Some NC teachers spent summer discovering

Close your eyes for a second. Get an image in your mind of what a scientist looks like.

Did you picture one of your middle school teachers? No? Well, that’s about to change.

This summer, the Students Discover project hosted its first cohort of middle-school teacher-scientists who worked on four cutting-edge research projects at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

Students Discover is a five-year project funded by a $7.3 million National Science Foundation Math and Science Partnership grant awarded to professor Rob Dunn at N.C. State, and to partners at NCSU’s Kenan Fellows program, the Friday Institute, the Science House, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences plus seven school districts. Those of us working on this project share one common goal: to transform the way we learn science. Rather than focusing on what is known in science, we focus on the process of discovery, driven by what scientists don’t know, to inspire new generations of scientific thinkers.

Instead of telling teachers what scientists do, we bring teachers into our laboratories to experience real scientific research. In turn, the teachers design lesson plans that include their students as co-investigators. These are true “citizen science” projects that provide boundless opportunities to make new discoveries that will be published in the scientific literature.

Each project is led by a postdoctoral scientist and includes three middle-school teachers recruited from across North Carolina. The Paleontology Team is collecting, measuring and creating a database of fossil shark teeth to understand the species diversity of sharks that swam in ancient seas that covered North Carolina 10 million years ago. The eMammal Team is using camera traps in and around schoolyards to investigate how mammals are living in human-modified landscapes. The Muddy Microbes Team is transplanting dandelions in different soil types sampled from throughout the state, and using DNA and RNA sequencing to learn how these common weeds gain beneficial bacteria and fungi that help them grow. The Meet Your Mites Team is using DNA to study mites that live in the pores of our faces, to explore how these animals co-evolved and moved around the planet with their human hosts.

With our first cohort of teacher-scientists finishing up their time in our labs and returning to their classrooms, we already see what a transformative experience this can be. To see what a scientist looks like, all that our teachers need to do now is look in the mirror.

To learn more about ongoing research in our labs, visit the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, and to learn more about Students Discover, visit

Julie Urban is assistant director of the Genomics & Microbiology Laboratory at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.