NSF grant funds ‘HERPS’ studies in Elon Academy

Assistant Professor Terry Tomasek’s herpetology lessons on turtles, lizards & more are meant to spark interest in science & science careers.

Assistant Professor Terry Tomasek: “What we can do with this grant will offer students the opportunity to see the world differently, and to see themselves differently.”

High school scholars enrolled in the Elon Academy will have an opportunity to study reptiles and amphibians in North Carolina over the next three years with additional site visits to beaches and mountains funded by a National Science Foundation grant.

Scholars will conduct scientific projects and share their newly acquired knowledge in formal and informal venues.

The NSF awarded a $2.7 million grant to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Elon University for their Herpetology Education in Rural Places and Spaces program. “HERPS” aims to educate the public on local reptiles and amphibians and better assist high school students in developing an interest in science.

Of that grant, nearly $300,000 supports the Elon Academy, an academic enrichment and college access program for Alamance County students with no family history of college or financial need. It also goes toward local community “Celebration” events to teach residents about the snakes, frogs, lizards and salamanders that populate their own backyards.

Assistant Professor Tomasek serves as the co-investigator at Elon. She said she plans to focus on working with Elon Academy students who may have never considered careers in science.

Students from Terry Tomasek’s Elon Academy herpetology class.

“I’m helping them try on a science identity that might have been inherently present but not supported or nurtured,” she said. “By engaging students in conservation and field ecology scientific studies, we hope to help students to develop a sense of place, a connection to the local environment, and the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in scientific endeavors.

“What we can do with this grant will offer students the opportunity to see the world differently, and to see themselves differently.”

The grant is the latest in a string of NSF awards to Elon University faculty. Since the summer, the National Science Foundation has awarded funding for programs on campus to train future teachers of science, math, engineering and technology. It is also funding work by a computing sciences faculty member tasked with designing software to show beginner programmers where security flaws exist in their code.

Tomasek’s share of the grant covers participant support as well as travel costs over the next three years for Elon Academy scholars from her summertime herpetology class. The group traveled already this fall to the North Carolina coast for a weekend of camping on the beach as it discovered the habitats of sea turtles that nest in the area.

Elon Academy leaders said they were thrilled at news of the NSF grant.

“Because our students come from families where there’s not a history of college, they don’t really have a lot of people in their world who are scientists. They really aren’t aware of some of the options they might have,” said Professor Deborah Long, director of the Elon Academy. “Exposing them to a whole new field of work is amazing. And we know some of the students in Dr. Tomasek’s classes have already made the decision to go to college to major in the sciences.”

Part of the larger grant is for three community events around the state, including one to be held May 12, 2012, in Alamance County’s Cedar Rock Park to introduce reptiles and amphibians to visitors. Booths and exhibits will be arranged, and Elon Academy students will conduct herpetology lessons. There will also be a focus on storytelling as an aspect of science literacy with a Native American storyteller.

The purposes of the community events are to ignite a passion for the state’s reptiles and amphibians, Tomasek said, and to promote the public’s participation in scientific research through citizen science.

Among the other components under development at UNCG and UNC Pembroke are ongoing longitudinal studies involving scientists and citizen scientists; and an online resource portal providing maps, databases, reptile and amphibian identification tools and more.

Tomasek, who in May received the School of Education’s Excellence in Teaching Award, joined the Elon faculty in 2006 as she completed her doctorate studies at the UNC Greensboro. She earlier earned her master’s degrees in teaching and biology from Marshall University. A longtime educator, Tomasek taught math and science in middle and high schools after receiving her undergraduate degree from the University of South Florida.