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Professor of Ecology Working on NEON Project

By Taliesin Nyala 07F

Professor of Ecology Charlene D’Avanzo is applying her passion for science education to the largest ecological project in history.

Over the past decade, more than 100 scientists and educators have worked together to reimagine science and education. In 2016, when construction is completed, the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) will be the first “continental-scale research platform” for monitoring and understanding impacts of climate change, invasive species, and land use, according to an article recently published in Science Magazine.

“It is the ecologists’ Hubble Telescope,” says D’Avanzo, co-author of that article. “This is the first time there has ever been anything on this scale for ecologists.”

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), NEON is committed to ecological research and education, inviting students, teachers, and other citizens to work alongside ecologists in gathering data and disseminating knowledge in interactive ways.

Construction has begun in Boulder, Colorado, on a pilot site to allow ecologists to begin working with the most advanced technology available for accurate and precise measurement of ecosystem effects on and responses to the nation’s most pressing environmental challenges. This site eventually will be connected by advanced cyber-infrastructure with 20 other “eco-climatic domains” across the U.S, including in Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

NEON is about melding scientific research with education to help citizens, managers, policy makers, and others make better decisions with excellent environmental information. Making science engaging and accessible is where D’Avanzo excels.

For the past 15 years, D’Avanzo has been interested in helping professors to teach science better, particularly biology. “I consider myself a translator between biology faculty who want to improve their teaching but don’t know what to do and cognitive researchers who are studying learning,” she says.

D’Avanzo’s passion for science education developed over a decade ago after years as a marine ecologist, and she has made a name for herself in science education and faculty development. She is lead editor and architect of an online peer-reviewed publication of the Ecological Society of America, Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology (TIEE). Two years ago, she started the Center for Teaching and Learning at Hampshire to assist faculty in honing their classroom teaching skills, stating that it is “one of the best things I’ve done in my life.”

Recognizing D’Avanzo’s knowledge and expertise in science education, NEON’s CEO, Hampshire alum Dave Schimel 73F, brought her on board in NEON’s early stages to work on a strategic plan to ensure NEON was fulfilling its mission of developing research and education in tandem. She organized a group of individuals from diverse backgrounds in the creation of that document, which was finished in 2008.

D’Avanzo co-wrote the article in Science with Margaret Lowman of New College in Florida and Carol Brewer of the University of Montana in Missoula. Now that NEON has been introduced to the wider community, she plans to step back from the project and focus on other aspects of ecology and biology education. Working with education researchers from Michigan State and other universities, D’Avanzo is principle investigator on another NSF grant-funded project “to improve how general biology is taught nationally.”

Finding her passion in the field of science education, she says, “was like a light bulb turning on. All of a sudden I knew I what I really wanted to do.”

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