Archive for October, 2013

Smith Leads a Science Transformation

Thursday, October 24th, 2013


A University of Maine researcher is participating in five projects aimed at improving nationwide science instruction and assessments.

Michelle Smith, assistant professor in UMaine’s School of Biology and Ecology, is the principal investigator on four projects and co-principal investigator on another granted $6.8 million in total funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF); UMaine’s portion is $1,012,269.

The projects, three of which are collaborative with other universities, involve UMaine administrators, faculty, postdoctoral and graduate students, undergraduates and area K-12 teachers. “All of these stakeholders … will contribute to national initiatives to improve science education,” says Smith, a member of the Maine Center for Research in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Education (Maine RiSE Center).

In August, Smith was returning from a reunion with family members when she learned about the possible funding. “We stopped for lunch and I looked down at my phone and realized my inbox was full of messages from the NSF requesting that I provide them with more information on four different grants within 48 hours,” she says. “I told my family they had to eat ‘right now’ because we had to get home.”

Susan McKay, UMaine professor of physics and director of the Maine RiSE Center, as well as Smith and several other colleagues, will receive $299,998 to transform K-12 STEM education by restructuring teaching methods courses to align with national standards. They’ll also work to attract and retain STEM majors in college as educators and form partnerships with area school districts.

Researchers say the project could make a difference in Maine, where more than 50 percent of students in more than half the school districts are eligible for free or reduced lunch and the resource-based economy could benefit from more technology jobs.

Smith and colleagues MacKenzie Stetzer, Susan McKay and Jeff St. John will receive $249,851 to establish a UMaine program to broaden use of evidence-based teaching and learner-centered practices in STEM courses. UMaine faculty and area K-12 teachers will observe and document instruction in university STEM courses. Their data will be used to develop workshops targeting faculty members’ needs and implement innovative teaching practices.

Smith will receive $219,966 of a $528,459 collaborative project to develop assessments called Bio-MAPS (Biology-Measuring Achievement and Progression in Science) that gauge whether undergraduate college biology students understand core concepts. The University of Washington and University of Colorado-Boulder are partners in the endeavor “to articulate common learning goals and monitor longitudinal student learning in biology.”

The assessments will identify areas in biology in which students struggle. They’ll also help two-year community colleges evaluate how effectively they’re preparing students to transfer to four-year institutions. Assessment data will inform faculty about where changes need to be made in the biology curriculum.

Smith will also receive $187,968 to expand a national network for open-ended assessments called Automated Assessment of Constructed Response (AACR) in which computer software programs analyze answers of students in large-enrollment science courses. The assessments provide more insight into student thinking on common conceptual difficulties than multiple-choice questions.

Michigan State, the University of Colorado-Boulder, the University of Georgia, and Stony Brook University, are also participating in the $5 million project, in which researchers will create a community Web portal to improve alliances among STEM education researchers and promote nationwide implementation of innovative instruction materials.

Smith will receive $54,486 of a $718,000 collaborative award with four other universities to build a national network of Faculty Learning Communities (FLCs) that provide professional development opportunities so more faculty can use constructed response assessments to reform teaching in biology. UMaine faculty members Seanna Annis, Farahad Dastoor and Brian Olsen will work with Smith to develop the UMaine FLC.

The project seeks to provide insight into factors that facilitate or hamper faculty using modified teaching materials and practices. It also lays the foundation for a national network of FLCs and subject-based virtual communities with access to real-time automated analysis of AACR assessment items, faculty-developed teaching resources and support.

Smith, who says she chose a faculty position at UMaine in order to work with fantastic researchers and supportive peers, appreciates that her colleagues helped her think about research questions and mentored her during the grant-writing process.

She’s also grateful for the contributions of K-12 teachers. “The pilot data the K-12 teachers collected about university-level STEM instruction was featured in the grant to broaden use of evidence-based teaching and learner-centered practices in STEM courses,” Smith says. “That grant earned the highest scores of any I submitted. My colleagues and I are incredibly lucky to work with such a talented group of teachers who are also excellent researchers.”

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Deep-Sea Dive Discoveries

Thursday, October 24th, 2013


A research team recommending that greater conservation measures be applied to two rare, dense coral garden communities that it discovered in the Gulf of Maine has three University of Maine connections.

Rhian Waller, associate research professor at UMaine’s Darling Marine Center in Walpole; Steven Auscavitch, master’s candidate in marine biology; and Les Watling, Professor Emeritus in the School of Marine Sciences and now a faculty member at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, were part of the team headed by Peter Auster of the University of Connecticut that found two deep-sea coral communities in July 2013 in the western Jordan Basin and Schoodic Ridge regions of the Gulf of Maine.

While deep-sea octocorals have been in the Gulf at least since the late 19th century when fishermen delivered them to museums as bycatch, researchers say bottom-scraping fishing gear has reduced their presence to small refuges. Due to the corals’ vulnerability and sensitivity to disturbance, the team advised that spatially explicit protection measures be applied to them.

“Discovering these lush coral gardens in the Gulf of Maine was an amazing experience this summer; some of the large coral trees we saw were over 2 meters high and have been growing in these protected pockets for an extremely long period of time,” Waller says. “These corals provide really important habitat for many of our local fisheries species, so finding areas where these corals have survived intense fishing pressure is a real boost to our understanding of habitat diversity and functioning in the Gulf of Maine.”

The team located the two deep-sea coral communities at depths greater than 200 meters. The topography was complex and areas with steep vertical rock faces had the highest densities of octocorals, say the researchers. The large-bodied corals extend up into the water and capture food with their hollow tentacles.

Pandalid shrimp were frequently found with the coral colonies, says the team. In addition, the team viewed Acadian redfish taking cover in the corals and saw Atlantic cod, cusk, pollock and silver hake catching prey among the octocorals.

Morgan Kilgour of UConn and David Packer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also took part in the research. The team’s preliminary findings, “Octocoral gardens in the Gulf of Maine (NW Atlantic)” were published Oct. 16 in the online edition of Biodiversity.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

New England Funding Program Combines Resources for Agricultural Research

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Assessing the potential for emergence of new cropland weeds in northern New England as a result of climate change is the focus of the first study to be supported by the Northern New England Collaborative Research Funding Program.

The program is a partnership of the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station at the University of Maine, the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of New Hampshire, and the Vermont Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Vermont. The goal of the program is to mobilize coordinated research on high-priority needs for the region.

The program awards a two-year seed grant to regional research teams through an annual competition, with priority given to teams that have the potential to serve northern New England beyond the proposed study.

The program’s initial priority area focuses on adaptation to and mitigation of climate change in relation to agriculture.

“One of the reasons we chose to encourage more research related to climate change is that is has the potential to impact almost every element of agriculture,” Frederick Servello, associate director of the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station, says. “Whether it’s crops or livestock or pest problems or disease problems, all have a potential to be affected by changes in climate.”

Servello, who is also the associate dean for research in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture and a wildlife ecology professor at UMaine, clarifies that the program’s intent is less about studying climate and more about understanding the effects of climate change, such as changing temperature and precipitation, on current agricultural practices and determining how to take advantage of those changes to improve agriculture in the future.

The proposed research may address specific agricultural issues, needs or opportunities within the context of climate change and variability or address the topic more broadly. The research must address issues or needs important to all three participating states and must be more effective and efficient conducted as a regional project than it would be as independent state projects.

Eric Gallandt, an associate professor of weed ecology and management at the University of Maine, is one of five co-principal investigators of the cropland weeds study along with researchers from UNH and UVM.

The project, which runs from June 1, 2013 to May 31, 2015, aims to assess the potential for and prediction of range expansion in a variety of common and rare weed species as a consequence of climate change and to develop strategies to reduce effects on growers.

The group predicts ongoing environmental changes will make new habitats suitable for both native and invasive weeds in northern New England, creating more problems for weed management and potentially added costs to growers.

“Knowledge of weed biology and ecology is increasingly important to guide management,” Gallandt says. “Predicting tomorrow’s weed communities, and knowledge of the genetic variability in existing weed species will allow us to begin working on management strategies and educational programs that will help northern New England farmers adapt to changing weed problems.”

The goal of the project is to establish a knowledge base for planning responses to a variety of possible changes in weed pressures and effects on agriculture in the region. Researchers will collect this data by defining the current distributions of cropland weed species in the area and the environmental characteristics of each species’ suitable habitat.

The project also aims to integrate the research of weed scientists at all three universities, setting the stage for follow-up projects among the institutions that would have a greater chance of attracting funding from other sources.

Seed bank germination studies conducted by Gallandt in 2010 determined the principal cropland weeds for Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. The results of his study helped lay the foundation of the cropland weeds project.

The group believes although their initial focus is on weeds, the idea of assessing agriculturally relevant species and genetic diversity in relation to habitat suitability and environmental change could also be applied to study insects and other pests, disease organisms and other biological factors related to agriculture.

“The NNE Collaborative Research Funding Program allowed us to initiate field, greenhouse and laboratory research that will characterize the existing weed flora across northern New England and develop essential proof-of-concept data sets that will allow our research team to compete for larger external grants to expand our efforts,” Gallandt says. “This year we sampled weed communities on 30 Maine farms and genetic analysis of selected species is underway at the sequencing lab at the University of New Hampshire’s Hubbard Center for Genomic Studies.”

Servello said the cropland weed study was chosen as the first project to be funded by the Northern New England Collaborative Research Funding Program because of the important results to come from the two-year study as well as its potential as a multiyear effort.

“What we saw was a dynamic team, a first-class proposal and an important question for all three states,” Servello says.

Over the past several years, the experiment station directors have been discussing ways to best work together to address common research needs, according to Servello.

The directors heard about a similar collaborative program at a meeting in another region of the country in 2012 and immediately began organizing to initiate the Northern New England Collaborative Research Funding Program.

“We’re three universities in three neighboring states with a lot of similarities,” Servello says. “We’re in the same general region from an agricultural perspective, we have different skill sets at each university and different capabilities to address research problems. The thought was we could work together in a regionally coordinated way to be more effective.”

Servello says the program is the first of many discussions on ways the northern New England experiment stations can continue to work together.

“At first inclination you might think reducing duplicative effort between states is the big advantage here,” Servello says. “I think, what’s most important is bringing together the skill sets we have that can complement and reinforce each other into more effective teams to reach answers to these questions more quickly and effectively.”

Applications for the program’s 2014 seed grant are now being accepted. The deadline to apply is Feb. 6, 2014, and the winning research team will be announced Feb. 27, 2014.

The Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station is UMaine’s College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture’s center for applied and basic research in agriculture and food sciences, forestry and wood products, fisheries and aquaculture, wildlife, outdoor recreation, and rural economic development.

The station’s programs strive to enhance the profitability and sustainability of Maine’s natural resource-based industries, protect Maine’s environment, and improve the health of its citizens.