Biosphere 2 and surrounding desert landscape

The University of Arizona’s 40-acre Biosphere 2 campus is located near Oracle in Pinal County.

ORACLE — Field trips are off the table at many elementary, middle and high schools worldwide, so the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 has made itself available to meet them where they are.

The amazing research and history of the steel-and-glass science facility in Pinal County can now be shared virtually with students everywhere as part of a new program.

The Sessions with a Scientist! program virtually connects Biosphere 2 researchers with K-12 students for hour-long sessions. The researchers give short presentations about their work from inside Biosphere 2 and then spend most of the hour answering questions from the students.

“Since field trips aren’t really a thing right now, this is our way of continuing to connect with these students, to make sure they know about Biosphere 2 and get excited about science,” said Katie Morgan, manager of education initiatives for Biosphere 2.

“Last year, around 8,500 K-12 students visited Biosphere 2,” said John Adams, deputy director of Biosphere 2. “We hope that our virtual outreach we take us well above last year’s number.”

Biosphere 2 was built in the late 1980s to research and develop self-sustaining space-colonization technology. The University of Arizona began leasing the facility in 2007 before assuming ownership in 2011. The university has since turned it into a one-of-a-kind earth science and climate research laboratory and visitor experience.

Educators choose one of four Biosphere 2 staff scientists — each prepared to speak on their own specialty and about Biosphere 2 science overall. The presentations offered are:

Explore the Landscape Evolution Observatory — the world’s largest laboratory experiment in the interdisciplinary Earth sciences — with senior research specialist Aaron Bugaj. Bugaj’s work focuses on the intersections of hydrology, ecology and geochemistry. He also hosts “Biosphere 2 Podcast.”

Dive into the scientific value of Biosphere 2 with Adams, who has worked on site for nearly 20 years, or Biosphere 2 Director of Education and Outreach Kevin Bonine, an ecologist and science educator.

Tour the only rainforest you’ll find in a desert with Jason Deleeuw, a Biosphere 2 research specialist who works to monitor the conditions inside the rainforest biome. He keeps the plants healthy and maintains the arrays of sensors that provide data for research projects. Deleeuw can meet with both English and Spanish-speaking classrooms.

The virtual sessions have already begun, with much success.

“The students in my class were super excited and asked a lot of questions. John (Adams) was so kind to answer all of them,” said Kelly Feimster, a teacher in North Carolina who recently participated in the program. “One of my students has already asked her mom to plan a trip to see Biosphere 2 in person.”

The program is seeking supporters willing to underwrite virtual field trip opportunities for student groups that may be hesitant because of the cost.

“Budgets are tight — more so because of COVID closures,” Bonine said. “And we are directing the funds to offset costs of technology, equipment, Wi-Fi connectivity and staff time.”

In addition to Sessions with a Scientist! opportunities, the Biosphere 2 education and outreach team has partnered with National Geographic lesson developers to develop virtual lessons for K-12 students, with an emphasis on middle school grades. The curriculum, which aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards, will be available for free online by the end of the year.

“We see these new virtual experiences as inspirational ways to meet with students around the world and complement the K-12 lessons being developed and posted on the Biosphere 2 website — freely accessible to educators,” Bonine said. “The scale and bold ambition of Biosphere 2 provides context and motivation for students to connect with their studies and improve learning outcomes.”

The free lessons will focus on ocean and coral resilience, the effects of climate change on rainforests and how Biosphere 2 provides a model for scientists to understand the future of our planet, its ecosystems and the resources humans rely upon.

“The related curriculum is intentionally interactive. We wanted to design something that would allow students to engage in the scientific process instead of just giving them facts out of a book,” Bonine said. “Biosphere 2 is one of the most visible tools for helping us all understand how to live in more sustainable and resilient ways.”

Teachers can schedule a session to connect their students with a scientist. The times listed are Arizona (UTC/GMT -7), and sessions are available Tuesday through Friday. More information is available at biosphere2.org.

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Mikayla Mace is a writer with University Communications at the University of Arizona.

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