Designing and Running a Teacher Research Training Workshop

I. Big Picture


This site explores how to best support teachers/students so that they can conduct real research, collecting monitoring or research data for land managers and scientists. We also advocate teachers utilizing reflective conceptual modeling that enhances their learning of ecosystem concepts.

Professional development is critical to reforming science education. By immersing teachers in ecological research experience, you are providing them with a deeper understanding of science and research skills. This is critical in preparing teachers to do authentic ecology research with their students. Research continues to show that student achievement is highly dependent on teacher expertise and that teaching is most effective when the teacher knows well beyond the level of content knowledge they are required to teach (Darling-Hammond, 1999). This depth of knowledge can be developed during trainings through scientific literature and experiences, and through interaction with experts in the field (NRC, 1996).

Collaborations between scientists and student volunteers have the potential to broaden the scope of research and enhance the ability to collect scientific data. Engaged students may contribute valuable information as they learn about science in their local communities. Because students will be global citizens, they need to love and appreciate the planet in order for it to be sustained. By teaching teachers ecological research techniques and giving their students a chance to have hands on experiences, the students' stewardship attitudes are expected to improve.

There are many strategies for professional development. The ones described here are a combination of two strategies: "immersion in the world of a scientist" and "immersion into science inquiry". We have found that teachers benefit from having experiences based upon the same principals as the ones they are expected to teach. Teachers who have a first hand experience with research are better equipped to teach science in their own classrooms. Most teachers find it rewarding to become members of a research team. Not only are they immersed in science inquiry, but they experience it the way a practicing scientist uses it.

Developing an effective professional development workshop requires that you first select relevant ecological research topics to provide an immersion experience. Deep science content knowledge must be included throughout the workshop to provide the background information necessary for participants to expand their understandings. Scientific literature and collaboration with scientists are effective ways to deepen science content knowledge. You should expect to develop long-term professional partnerships with teachers to build an active learning community. In addition, you should become familiar with the use of reflective modeling. Reflective modeling provides the transition between observing what occurred in the field and understanding ecological complexity as it occurs in natural systems. Connections between field experiences and science content are strengthened through reflective models, which show connections between variables and require interpretation of those connections. Through these components, participants will come away from the workshop with a more thorough understanding of ecological systems, their processes, and science as a whole.

Teachers are professionals with their own specialized knowledge. The atmosphere of your workshop must be deeply rooted in respect for the capabilities of teachers. In order to make sure that participants are able to build on their existing knowledge and skills, the workshop leaders should recognize that teachers already have their own diverse ideas about scientific phenomenon. What they already know influences what new material they are able to acquire. The social environment can greatly enhance how they mediate their prior knowledge with new knowledge. By offering teachers a chance to have direct experiences with ecological phenomena, positive interactions with other teachers and scientists, and an opportunity to participate in a research project from start to completion, they have a good change of being successful.

Teaching ecology requires some special considerations, due to the nature of the science. Ecological knowledge relies on the understanding of how a variety of systems interact and the interdependence with one another.  

Understanding the concept of systems is a critical piece in understanding ecology. "The idea of systems helps make sense of a large and complex world. A system has parts that can be understood separately, but the whole cannot be understood completely without recognizing the relationships among its parts. Systems are nested within other systems. In fact, human well being is inextricably bound with environmental quality. We and the systems we create-our societies, politics, economics, cultural activities, technologies-affect the systems and cycles of the rest of nature. Since we are 'in' the system, a part of nature rather than outside it, we are challenged to recognize the ramifications of our interdependence." (p. 3, Guidelines for the Initial Preparation of Environmental Educators)


Teaching ecology requires some special considerations, due to the nature of the science. Ecological knowledge relies on the understanding of how a variety of systems interact and the interdependence with one another. 

The Value of First-Hand Experience:

“Researchers have shown that participation in outdoor learning experiences is a promising technique for improving children’s environmental attitudes and knowledge” (Bodzin 2008).

Hands-on, interactive, authentic, place-based learning has been shown to be greatly beneficial for students.  Well developed and executed outdoor activities lead to stronger knowledge of the topic being covered, greater empathy and willingness to protect the environment, maintain student interest in science, improve understanding of scientific processes and clarify ecological concepts (Kenney et al. 2003; Barnett et al. 2006; Manzanal et al. 1999). 

II. Pre-Workshop

Have teachers learn basic research practices to understand concepts about the Nature of Science. Carry out a complete research project, in depth, to provide skills and confidence to complete future research with their own students. Provide exposure to the possible research projects that are applicable at a particular site. Have teachers learn about a new development in the field of ecology. (for example, during a follow-up weekend workshop)

Because the teachers will be using the learned techniques with their students, it is not advisable to mix the types of teachers. In order for the protocols to be accessible to elementary students, they will need to be implemented in a simplified way. Elementary teachers will need a protocol that is more simplistic, with fewer steps for their students. More advanced protocols can be taught for use with middle and high school students without the need for adaptations. Training these groups of teachers separately will minimize the extent of differing needs for students, thus keeping training most focused on the present group.

Dates: Weekends during the academic year or summer?

Length: one day events are insufficient but sometimes the only option, one week or a series of weekends is better, two weeks is more optimal, longer than that is ideal...

Location: At a school, university, science research facility, etc. Value of holding workshop at a research site with lodging, or camping out over at least a few evenings, for building social bonds among group. (Are reservations needed?)

It is also important to hold trainings, "Close to home, encouraging learners to explore and understand their...surroundings. The sensitivity, knowledge, and skills gained by forging this local connection provide a base for moving out into larger systems, broader issues, and a lifetime of learning about causes, connections and consequences." (p. 3, Guidelines for the Initial Preparation of Environmental Educators)

Cost: How will the training be funded? Funding from outside source? Teachers cover themselves? What is included (lunch, materials)? Do teachers receive a stipend?

Recruitment of Teachers:

Start recruitment significantly before the workshop. We send out flyers in early January. This is especially critical for summer workshops since many teachers sign a contract months in advance to teach summer school. Get as much background information as possible about your audience so that you know their previous exposure to field work, courses in ecology taken, what they are doing already in the classroom, what kinds of student research they might have done. If possible, provide a choice of research projects they might want to participate in during the training. Click here to see a sample recruitment flyer.

Email search for local schools, contact principals, specialists in the school, department heads, school district list serves. Offer education credits through your university as a minimum, stipends to defray costs if possible, and fun locations to entice participation.

Advertise that teachers can learn how to conduct research (benefits to them professionally) and can then implement research with their entire class. See "Why Host a Teacher Training Workshop?" for more details on benefits to student learning.

Involving Scientists- It is essential that teachers be paired with practicing scientists. You may need to recruit scientists who are already interested in helping educate the pre-college audience. Be specific on what you want them to cover, the background of the teachers in the workshop, and time commitments you are requesting. Let them know the educational level of the audience they are presenting to.

Show the benefits to them through testimonials from past participating scientists/community partners.

Line up other guest speakers, for example, community leaders or local land managers. Explain why you might need their help, perhaps for future work with students in their own local community. Tell them about concrete needs and questions, be specific about dates, times, overall commitment. Give them specific expectations for their involvement.

III. Holding Workshop (Suggestions)

Use Scientific research articles: Have a session on how teachers can use/better understand the latest ecological research and also some classical studies. Read, "Scientific Communication: Understanding Scientific Journals and Articles" and "How to Read Primary Literature" for more information.

Access these articles through a link to the local library, also the general information network website link.

Suggestion: To teach how to better read the articles use the jigsaw method (break into groups) and/or by breaking a scientific article into the parts of the scientific method (something that the teachers are already familiar with).

Choosing Field Research Protocols:

Have teachers choose from a list you have provided ahead of time based on the research done at your site, research done by participating scientists, or based upon a specific theme you have chosen for your training. If you have the scientist take the lead on the research project, it may be possible for him or her to set up the experiment ahead of time. For example, in doing a leaf litter decomposition study, the litter bags need to be buried for a number of months before they can be analyzed. The lead scientist can set up the parameters of the study, have the litter bags filled, weighed, and buried in advance of the teacher workshop. If teacher participants are known ahead of time, these teachers can be involved in setting up the study. Teachers could alternatively participate in only the final part of the research project; retreiving the bags, drying, weighing and comparing the weights.

Have examples of projects other teachers have done during their training. Click here to see a variety of examples from past teacher workshops around the country.

Link to our Research Protocols on Ecoplexity:

There are currently 44 protocols available on the website covering a wide array of topics including: arthropods, mammals, biochemical processes, vegetation cover and much more! Click here to view all protocols.

It has been our experience that teacher participants are only likely to use the protocols they have directly experienced in their own teaching. Therefore, your choice of which protocols to use is important.

Interpreting the results is an especially critical step, as it engages higher order thinking skills and synthesizes the steps of the process. This experience actively engages teachers in the process of scientific research and demonstrates the process of inquiry based learning that students will engage in. Through this experience teachers gain skills and knowledge necessary for classroom implementation (Shepardson, Harbor, Cooper & McDonald).

Supporting Teachers Through the Research Process

  • Make sure the research question is concrete.
  • Include link to data analysis page. (Reminder: STOP make sure you go through the walkthrough!!)
  • Emphasize the need for data analysis. Interpreting data using pre-set protocols are the essence of inquiry and necessary for making sense of an experiment. It is the only way to evaluate a hypothesis adequately.
  • Emphasize the need to figure out how you will analyze data during the study design phase of the project, NOT after the data have been collected.
  • Maintain a positive atmosphere during the workshop. Establishing and sustaining relationships will foster partnerships and create a foundation for reciprocal learning between all participants. If the atmosphere of a workshop generates interest, dialogue, and discussion, then future communication pathways can be initiated. The enjoyment of a workshop contributes to the receptiveness of its participants

IV. Post-Workshop