Pat Peterson, an AP biology and chemistry teacher from Kintnerville, Pennsylvania.
|"A basic tool of an observer of nature is a very careful eye," says Pat Peterson, who teaches AP
biology and chemistry at Palisades High School in Kintnerville, Pennsylvania. "You remember the Sherlock Holmes story where he asks Watson how many steps there
are between the street and the door to his flat? When Watson doesn't know, Holmes says sternly, 'You see, but you do not observe.' I use that story at the
beginning of every single course I teach." She continues, "When I come up my driveway and see little bits of horsetail hair on the fence, I know a horse needs
worming because she's itchy and rubbing up against the posts. If I see some damaged day lilies, I know the geese have come through my field. If you're familiar
with a biological system, these little tiny observations provide a real key to understanding what's going on within it." A Teacher in Residence this year at the
American Museum of Natural History, Pat makes the development of observation skills a key part of her curriculum.
Pat comes from a family of scientists, but trained as a classical clarinetist and considered going to conservatory. She credits a wonderful science teacher, a
Latvian immigrant, for sparking her interest in a teaching career. This teacher started Pat doing science projects, beginning with a microbial study of milk in
7th grade and culminating in a project in 11th grade on the side effects of early antibiotics, such as streptomycin, on plant growth. "It was the era of Silent
Spring, and the project got a lot of attention," Pat recalls. Her teacher's imaginative mentoring, which continued right through high school, set an example
that the young science student decided to follow. At the end of high school, she attended a state teachers college and then got a master's degree in
microbiology-biochemistry at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Pat also credits the chairman of the science department at Wilton High School in Wilton,
Connecticut, where she first taught, with showing her that "I could translate my own curiosity about nature into the classroom in a way that could excite
A Crack at Deep-Sea Research
Pat experienced "a wonderful way to get a window on the workings of science" when she took part in a scientific expedition 200 miles off the coast of
Washington State. She was participating in a program called Research and Education: Volcanoes, Exploration, and Life
(REVEL), which brings educators onboard a research vessel as assistants to scientists conducting deep-ocean
research, and encourages them to develop related classroom exercises. The program fit perfectly with Pat's philosophy. "I believe that a teacher shouldn't be
between the science and the learner but alongside the learner as a mentor, and you both do science," she explains. "You just have different intellectual and
mechanical tools, because of experience."
As part of REVEL, Pat conducts tubeworm research aboard the R/V Atlantis with Dr. Paul Tyler of the University of Southampton. Dr. Tyler is a deep ocean scientist specializing in reproductive biology of vent animals.
© Pat Petersen
|The scientists on board the Research Vessel (R/V) Atlantis were investigating a unique biological community which thrives around superheated vents on the
deep-ocean floor. Pat's first project was working with a zoologist from the University of Vienna, who was studying the development of the tubeworm. In order
to document the development of a rudimentary mouth opening, she isolated and dissected juvenile tubeworms "a very difficult task, because they're only a few
tenths of a millimeter long and are difficult to find," says Pat.
This excerpt from Pat's REVEL field notebook shows important documentation of a much younger tubeworm. It is 0.2mm in length, and it's upside down (drawn exactly as it was positioned in the microscope). Only two forming gills were present, and extending laterally is what is believed to be a rudimentary mouth.
© Pat Petersen
A second project came about quite by chance, when some of the biosampling equipment brought
up tiny, deep-ocean copepods. According to Pat, "they look like little water fleas, barely visible, and bright red. Nobody on the research crew could answer
my naive question: 'Why are they red?' To me, the red looked like hemoglobin, not like the pigmentation of a crab, for example." Using a glass micropipette, she
collected three or four thousand animals, flash froze them, and sent them back to the Penn State lab of a colleague, Dr. Chuck Fisher. One of her students
worked with Fisher over the summer, "and it turned out that these little copepods did have hemoglobin, and a very interesting kind!" Pat recounts with a grin.
The original findings of this unlikely team a high school student, a high school teacher, and a well known, deep-ocean scientist were published in the Biological
Bulletin in Fall 2000.
Pat's Observation Tools
Pat pulls out her field journal from the trip, a 6"x9" spiral notebook, which contains virtually everything that happened on the REVEL expedition. The
left-hand page contains all of Pat's observations, along with any additional evidence from the ship's library and a myriad of detailed scientific drawings.
On the facing page is documentation: "everything I saw or thought while I was doing that research," she explains, "all the questions that I had. Except for
the drawings, it's all in pen, because you don't want the record to smear. You want it to last."
Another excerpt from the REVEL field notebook Pat uses in class. A sketch of a young juvenile tubeworm after micro-dissection from its tube. It measured approximately 3mm in length with three rows of gills, troposome, and
dorsal blood vessel. (click image to enlarge)
© Pat Petersen
Her notebooks are one of the tools, along with sample copepods and a slide collection, that Pat uses to communicate her shipboard experience to her students.
"I read them journal entries so they can see how important it is to observe little tiny things things that may not make any sense in the present but do on
reflection and put them down on paper." After showing her students how she participated in active science, Pat asks her students to do the same. "In any unit
of study, I introduce the students to a biological system and the tools we're going to use to study it. They use the tools to noodle around and look at whatever
interests them in that system. Then, once we're all familiar with it, they must ask a question and develop a line of inquiry."
For instance, Pat might teach them how to use a microscope to study pondwater. Then she supports the students in developing their inquiries. "If they ask, 'How
big is that organism?' I say, 'Maybe you should make something to measure it with.' Or they'll say, 'Is this thing really common?' and I'll say, 'I don't know;
why don't you try several water samples from different places?' Or they might ask, 'Is this an animal or a plant?' and I'll say, 'Take a look at everything else
around it. Is there anything that makes this thing look special or different? What do animals have that plants don't?'" She also guides the students to
textbooks and other references they can use to support their inquiry.
Applying Skills in the Field
Pat's students go on field trips "from when I first get them in 9th grade, because they can explore right outside the classroom door," she says. "Completing the
field notebook is a discipline in itself, because it forces you to focus. And it also records the wonder of what it is that you're investigating, so you can
look back on it and reflect." Every year, she takes a group of juniors and seniors to the national park on St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where they
must have a notebook and develop a research project. "For the full ten days the students are in firsthand contact with scientific research," she comments
happily. "Students develop all kinds of questions. One might be, 'Why is it that when I take a crab out of water and turn it around, it always manages to head
right back towards the sea?' Or, 'Can I make the fish bump into each other?' The kids have so many questions that the hardest part is to figure out which to
"Firsthand contact with phenomena of the natural world is what science really is," Pat declares. "If students come up with that firsthand inquiry somewhere
along the line, it becomes so motivating that it can really trigger a lifetime of interest in science."