Cassandra Galluppi was a high school sophomore at Mary Institute & Country Day School in suburban St. Louis when she got wind of a new program at Washington University in St. Louis seeking students to do environmental biology fieldwork at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Shaw Nature Reserve.
Like any sophomore, she wasn’t yet settled on a career but she was leaning toward the sciences. Her chemistry teacher forwarded an email and offered to write a letter of recommendation.
“I read over the program description and thought, ‘I’m not doing anything else this summer — I might as well apply,’ ” Galluppi said. “That might have been the best decision of my life.”
Galluppi, now a junior at WUSTL majoring in biology, has her sights set on a career as a field ecologist and owes it all, she says, to a pair of programs through WUSTL’s Institute for School Partnership called SIFT and TERF.
Originated in 2008 through a grant from the National Science Foundation, SIFT (Shaw Institute for Field Training) and TERF (Tyson Environmental Research Fellowships) are a collaboration between WUSTL’s Tyson Research Center and the Shaw Nature Reserve to give high school students experience in environmental research.
“This program gives pre-college students authentic engagement in the environmental sciences,” said Susan K. Flowers, assistant director of the Institute for School Partnership, who has overseen the program since its inception. “They work alongside our scientists, doing actual fieldwork and research. These students are doing exactly what our undergraduates are doing.”
Participants must first go through SIFT, a one-week summer field training experience at Shaw Nature Reserve with additional training and paid fieldwork activities during the following school year.
During the summer, teens are introduced to a variety of Missouri eco-systems and gain skills necessary to conduct field research, such as plant and animal identifications, sampling and census techniques and training in the use of GPS. That’s followed up by school-year projects that include research and restoration activities, such as invasive species management, prairie reconstruction, plant and animal inventories and prescribed burns.
Then they can apply — and many do — for the TERF program at Tyson, a field research internship program that involves small learning groups, near-peer mentoring and student-scientist partnerships in environmental biology.
Armed with the skills learned at SIFT, students are ready to dive into ongoing field research projects at Tyson and other sites. TERF teens work as paid members of research teams alongside undergraduate students and graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and WUSTL faculty members. School-year activities are designed to provide important community outreach, emphasizing the value of research.
“The programs are complementary to each other and are a true collaboration between Tyson and Shaw,” Flowers said. “It has cemented the relationship between two field stations that are doing wonderful work in environmental sciences.”
Lydia Toth, manager of the SIFT program at Shaw Nature Reserve, says these programs provide a unique opportunity for high school students.
“They work with scientists on actual field research and contribute to further ecological understanding. The students get a real sense of what field science is and the program has influenced many of the participants’ pathways to college and careers.
"The idea that TERF builds upon SIFT is key," Toth said. “Because students who are really committed during the first year with SIFT have an avenue to delve deeper the following year in TERF. The program also introduces them to students from other area high schools who share similar interests.”
The program is reaping some unseen benefits as well. The faculty members, in dealing with the younger students, are learning how to present and discuss their research for a broader audience. The students, in turn, learn how to present the research through posters and participation in research symposiums.
“This program has changed how we mentor our undergraduates too,” Flowers said.
“Everyone is disconnected from the natural world, whether you live in an urban, suburban or rural area,” she says. “ For kids who have a natural inclination toward science, SIFT and TERF works.”
Since starting in 2008, the SIFT program has introduced 262 students from 55 high schools in the St. Louis metropolitan area to environmental biology. Sixty-six of these students participated in the TERF program.
Many of these students have gone on to study some type of science in college, including Galluppi; Alex Samuels, a sophomore in biology at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina; and Jessica Plaggenburg, a sophomore in biology at Truman State University in Missouri.
“SIFT & TERF was a big part of my education,” Samuels said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without it.”
*Information from Leslie Gibson McCarthy, Washington University.