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While much of the Triangle prepares for Thursday’s big game at the Smith Center, North Carolina and Duke graduate students at the coast are readying themselves for another type of gathering at Pine Knoll Shores.

The Scientific Research and Education Network, SciREN for short, is an annual event that allows educators to connect with researchers, learn about some of the latest developments in marine science and explore creative ways to share this new knowledge in their classrooms. This year it is run by a dedicated group of graduate students from both UNC and Duke.

“There is a wealth of world-class marine science conducted right here in Eastern North Carolina,’’ said Justin Ridge, a doctoral student at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences. “We wanted to find a way to bring that cutting-edge research into our schools.”

Ridge and fellow doctoral student Ethan Theuerkauf are both sons of teachers and understand the limited resources and tight schedules educators face in their classrooms. They also saw how the depth and breadth of research conducted at the institute could become a valuable resource for those teachers.

This understanding was the impetus for creating SciREN last year. Building on the success of their first workshop last April, Theuerkauf and Ridge wanted to do more. Morehead City, home to the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, is a hotbed of marine science activity with labs from Duke, NC State and federal and state institutions. As such, it seemed only natural to turn to other researchers to help expand SciREN.

Duke University Marine Lab doctoral students Heather Heenehan and Alyse Larkin understand that outreach is a vital component to any research program today. They are actively involved with Invite a Scientist, a program run by NC Science Festival to engage dedicated scientists willing to share their excitement for science with middle school classrooms across the state. This opportunity has given Larkin and Heenehan insight into translating their research for the real world. But learning how to create broader impacts from your science can be daunting to many scientists.

Together, the UNC and Duke students saw an opportunity to make this network beneficial to both the scientists and the teachers.

“We start with a daylong training session for the scientists, led by Heather and Alyse with the help of some local teachers,” said Theuerkauf. “Here we learn how to translate our science effectively, how to create a lesson plan and what teachers need to address in their learning standards.”

The scientists then create lesson plans that they present to teachers during the workshop, which is designed to encourage conversations and mingling among scientists and teachers.

“It works out well,” said Heenehan. “The teachers help us learn effective ways to share our research, and then we turn around and give them new tools to take into their classrooms.”

With the new faces and enthusiastic feedback from last year’s event, the UNC-Duke collaboration has yielded huge results. More than 115 teachers from across North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina have signed up for the event and 80 scientists from UNC, Duke, NC State, East Carolina University and UNC-Wilmington, as well as federal and state agencies and local not-for-profits. The hope is to bring this event to the Triangle next year for teachers unable to make the drive to the coast.

“We have a tight knit marine science community down here at the coast. Events like SciREN help to further strengthen those relationships,” said Avery Paxton, an IMS graduate student and part of the organizing team. “We are too close down here to let rivalries stand in the way.”

By Kerry Irish, UNC Institute of Marine Sciences

Published Feb. 20, 2014