K-12 Teacher Lab and Field Externships, Hosted by University Researchers

Katharine Huntington, University of Washington-Seattle Campus
Author Profile


University researchers host K-12 teachers for field and/or lab "Externships" during the summer. Teachers earn continuing education clock hours and learn about research methods and findings through hands-on activities. Researchers practice explaining their science to a broad audience, and participants work together to design activities, projects or assignments for their students to enrich the classroom curriculum. The Externship model is easily adaptable for middle and high-school teachers, and a wide range of science topics. Example materials for high school teachers working with geologists studying paleoclimate and geochemistry are provided. Keywords: educational outreach, curriculum, high school, middle school, geology, laboratory, geochemistry, fieldwork, teacher professional development, integrating research and teaching, science communication.



Teacher professional development/educational outreach program run by university research group or laboratory.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Science teachers do not require any special skills before beginning the activity.

How the activity is situated in the course

The Externship is a summer activity that may stand alone. The same teacher(s) can participate in multiple summer Externships that build on each other from year to year. The Externship project can be linked with development of a Lab Field Trip program for students (Lab Field Trip program for K-12 students is described elsewhere in this database).


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Content goals vary by laboratory type.

The example Teacher Externship program described here includes content/concept goals investigated by performing fieldwork and sample collection for paleoclimate reconstruction in the Palouse Loess, WA, and sample preparation and analysis in the University of Washington IsoLab:
  • paleoclimate proxies
  • glacial geology of the Pacific Northwest, USA
  • stable isotope geochemistry
  • fieldwork (paleosols, loess, sedimentary geology)
  • sample collection, preparation and analysis
  • geologic time
  • geochronology (e.g., optically stimulated luminescence, radiocarbon dating)

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Critical evaluation of sampling strategy and methods
  • Interpretation of sedimentary deposits - Development of hypotheses to be tested by sample data
  • Application of geochemistry concepts to sample analysis.
  • Application of research concepts to high school curriculum development

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Science communication

Description and Teaching Materials

Also available at https://earthref.org/ERDA/2204/

Author: Katharine W. Huntington, University of Washington

Developed in collaboration with high school teachers and educators in Washington state, and University of Washington students, colleagues and laboratory members, with assistance from administrators from Highline School District (WA) and the UW in the High School program. Supported by U.S. National Science Foundation grants EAR-1252064, 1156134, and 0955309 to Huntington.

I. Introduction

University researchers host K-12 teachers for field and/or lab "Externships" during the summer. Teachers fulfill professional development requirements and learn about research methods and findings through hands-on activities. Researchers practice explaining their science to a broad audience, and participants work together to design activities, projects or assignments for their students to enrich the classroom curriculum. The Externship model is easily adaptable for middle and high-school teachers, and a wide range of science topics. Example materials for high school teachers working with geologists studying paleoclimate and geochemistry is provided.

II. Goals of the Externship Program

The goal of the Teacher Externship program is to bring together university researchers and K-12 science teachers in mutually beneficial activities that lead to lasting impacts in the classroom. Successful Externship programs are thoughtfully designed to minimize effort, maximize benefits, and encourage follow-through for everyone involved. To this end, Externship programs should:
  • Require limited PI time to set up, manage and document.
  • Rely on school district or university outreach staff to recruit teachers.
  • Benefit teachers by satisfying district professional development requirements, fostering collaboration among teachers, and providing a stipend if grant support is available.
  • Involve and benefit university students by providing mentorship and teaching opportunities and field/laboratory assistance.
  • Benefit high school students via lasting curriculum enhancements.
  • Benefit PIs by providing an efficient means to enhance the impact of their research, satisfy funding agency "Broader Impacts" requirements, and hone their own science communication and teaching skills.

III. Example Externship Program and Timeline

First, the PI defines the scope of the Externship and identifies research activities that are appropriate for teacher participation and fit naturally into the activities of the research group. For example, the scope might be~ 40 hours over 10 days of teacher participation, spread out over the summer or accomplished during a continuous period to accommodate the type of activity and the schedules of the participants. Appropriate activities may include shadowing research group members who conduct sample preparation work and analyses in a laboratory setting, or participating in fieldwork to collect samples, install sensors or conduct surveys. The activities should accommodate two or more teachers at a time; this makes it easier for the teachers to work together without direct supervision from research group members for many activities and for the curriculum development phase of the Externship.

A successful example conducted at the University of Washington included a 3-day fieldwork and camping experience followed by a laboratory experience and curriculum development project for two teachers. The Externship activities were conducted at the university lab and within driving distance of the university and school district. The example timeline and overview of activities is provided below:

Set-up: A couple of months into the academic year, the PI asked around the university for contacts at local school districts that serve highly diverse, underprivileged high school students, or university staff who work with such schools. The PI emailed and found a contact willing to help advertise the project and recruit teachers. In January, the PI confirmed with the district that the activity would qualify to earn the teachers Professional Development clock hours to fulfill their ongoing education requirements for employment (note: each state has its own requirements and procedures). The PI made a simple flier advertising the Externship experience, Continuing Education clock hours, and $1500 stipends for two teachers (supported by a NSF grant to the PI), and the district advertised the project. In March the PI received and evaluated applications from teachers, and in April informed the selected participants and met via Skype for a brief introduction and to schedule mutually acceptable dates for the summer activities.

Summer activities: In June-July, teachers participated in the camping field trip, and met for 3-4 hours of activity per day (total ~25-30 hours) on campus. The fieldwork was already planned as part of the PI's research program, minimizing the additional effort needed to include the teachers as field assistants. The on-campus activities primarily involved the teachers shadowing research team members in the lab, helping with simple sample preparation tasks, and collaborating with each other to design learning activities for their high-school students. These activities provided ample opportunity for hands-on learning and high-level discussions about research and teaching between participants and the research group, while requiring very limited research team supervision.

Day 1: The teachers met with the PI for an orientation to the research project, met research group members, and toured the lab with graduate students.

Days 2-4: The teachers accompanied research group members on the field trip, participating in informal discussions about the research project and science education en route, and assisting with sample collection while in the field.

Days 5-7: A week later, the teachers returned to the laboratory to shadow and assist lab members in different aspects of sample preparation and analysis.

Days 8-10: Two weeks later, the teachers met at the university to design an activity related to their experience with the research group that would enhance the curriculum in their high school classrooms. In this case, it was a lab activity on paleoclimate for a 9th grade general science class, integrated with a field trip for students to visit the university laboratory and participate in hands-on activities and a panel discussion aimed at demystifying higher education and STEM for their diverse and underprivileged student body. The PI checked in with the teachers at the beginning and end of each day and arranged for research group members to take turns checking in and brainstorming with the teachers. On the last day, the teachers formally wrote up their lesson plans for the lab activity and field trip curriculum and logistics and presented them to the PI.

Follow-up: The teachers taught the lab activity and brought their students to campus to participate in the lab field trip activity they had designed. The teachers handled logistics and most content, with content support from research team members and undergraduate volunteers.

All participants in the Externship Program reported a positive experience. The PI and teachers elected to continue collaborating on curriculum development and an large-scale annual laboratory field trip program for high school students.

The field trip program design was later incorporated into a research proposal by the PI, which was funded by NSF, providing graduate student RA support to organize the activity as well as logistical support for expanding the lab field trip activities. The lab field trip program ended up being successful and sustainable, supporting 75-150 high school students per year with assessments showing significant student learning gains. The Lab Field Trip program to increase STEM literacy and participation and diversity in science is described elsewhere on this database.

IV. Example Teacher Recruiting Flier

An example recruiting flier is provided in the supporting materials. A version of the flier was distributed broadly to recruit prospective teachers to participate in the Externship program by school district staff, university and other contacts.

"Earth Science and Climate Change Summer 2013 Field and Laboratory Experience for High School Teachers at the University of Washington"

Teacher Recruitment Flier for Externship program (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 139kB Jul25 16)


Assessment is done by
  • Exit interview (PI with teachers, and PI with research team members involved in the program), both to assess the teacher experience an the program itself.
  • Teacher completion of the assignment or curriculum content for K-12 students.
  • Implementation of the assignment or curriculum content for K-12 students in the classroom.

References and Resources

STEM Teacher Externships described by Washington Alliance for Better Schools, including assessment of outcomes:

Post from a high school teacher describing the experience with an analogous "STEM Externship" program with a business (Sun Energy systems) rather than with a university research group.