Director’s Blog 1/24/19

Director’s Bog January 24, 2019
By Ian Billick, PhD

In terms of writing papers that scientists cite, I peaked in 1994 as a grad student when Ted Case and I published a paper on higher order interactions in ecological communities. Do three or more interacting species display emergent dynamics that cannot be predicted from understanding pairs of interacting species? Only recently have I only realized the importance of synergies to operating RMBL given our desire to have national impact with limited resources.

To illustrate how synergies shape our thinking, I’ll look at RMBL’s 30 year-old K-12 program. Our current discussion on the program sheds light on how we think about everything. My thinking about investments always starts with synergies and scientists. Scientists make RMBL run. Synergies are where the magic happens. If we do something special in K-12 programs when matched against powerhouses
such as the Teton School of Science it will be because of synergies and scientists.

What are the upsides of the program? It is a training opportunity for undergraduates. It helps with federal funding because of broader impacts. It drives bus ridership, which keeps the public bus coming to Gothic. CB community members know and love RMBL because of what we do for kids. This really matters to RMBL’s scientists and helps with staff recruitment and retention. K-12 programs motivate people philanthropically. The program is a net positive financially, even if I can’t put my finger on a number or know when our investment exceeds the return in a purely financial sense.

How we embed students in a community of field scientists is special and aligns with national scientific education priorities. The numbers are small, but the program has national impact.

The downsides are liability and reputational risk. Ann Colbert, the unsung hero who runs the program, is an experienced professional with a master’s degree and a teaching certificate. She offers age appropriate RMBL-based science programs while professionally managing kids of all ages, no easy thing. Given the risks of working with kids, we will not continue the program without someone of her qualifications. Given the seasonality and pay, I don’t know if we can replace Ann without upping our investment in the program.

It’s hard to imagine RMBL without our undergraduate research program; research and undergraduate research are now woven together in ways that will be very difficult to pull apart. We’re not there with K-12 programs.

Maybe K-12 programs should be part of how we define RMBL. Maybe doing a great job of serving the scientific community means that we have to offer great K-12 programs. But, as Ted Case and I found 25 years ago, it can be hard to understand the whole by just looking at the parts. We’re still trying to understand the extent which K-12 programs are, or should be, woven into RMBL and research. After 19 years as ED, I may not know the answer, but at least I know what questions I should be asking! We look at almost everything, not just K-12 programs but facilities investment, data management, and staffing, in terms of synergies. Synergies drive our impacts and allow us to do a lot with not much. And scientists sit at the center of all of our synergies!

If you have thoughts in our K-12 programs, or synergies, please reach out to me!