As an educator married to an entomologist–a scientist who studies insects–I think it is safe to say I know far more about the six-legged creatures that inhabit this earth than the average person. After sitting in multiple study sessions with graduate students and doing field work for my husband, I have reached the point where I can identify insects down to order, if not family, and can comfortably explain and discuss my husband’s research on the Blueberry Gall Midge and the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug.

My experiences in agricultural pest management made me realize how little my own learning in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) topics delved into interdisciplinary practice and real world application. Apart from some of the math involved in solving problems in physics and AP Chemistry, I cannot recall being asked to apply knowledge from one subject matter area to another, and I certainly can count on one hand the number of times we discussed what current scientific inquiry looks like outside the high school science lab.

I consider this a lost opportunity, not only because we need to be preparing our students for emerging STEM studies and careers, but because science is far more engaging and inspires deeper learning when we understand its purpose and actively participate in it. Honestly, I probably memorized which insects made up the orders of Lepidoptera and Hymenoptera for a high school biology test, but that learning did not stick until I had one of my husband’s yellow sticky traps in my (gloved) hands and had to identify each insect stuck to it so we could determine the diversity of families in the field.

We experienced a similar “ah-ha” moment with a group of middle school students a few years ago; my husband had students use data from his actual research on the spatial distribution of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug to map where the bugs were in a peach orchard and then hypothesize why the bugs were clustering around specific landscape features. As the students eagerly drew their maps and discussed their ideas, one of them remarked, “We learned graphing in math. I didn’t know you could use graphing to do this.” For my husband, this comment sparked an interest in K-12 education that did not exist before—a desire to help students connect the dots between classroom learning and applied science.

One of the conceptual shifts of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is that “K-12 Science Education Should Reflect the Interconnected Nature of Science as it is Practiced and Experienced in the Real World.” While this sounds wonderful, it is extremely difficult for STEM educators who are not actively applying their knowledge outside their classroom walls through ongoing research or practice. So I want to end this post with a few tips on how to develop opportunities for students to experience science as it is practiced and experienced in the real world.

Tip #1: Search out “citizen science” projects.

Citizen science is a term that refers to the crowd sourcing of actual data for scientific research. For example, my husband used citizen science data to determine the geographical spread of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug. His university put out a request to Cooperative Extension offices across the Eastern Seaboard to keep an eye out for the bug and to send any specimens caught to his lab with specific information (e.g., date obtained, location). He then mapped this data to look at movement of the insect over time.

Citizen science is becoming a more popular way for scientists to obtain relatively easy-to-collect data that is either spread over a large geographical area or exists in such quantities that it would take a long time for a small team of scientists to gather enough data points to form a conclusion. Many scientists recognize that citizen science represents an opportunity to engage K-12 students in a meaningful way in their field work, but also struggle to figure out how to maintain the fidelity of their data and interact with participants without hindering their work. To see an example of a well designed citizen science project, check out Project Squirrel, which was formed through a partnership between the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the University of Illinois Chicago. You can search through a database of about 1600 formal and informal citizen science projects at SciStarter.

Tip #2: Connect with scientists through your local Cooperative Extension office.

The Cooperative Extension System “provides non-formal education and learning activities to people throughout the country—to farmers and other residents of rural communities as well as to people living in urban areas…[and] emphasizes taking knowledge gained through research and education and bringing it directly to the people to create positive changes” (USDA, Both of the extension offices at the universities where my husband did his master’s and doctorate research regularly encouraged graduate students to develop and participate in learning activities with K-12 students around their area of study. Connecting with your local extension office is a great way to meet the scientists in your community and set up conversations on how they might be able to expose students to real world scientific inquiry.

As you do this, keep in mind that you may need to provide support in developing learning activities that are appropriate for your students; some scientists are better than others in adjusting their explanations and instruction to their audience so make sure to gauge that before beginning a partnership. I recommend finding your nearest extension office by locating the land-grant universities in your state using the Cooperative Extension System link and then searching “extension” on the university’s website, as simply searching “Extension” in the above link does not work for all states.

Tip #3: Have students research and reach out to scientists who do work that interests them.

One of the basic understandings of the nature of science within the NGSS is that “Science is a Human Endeavor.” While this can be learned by studying the achievements of famous scientists long gone, the impact is different when students interact with someone currently working in the field, especially if that person can relate to their experiences and background. The reality is that if our students want to pursue graduate work in a STEM field, they will need to identify the people that are doing work they are interested in furthering, determine which people they want to work with, and then develop relationships with those people. We can support that process now by giving students time to discover what areas of study exist outside their science textbooks and helping them identify who might be able encourage their curiosity and respond to their questions.

Tip #4: Have fun.

To develop engaging science learning opportunities, you need to first tap into what interests you and model exploration for your students. So think about what you want to learn about and take it from there!