Indiana State University Newsroom

Science teachers learn lessons during research trip

June 27, 2010

Elaina Hughbanks strained as she steadily twisted the borer into the soft wood of the ponderosa pine tree until her knuckles rubbed against the puzzle pieces of bark.

"I'm going to feel that tomorrow," the Linton-Stockton High School science teacher said with a chuckle as she pulled the core sample out of the borer.

Hughbanks and Joe Ladwig, a science teacher at Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington, joined an Indiana State University professor and six students in California to conduct research on the Pandora moth and how they affect ponderosa and Jeffrey pine trees. Pandora moth larvae eat the needles of pine trees, causing the trees' growth to diminish. This, in turn, creates management issues for the U.S. Forest Service.

ISU Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Systems Jim Speer is investigating the range and impact of Pandora moths throughout the Western United States.

"I never was with a group that went on research trips," Hughbanks said about studying chemistry at Indiana State for her undergraduate degree. "My research was primarily in a little room with a couple of machines in the basement. It was very isolating and disconnected from the outside world. One of the major things that I get a sense of here is I'm not just doing it, I'm in it."

That being "in it" included hiking during the day to find old-growth trees to core. Then at night it meant catching moths to try to find Pandoras before retiring to a tent to sleep. It also meant collaborating with the undergraduate and graduate students on the trip.

Ladwig called the field work, "an opportunity of a lifetime for a teacher."

"It's about life-long learning," he said. "It's about being engaged in your craft. It's about expanding your knowledge base and making more connections...It's all connected. It's all a circle, not in a pantheistic way, but all of our knowledge base is connected. All of our science is connected. All the mathematics is connected. All the topics at school literally are connected into this milieu of the synaptic connectivity in your head."

Connections to Speer brought both teachers into the trip during a time when though universities have finished for the summer, high schools are still going strong. Hughbanks met Speer through a graduate class at Indiana State. Ladwig met Speer through the Geography Educator's Network of Indiana.

School administrators approved both teachers to miss their teaching load for one week because of what the teachers would gain. Speer, who also is director of science education at Indiana State, said the experience gives the teachers experience to take back to the classroom.

"I think if we want to motivate students to become scientists in the future, they have to know that we don't know everything, that it's not all written down already," he said. "The exciting part is that we can go out and figure things out for ourselves."

Ladwig and Hughbanks hope to take their experiences and openness for investigation back to their students.

"It's the fact that I was out here," Ladwig said. "That's a valuable thing for students to know. I've sat in classrooms - we've sat in classrooms - and said, ‘Yea, but does he have any idea? Has he really done any of that stuff or is he just saying what the book says?'"

It is easy for teachers to tidily box their subjects within curriculum and standards, to only prepare their students for an assessment test, Hughbanks said.

"As teachers going back out in the field, this gets us out of that mindset and opens us back up to probably why most of us are science teachers: because we love the science," she said. "We want to share that with the kids."

As part of that, the two teachers collected a box of samples including the bark of a ponderosa pine, pine cones and granite rocks to show their students.

"People have got to have something to touch, to smell," Ladwig said. "They've got to be able to smell the vanilla in the tree."

Now, his and Hughbanks' students can sniff the trees' bark for themselves to determine the vanilla scent of a ponderosa pine versus the citrus scent of a Jeffrey pine.

"At some point, I'd like to bring high school students out as well, hopefully maybe Elaina's and Joe's if we come out and do field work next summer," Speer said. "Now that the teachers have some connection with the project, hopefully, their students will get engaged in it."

As part of that engagement, Indiana State students who participated in the research trip will visit Ladwig and Hughbank's classes in the fall to discuss their research.

"I think this kind of experience is really important for bringing colleges and high schools kind of closer and letting the students see what is really out there, what happens," Hughbanks said.

"We're going to be able to touch a bunch of kids who've never had a real geologist come to visit," Ladwig said.

By taking away additional knowledge from the field research experience, the teachers will have more to pass along to their students.

"We're just overwhelmed with how amazing this experience is for us and our students," Hughbanks said. "Even though they're not here, we're going to bring back so much information and so much enthusiasm, resources and contacts. We're going to give so much to our students and our entire schools as well."

Photo:  Elaina Hughbanks, Linton-Stockton High School science teacher, slides a paper straw over a core to protect it. (ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking)

Photo: Joe Ladwig works to core a tree in the Cleveland National Forest near Pine Valley, Calif. (ISU Photo/ Jennifer Sicking)

Contact: Jim Speer, associate professor of geography and geology, 812 237-3011, 

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or