Published: April 24, 2017 By

Julie holding insects by the Boulder Creek

Graduate student Julie Byle wants to change how science is learned and taught. Drawing on her experiences teaching youth science programs, she is delving into a new and transformative approach.

She is one of 27 CU Boulder graduate students who will have an opportunity to expand their research efforts after winning a prestigious 2017 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.

Byle is in an interdisciplinary graduate program focusing on evolutionary biology, educational psychology and cultural anthropology. Her goal is to complete her doctorate degree and become a leader in advancing informal STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) through the relatively new field of learning sciences—the ways people learn and acquire skills. She seeks to bridge science and technology with indigenous ways of knowing (IWOK), particularly in the natural sciences.

“There’s a dichotomy now in the education system between IWOK and ‘colonial’ learning, which is how science is currently being taught,” Byle said. “My goal is to break this cycle and create an option ‘C’ by blending the indigenous, intuitive ways of knowing nature with our progressive science and technology knowledge.”

Julie testing the ph levels of the Boulder creek

Byle grew up fully immersed in nature. Living on the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Everglades, she helped her father, a biologist who started the first environmental consulting business in the state, with mangrove restorations, oyster bed development and relocating gophers away from coastal high-rise development.

Her family spent summers in Colorado, where her dad worked at a research station on the western slope. While he studied high alpine ecology, Byle participated in the research station’s youth science program. She vowed to return someday as a scientist with a waterproof notebook in one hand and a collection jar for specimens in the other.

And indeed, while completing her undergraduate degree at CU Boulder, she went back to the research station and wrote her research thesis from aquatic biology research and graduated with honors. Simultaneously, she was hired to teach and then to manage the environmental education program.

Equally at home in the saltwater of the Gulf or the freshwater streams of the Rocky Mountains, Byle is interested in ichthyology. She can often be found standing in a stream, straw hat perched on her head, holding a net and examining submerged rocks for stonefly larvae—a favorite food of many types of fish, especially the rainbow trout she studies.

Throughout her bachelor’s degree at CU Boulder, she worked with Professor Alexander Cruz in ecology and evolutionary biology on multiple research topics related to fish reproduction and behavior of fish from Colorado to Africa. Now in graduate school, she works with Jingchun Li, an expert on aquatic invertebrates, digging deeper into the systems biology topic of whirling disease in rocky mountain trout.

Byle cited a study that tested elementary school students across all subjects. In fourth grade, science is their best subject. By eighth grade, science is their worst subject. The reason, according to Byle, is that fourth grade science is tactile, sensory, hands-on and community-based, while by eighth grade, students are learning by the scientific method, sitting at a computer gathering data, formulating a hypothesis and empirically testing the hypothesis.

Julie Byle with a net in the Boulder Creek

“A fishery biologist went to a Native American tribe and asked how they know fish,” Byle said. “They know the streams’ ecology, fish migration patterns and seasonality, and stonefly larvae patterns. They knew everything they needed to do sustainable fishing from their own personal ecological relationship with their environment. No scientific method. No hierarchical system of classification of taxonomy needed.”

Based on her experience managing the informal summer science education program, Byle wants to facilitate a program where the outdoors replaces classrooms and hands-on learning provides students with new perspectives on science education where she will study these learning behaviors as a living laboratory.

In addition to ichthyology, Byle came to graduate school with an interest in biology and fishery science. When she began teaching youth environmental education classes, she realized science didn’t have all the answers. That was when she learned about IWOK.

One summer afternoon, she took a group of 30 elementary school students on a hike to a creek catch macroinvertebrates. One little girl started screaming and didn’t want to get in the water because she thought there were alligators—in Colorado! A boy whispered to Byle, ‘How can somebody be so afraid of something that keeps us alive?’

“The questions the kids were asking were so mind-blowing and I knew I needed to provide answers,” she said. “So many parents tell their kids don’t get dirty, don’t get wet, don’t touch that bug. At a nature camp of all places! So, I decided to come to CU and create my own interdisciplinary program to cross examine evolutionary biology and educational psychology to be able to answer and address these important topics.”

Her focus will be on the cultural differences in framework theories, cognitive consequences of different conceptualizations of nature and the place of humans within it. With the NSF grant, Byle will study the educational psychology of STEM learning environments and will travel the world learning about nature from indigenous people. National Geographic has expressed interest in her work and will follow her progress over the next five years.

Byle will examine cognitive and behavioral consequences of cultural differences in conceptions of nature and conceptions of the human beings’ role in it.

“Technology has disconnected us from nature and these students are going to someday be policymakers,” Byle said. “This is an issue with an evolutionary threshold we must prepare for. My research will be a place for me to reclaim, recover and refine teaching and learning.”