scientist and KU associate professor of ecology & evolutionary biology; and Maggie Wagner, survey assistant scientist and KU assistant professor of ecology & evolutionary biology. 

The Summer Institute is part of an NSF EPSCoR project funded through a $20 million grant announced in 2017. The NSF project, “Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas (MAPS),” RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006, is a collaboration among five Kansas universities. Matching support comes from the state of Kansas through the Kansas Board of Regents.


“NSF EPSCoR-funded studies this large include broader impact initiatives that bring immediate benefits each year in the form of education and community outreach, as with the Summer Institute,” said Rosemary Blum, outreach, education and diversity director for Kansas NSF EPSCoR at KU. “This MAPS grant includes seven education and outreach components, and the institute is just one of those programs.” 

The MAPS project’s principal investigator is Kristin Bowman-James, KU Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. Four other professors lead and supervise specific parts of the research: Jim Bever, senior scientist at the Biological Survey and Foundation Distinguished Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology; Sharon Billings, senior scientist at the Biological Survey and Dean’s Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; and K-State professors Chuck Rice and Walter Dodds.


The Kansas Biological Survey, a KU research center, was established at KU in 1911. It houses a variety of environmental research labs and remote sensing/GIS programs in Takeru Higuchi Hall and the West District greenhouse. It also manages the 3,700-acre KU Field Station, a site for study in the sciences, arts and humanities.