Environmental researchers, educators ‘speed date’ to build partnerships

November 26, 2019 By Eric Hamilton

At the emcee’s signal, participants flock to different tables. They quickly get down to discussing their common interests, intent on discovering whether to meet up again soon.

This is speed dating, of a sort. But while participants indeed search for new partners, romantic matches aren’t the goal.

Over appetizers on a cool fall afternoon at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum, dozens of scientists and environmental educators are hashing out collaborations that can advance research, build new partnerships, and improve the experiences of hundreds of thousands of visitors to educational sites across South Central Wisconsin.

“These nature groups are really the first to be teaching kids about what’s happening, and they really want to be up to speed on the latest science in these fields,” says Jack Williams, professor of geography at UW–Madison and event organizer along with the Arboretum’s education coordinator, Gail Epping Overholt, and Betsy Parker from the organization Nature Net. “A big part of both UW’s mission and Nature Net’s mission is to help the broader public understand a changing world. This was an opportunity to connect these two groups.”

Photo: Kim Anderson and Brad Herrick sitting at a table talking to unidentified people

After brief presentations from the three dozen attendees, groups of educators and researchers, including Kim Anderson (left) from Cave of the Mounds and Brad Herrick (center), the Arboretum’s ecologist, brainstorm how they might work together. Photo: Jack Williams

Nature Net is a consortium of Wisconsin environmental educational sites such as the Henry Vilas Zoo, the International Crane Foundation, Olbrich Botanical Gardens and more than a dozen other partners. It was founded by the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in 1995.

Together, these sites host more than a million visitors a year, which provides unparalleled opportunity for outreach by UW–Madison researchers. In turn, those scientists can help the sites advance their educational missions with up-to-date research on climate change, biodiversity, invasive species and native landscapes.

After brief presentations from the three dozen attendees, groups of educators and researchers brainstorm how they might work together. One table of participants quickly realizes that undergraduate researchers could serve as natural ambassadors between the university and educational sites, which could provide as many unique research projects as there are Nature Net members within a short drive of campus.

“Undergraduates are always looking for opportunities to make a difference. Giving them real needs, like quantifying how much carbon sequestration takes place on your land, would get students really excited,” says Sarah Hart, a UW–Madison professor who studies the effects of disturbances in forest ecosystems.

Many of the scientists are looking to build research programs supported by the National Science Foundation, which seeks to increase the broader impacts of scientific discovery, often through education and outreach.

Cully Shelton, who oversees visitor programming at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, jumps at the idea. “I think many of our Nature Net sites would welcome that opportunity to work with an undergraduate student,” he says.

Alluding to research by professors like Ankur Desai, who uses remote weather towers to study how weather and climate are influenced by landscape, Shelton continues: “I also like the idea of people installing research equipment at our foundation. It’s one more opportunity for discussion with visitors.”

These collaborations may open up new opportunities for researchers and educators alike. Many of the scientists are early in their careers and looking to build research programs supported by the National Science Foundation, which seeks to increase the broader impacts of scientific discovery, often through education and outreach. New collaborations with Nature Net members have the potential to increase the competitiveness of researchers’ grant proposals while providing new resources and expertise to the educational sites.

Other resources are available, too. For instance, the Morgridge Center for Public Service supports the kind of undergraduate research Hart and her table discuss, and the Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment seeks to seed and support new research and public engagement projects.

A Baldwin seed grant supported the day’s event, representing a preliminary step toward a potential, larger outreach program. Within days after connecting at the Arboretum, Professor of Geoscience Luke Zoet and Space Science and Engineering Center Outreach Program Manager Rose Pertzborn would go on to submit a Baldwin seed grant application of their own.

At each of the tables, groups form and shift. Discussions cover good survey design for visitors and how to update educational materials. Business cards are exchanged. A crackle of collaborative energy passes through the room.

At the event, participants grab color-coded stickers during a break and congregate around posters describing every kind of research or educational work performed by those in the room. They mark activities they already do and those they’d like to branch into. Themes develop, the most popular among them climate change, curriculum design, hands-on activities, and working with underserved populations, judging from the wealth of stickers they attract.

On one table, folders for each participant are laid out expectantly. Educators and researchers drop business cards in the folders of those they want to hear from in the future. Perusing their options, Kia Karlen and Cheryl DeWelt of the Madison Children’s Museum discuss who they want to connect with.

Karlen, the museum’s education director, considers leaving her card with Tanya Buckingham, creative director for the UW Cartography Lab. “I was thinking of the cartographer and maps, because we have such good geography from the rooftop. You can see the Capitol and the lakes, and we’ve always wanted to discuss cartography up there.”

DeWelt, the museum’s environmental education manager, adds, “And with different researchers, we could work on making mini exhibits that kids could explore.”

At each of the tables, groups form and shift. Discussions cover good survey design for visitors and how to update educational materials. Business cards are exchanged. A crackle of collaborative energy passes through the room.

Then, as happy hour approaches, people mix, conversations continue and new partnerships are forged.