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MSPnet Blog: “Citizen science and teacher learning”

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posted November 26, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

A recent MSPnet News focused on different aspects of citizen science as a learning experience — design, assessment, and outcomes or benefits. The papers took a broad view of the field, and so the K-12 sector was one among many citizen groups considered. It is refreshing, actually, to have questions of learning design and assessment of outcomes not focus on kids, but instead place the younger citizens alongside older ones, who might benefit as much as the students from authentic science experience — gaining science knowledge, understanding of and experience with scientific practice, increasing their scientific literacy or identity, or overcoming to some extent their alienation from nature, or the “extinction of experience.”

Every year, the STEM for All video showcases have featured videos of several citizen science projects — giving evidence of the popularity and appeal of the idea.  In addition, though, since most of the projects are funded as research projects, the videos demonstrate that there is still lots to  learn about design, impact, implementation, and evaluation.   Since most of my experiences with citizen science have relied much on teachers for success in all these dimensions, I was stimulated to look at the 2018 videos with teachers in mind.     Knowing that there’s a limit to what can be packed into a 3-minute video, I also read all the (archived) discussions, in case “teachers” emerged in the give-and-take. Probably a broader picture would emerge from a look across all the Videohalls, but this may serve as a first assay.

My questions were:  Do teachers appear as a topic or constutuence in these presentations (or their discussions)?  If so, in what connection?  That is, do they appear as learners (primary “target” of the project), or as collaborators (with the scientists or scienists+researchers), or as implementers?  Aside from these questions, what else arose that I did not anticipate?

I was surprised at how rarely teachers appeared — including as participants in the discussions.  A search produced 11 presentations tagged as  ‘citizen science.’  Of these, only two also show up in a search for “primary audience: teachers.”   In these two, however, teacher learning was not a primary theme that emerged — though teachers as collaborators are noted, briefly.

All the other citizen science projects had someone other than teachers as their primary audience.  If teachers are mentioned, it is as collaborators, or co-implementers.  Whenever they are mentioned, it is with some attention to their constraints or challenges (e.g. scheduling time for field work).  It seems to be taken for granted (reasonably enough) that activities, and the science of the project, are to be made available in a form suited to the learning situation — whether classroom or informal setting,

Though there are mentions of teacher professional development, they are nowhere the primary concern of the presenting projects.  I do not mean this as a criticism, but rather an pointing out an interesting gap in the research (as represented in these presentations, as well as in the papers added to the MSP library:  What in fact are the teacher learning challenges?  Do they differ depending on what kind of science is being done (e.g. ecological field work. vs. laboratory work, vs. work with simulations or visual data sets such as those involving molecular structures or astronomical photographs).  Is anyone researching this?

In work that I did with Joni Falk in the 1990s (a paper about this is here), the high school biology teachers that participated in our project, all of them well prepared in basic biology,  had a lot to learn about ecology, and about field techniques, and about research design.  Beyond this, however, there was the challenge, how to integrate “wild science” into classroom experiences, and how to evaluate individual learning in team projects. In more recent work, with the Climate Lab, we have seen that relatively few teachers are at home in the field, and not comfortable playing the naturalist role, which can do so much to stimuate student interest in a field setting.

All this makes it harder to facilitate students’ learning in these settings, including their learning of the science practices involved (or required) by the field work.  Do we need a construct such as Natural History Pedagogical Content Knowledge (NHPCK), or Pedagogical Content Knowledge for Field Work (PCKFW)?*

I trust not, but I do suspect that teacher learning for citizen science presents an interesting opportunity — the nature of teachers’ work means that they will not pattern exactly like other kinds of adult participants, and of course not as naive science learners, either.

Are you working on this?  Or are there questions you wish someone else would answer?


*And of course my own personal focus is on ecological projects, and citizen science involving molecular engineering, or asteroid mapping, or agriculture science, will have its own demands and opportunities for the teacher.


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STEM and field study

posted by: Betsy Stefany on 11/28/2018 8:42 am

Hi, Brian,
Interesting to have this conversation actually up and into discussion this week. I scrolled back to the motivation for our form of STEM MSP activities that show a teacher involved with field science in our STEM-for-All Video.
Your awareness that classroom teachers hang back from field engagement was an issue with becoming part of environmental field work and important to be "up front" with this issue.
I have avoided the term Citizen Science as initially was used to carry on and outreach parts of existing research. While teachers taught the topics, the field projects were difficult to find the full relevancy to engage students during a single school year..and repeat only that part of the research.
Often too it required costs that were hard to sustain in a district. Engagement of volunteers, difficulty to access student outcomes also added to teachers time. . The more organized with protocol etc the less the students or the teachers felt "ownership" or that they were the either the scientist or the citizen that formed the term over time. Researching this showed an average of a 3 year life span to the interest at the community level.
As our project was STEM and focused on practicing with light/temp and heat transfer content needs, we scrolled back from the field to first establish the classroom as a model, then allow the students to select a study site beyond the classroom where they could set up the digital data loggers and see what came from from that position. We had the period of 4 Nor'easters to help out with the basic concept that data loggers could go where we could not survive, providing data to contrast with rooms where we could.
The loggers also did not replace human critical thinking which was a piece of the project that the classroom teacher could pull out from the class in a variety of types of discourse.


This year the teacher shown in the video brought in a stream table to the classroom and are out with the loggers into the stream with the students. The ELA teacher at another district who has years of classroom logging compared a local lake with the 6th grade annual trip to Lake George. Meanwhile I have carried the same loggers into streams, ponds, and oceans from the Cape to Maine and at sites from VA to SC, comparing with their projects.
These are projects that focus on energy capacity rather than solely environmental which enlarges the engagement factor. The activities apply locally but also can connect with the NASA Mars InSIGHT or with Iceland, where we are sending loggers in February. In scrolling back to where the influencing factor for them originated, I discovered an influencing factor was from a past partnership with TERC, the map "Exploring Connections in Year 2007". The accompanying handout "The GLOBE Earth System Poster Learning Activities", continues to apply to the NASA tool that is shown being used by the students, adding in the supporting content from the STEM Literacy Community of Practice partnerships.

Perhaps instead of attempting to stretch the term Citizen Science beyond application, we use Community STEM.and allow the term "community" to flex? The STEM Literacy CoP continues to report to the GLOBE website as a "user community" of the NASA Technology Transfer Program and AREN.