Brandywine professor uses NSF grant to tell the stories behind earth science

Thanks to NSF funding, Laura Guertin’s students create audio narratives to help more people understand earth science concepts
Student Produced Audio Narratives workshop

The “Student Produced Audio Narratives" project has extended beyond the Brandywine campus. Pictured is a recent workshop with faculty leaders from Kutztown University. 

Credit: courtesy of Laura Guertin

MEDIA, Pa. — Laura Guertin, professor of earth science at Penn State Brandywine, is in the business of asking questions — and her most recent inquiry launched a new, creative project to help more people understand the natural world.

“I had been asking employers what they feel students lack post-college,” Guertin said, “and over and over, I heard people say that students don’t know how to listen.”

In her classes, Guertin has been addressing the importance of listening skills for years. She often incorporates audio files and podcast projects into her earth science courses, using those resources to drive home the importance of listening and effective communication.

“Listening skills matter beyond the classroom,” she said. “They’re critical for negotiating contracts, working with people, et cetera — but we live in an era of two-thumbs texting.”

Between her own convictions and the comments from local employers, Guertin eventually had an idea that would promote the importance of listening, give students a portfolio-worthy experience and teach earth science in a fun, understandable way.

She designed a project that has students tell “the stories around science” by recording audio narratives. The project focuses on not just dispelling facts, but presenting scientific knowledge in a format that is fun, engaging and easy to enjoy.

“An effective communicator makes sure that people don’t lose interest, which is part of why the idea of a narrative is really catching on in the science community,” said Guertin.

The “Student Produced Audio Narratives" project, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Undergraduate Education IUSE Program, has extended beyond the Brandywine campus to include faculty leaders from Kutztown University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and participants from six additional higher education institutions.

Guertin’s team will use the grant to fund two summer workshops as well as mid-year programs. They will also offer training workshops for earth and space science faculty in the mid-Atlantic region who are interested in leading similar projects at their own institutions.

Erin Kraal, associate professor of planetary geology at Kutztown University, sees the project’s multi-university approach as one of its greatest strengths. 

“The project brings together a strong network of faculty in the geoscience field,” Kraal said. “It also unites teaching with the sciences and educational research.”

Working on the project will also benefit students in many ways, giving them research experience, teaching them new tech skills, providing them a resume booster, and most importantly, teaching them to speak — and listen — creatively.

“Our hypothesis is that the process of using audio will help students more deeply engage with the scientific world around them,” said Kraal. “At the core, we all love to tell and hear stories. When those stories are told from diverse voices and diverse perspectives, they are interesting and engaging.”

According to Guertin, all of her students — even the ones who will not be scientists someday — can gain something valuable from the audio narrative project. Its creative nature gives non-science majors a chance to fuse their own interests into the writing and recording processes.

“Not all of my students will be future geologists, but science is increasingly interdisciplinary,” she said. “We need effective listeners and communicators from all backgrounds.”