The OACIS GK-12 Program Completes its Five Year Mission

Ken Sebens

In October 2013, the Ocean and Coastal Interdisciplinary Science (OACIS) NSF GK-12 Program at the UW completed its five years of activities. This 2.9 million dollar NSF award to UW was administered through the UW Friday Harbor Laboratories, but its activities spanned a much larger area of western Washington. High school science classes, the locus of the OACIS Program, offer exceptional opportunities to integrate ocean and coastal science into the curriculum and to encourage students to consider science careers and college science programs. The school districts selected for this program were in Seattle (King County) and on three of the San Juan Islands (San Juan County). These districts span true inner city to very rural conditions, with a substantial diversity of student ethnic, economic and cultural backgrounds.

The GK-12 Program goals were: to train future researchers (fellows) in communicating marine and environmental science concepts to high school students and to general audiences; to bring current scientific research into the high school classroom; to get high school students thinking about science-related careers and science majors in college; to provide role models of science researchers for the students; to assist high school teachers in their professional development; and to develop curricular materials that will stay with the teachers and the high schools on a permanent basis. Teachers received stipends to cover their additional summer time commitment, and activities during the year. Graduate Student Fellowships provided stipends for 15 hours per week working with the teachers and in the schools, with the expectation that the student would spend the rest of their time conducting their dissertation research.

Over the five years of the program, 5-10 fellows worked in 5-8 high schools, partnering with high school teachers, and each fellow having classroom time with 60-100 students per week. A total of 30 fellows took part, 10 of them for two years and 20 for one year (40 total fellow years). Eighteen high school teachers participated, with most of them doing so for multiple years and a minimum of 2400 K-12 students were engaged in the program during those five years. We designed the program so that 2-3 of the fellows would be working in San Juan County schools, and the remainder would be in 4-5 Seattle area high schools each year.

GK-12 OACIS fellow Aaron Galloway demonstrates a lab activity. Photo credit: Ken Sebens

The project was led by FHL former Director Ken Sebens as Principal Investigator (Biology, SAFS, FHL), with Daniel Grunbaum (Oceanography) and David Armstrong (SAFS) as Co-PIs, thus representing three units in the new College of the Environment as well as the Department of Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. The daily administration, contact with schools, teachers, fellows and applicants was handled by a team comprising Project Manager Tansy Clay Burns (Oceanography), and faculty Coordinators Loveday Conquest (SAFS) and Megan Dethier (Biology, FHL) overseeing operations in Seattle and the San Juans respectively. FHL Advancement Board Chair Trish Morse also chaired the external advisory committee for the OACIS program.

GK-12 OACIS teachers Marc Vermeire and Nick Frazee with the winning Orca Bowl team in 2011. Photo credit: Ken Sebens

Graduate students working in San Juan County were usually those with ongoing research projects at UW FHL, and thus their research benefitted from being in residence at the labs the full academic year. In the first three years of this project, there were two graduate students each year who chose to work in SJC; there were three for 2011-12 and there were two for 2012-13. The remainder worked in the Seattle schools, including some of the graduate students working at FHL. In San Juan County, fellows were placed in Friday Harbor High School, Lopez High School, Orcas High School and the Spring Street International School in Friday Harbor. Our local GK-12 fellows included Alex Hart, Max Maliska, Kevin Turner, Sylvia Yang, Eleni Petrou, Robin Elahi, Derek Smith, and Aaron Galloway. Their teacher partners were Marta Branch (Orcas), Marc Vermeire (Lopez, FH), Nick Frazee and Jessie Visciglia (FH), Tim Dwyer and Sharon Massey (Spring St.). FHL also hosted one of the summer workshops each year, with trips on the R/V Centennial and time for fellows and teachers to plan their activities. Among their many exciting class activities, GK-12 fellows and teachers also coached the (winning!) Orca Bowl teams, and the underwater robotics (ROV) competition teams (Marine Advanced Technology Education, MATE.) They also helped launch the university level oceanography course now taught at FHHS.

Friday Harbor Middle School students with ROV they constructed in 2013. Photo credit: Ken Sebens

Graduate students supported through GK-12 were carrying out their own dissertation research, often associated with NSF-funded projects, with their mentor as PI. This program provided another option, and one that has helped teachers, K-12 students, as well as the fellows themselves. The teaching and presentation experience in this program goes far beyond what a TA at UW experiences. The NSF funded GK-12 program provided a clear pipeline from K-12 schools, to universities to STEM careers, which are critical to our future.

In 2011, NSF announced that it was canceling the entire GK-12 program, allowing the ongoing programs to finish out their five years of funding. Obviously, many of the participants and those who had been affected by the program were shocked that it was coming to an end after achieving so much success (see article in Science,, vol. 331, no. 4 March 2011 p.1127). Since 1999, over ten thousand fellows had been supported nationwide, working in over 5000 schools. One criticism leveled at the entire NSF GK-12 program is that the graduate students were not doing as much research, during a year as a fellow, as they would if they were an RA, or had a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship or IGERT support. However, our experience is that graduate students were getting as much or more time for research compared to being a TA for undergraduate courses, the other common path for science grad students. Plus, the number of RA positions is very limited in any lab or department, and there are extremely few GRF and IGERT slots nationwide. GK-12 fellows completed their advanced degrees as rapidly as did other graduate students supported by NSF, based on external evaluation of the GK-12 Program.

GK-12 has helped produce more PhD level scientists who are better teachers and who have a larger “broader impact” on society (one of NSF’s criteria.) However, an overlooked benefit was the OACIS GK-12 effect on teachers and K-12 students. I have been consistently amazed by the positive effects on research and education that emerged from this program. Graduate fellows were supported and their skills were enhanced, teachers became more familiar with the science, and students got excited about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers.

Overall the impact of the GK-12 program on graduate education and research at UW, and on the K-12 schools, students and teachers involved, has been impressive (note, UW also had GK-12 programs in engineering and in applied mathematics). For a very modest cost per student/teacher pair (under $50,000/year), this program delivered successes. The program as it exists has always been experimental, with each program developing something altogether unique. I would like to see the most successful of these programs become models for a permanent GK-12 type program that is spread widely to more and more schools throughout the country, maybe funded primarily outside of NSF. One model would be to provide federal funding which requires an equal state match, and which then funds a large number of graduate fellows in each state working with several universities and school districts. This would be a great way to connect the “ivory tower” with the real world on a permanent basis.

Additional Resources

GK12 External Review

The Power of Partnerships: A Guide from the NSF GK-12 Program