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Capitol Reef National Park Hosts Educators in Groundbreaking Field Experience

National Science Foundation Grant Funds Learning to Observe: Unpacking the Development of Science Teacher Observational Expertise in Field Settings

Capitol Reef National Park welcomes roughly 1.2 million visitors each year. This June the park played host to a remarkable group of visitors: Utah educators participating in a groundbreaking professional development program called Learning to Observe: Unpacking the Development of Science Teacher Observational Expertise in Field Settings.

This transformative three-year study is led by Dr. Lauren Barth-Cohen, Associate Professor in the Departments of Educational Psychology and Physics and Astronomy, along with Co-Principal Investigators Lynne Zummo (Educational Psychology and Natural History Museum of Utah, University of Utah), Holly Godsey (College of Education and Geology & Geophysics, University of Utah), and Sarah Braden (School of Teacher Education and Leadership, Utah State University), and funded by a National Science Foundation ($599,224) grant. The project aims to advance our understanding of how educators acquire and then impart scientific observation skills to their students. “Scientific observation plays an essential role in conducting and teaching science, and yet there is a major gap in the research as to how educators acquire and then teach this essential skill to their students,” says Barth-Cohen.

Phase II of the study, the one-week field experience, was a chance for the educators to apply what they had learned in Phase 1, a comprehensive, semester-long online geology course. Capitol Reef provided the ideal setting for Phase II. Millions of years of geologic processes are visibly displayed due to uplift, and no small share of human history is also on display with abandoned Utah settler cabins juxtaposed with petroglyphs from The Fremont Culture. “Geology is the perfect avenue for teaching scientific observation,” says Barth-Cohen. “It not only relies on observation as a core element but this project also addresses the scarcity of earth sciences and geology training provided to educators.” Of the program, College of Education Dean Frankie Santos Laanan says, “Hands-on learning is transformative for educators and students alike. We are immensely proud of the ways in which Drs. Barth-Cohen, Zummo, and Godsey are fostering passion and stewardship of the state’s unique geology among its K-12 teachers, whose experiences in the program will undoubtedly inspire their own students.” 

Among the participating educators were Jessica Jones and Amy Hunt from the Washington County School District in St. George. Jones, who boasts two decades of experience teaching earth sciences, already had a deep passion for geology. However, after participating in the field trip, her new knowledge and skills have turned her into a fervent advocate: "The field experience was like a trip to Disneyland, and learning from a professional geologist deepened our learning. I’ve been sharing what I learned with my family; soon, they’ll be experts in rock cycles and erosion, too!”

Hunt, a new teacher working towards her middle school science endorsement, expressed the tremendous value she gained from the field trip, especially as a visual learner: "You can read the core [state standards for subject areas], but it’s different when you have a hands-on experience and the chance to collaborate with other teachers.” The field experience also gave Hunt a deep appreciation for the area's beauty. An observation that Jones echoed: “These places are in our backyard, like Snow Canyon. Knowing how this land was formed will help the kids and others in the area appreciate and love the beauty that surrounds us.”

Jones and Hunt also talked about how impactful it was to not only apply their classroom concepts in a setting like Capitol Reef but also the positive impact of their fellow educators. “We collaborate with other teachers all the time, but this allowed us to collaborate with teachers who have expertise in other areas and come from different backgrounds—that is so powerful. I’m bringing back deep knowledge grounded in field experience with other experts that will empower me to educate my students better,” said Jones. Hunt agreed, sharing that the two had gained knowledge and skills and “friends and connections that will last long after the project has ended.”

Last Updated: 10/25/23