Blog entry Heidi Ballard Sol Henson

Designing for Science Learning in Schools by Leveraging Participation and the Power of Place through Community and Citizen Science

This post was originally featured as a part of the Community for Advancing Discovery Research in Education’s project spotlights. This Spotlight features DRK-12 collaborative projects, provides insight into the affordances and challenges of partnering with multiple organizations, and offers advice for those considering a collaborative proposal. Click here to visit the project Spotlight.

About the Collaborative Project: We are developing and testing a place-based environmental science research and monitoring program for elementary school students and their teachers in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, called Our Forests. In the face of catastrophic wildfires sweeping the West, students investigate locally relevant phenomena related to forest health, such as fire management and invasive species. The students collect and analyze forest data related to resource management issues and share their findings with community partner forest managers. We are developing and studying a reproducible and adaptable place-based instructional model for schools having underserved rural populations that link their own real science to management of local forests. The study includes 15 comprehensive public schools and charter schools across Nevada County in a rural region having limited access to the formal and informal science learning opportunities typically available in urban centers. Based on our previous research, all students engage in 3 key design features: 1) Collecting place-relevant environmental data, 2) Meaning-making with collected data embedded within larger data sets, and 3) Community-engaged, place-based projects and interactions with community partners. To study student science learning through this program, our research questions ask: 1) To what extent and in what ways do students participating in the Our Forests program develop a sense of identity and agency to take action with the forest science they are conducting (environmental science agency)? and 2) In what ways do the three key design features foster these science learning outcomes for students? We use a design-based research approach to determine how the design variations impact learning through two cycles of the program. We use pre- and post-program surveys, field observations, semi-structured interviews with students and teachers, and examination of student work and artifacts to track changes in students’ environmental science agency.

Approach to Identifying and Forming the Partnership(s) for Your Collaborative Grant Proposal: The University of California, Davis Center for Community and Citizen Science has been conducting education research on how and what people learn through participatory approaches to science for many years. Sierra Streams Institute is a watershed science and education organization that has been committed to citizen science since its inception over 20 years ago and has been delivering watershed education, often in partnership with the Nevada County, CA schools. When PIs Ballard and Henson met at a conference and discovered our perfectly complementary interests and expertise, we began over a year in advance to write our ideal proposal for a school-based, locally driven, scientifically rigorous citizen science program for elementary students. We were able to bring the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools into the process early to make sure the needs of the county schools and teachers were being met. The process of meeting, brainstorming, narrowing, defining, and putting into writing our shared goals and responsibilities helped to build the partnership we needed to enact the project.

Affordances of Pursuing and Implementing Your Collaborative Project: Our project has benefited through a combination of strengths around theory and practice. The Center has created a framework for Youth-focused Community and Citizen Science (YCCS) based on previous research in formal and informal settings. Sierra Streams has been able to benefit from this framework so that implementation of the work on the ground is informed by the latest educational research around YCCS. Sierra Streams is a long-time community-based organization with a large network of local environmental organizations and land managers that has allowed us to connect schools to the forest and fire ecology work taking place in the area and the community members doing that work. Together, we are able to develop and implement a program, and study its impacts on student learning, in a way we couldn’t have done without each other. Also, a note about administrative support: This is the first large NSF grant that Sierra Streams has worked on. It has been helpful to have a large institution like UC Davis as a collaborator to help navigate the administrative ins and outs of these grants.

Challenges of Pursuing and Implementing Your Collaborative Project and Strategies to Address Those Challenges: It takes time to build a strong working relationship with new collaborators. There are a lot of moving pieces to these projects and fitting them all together across different organizations with different norms (academic institutions, school districts, non-profits) takes a lot of time, commitment, and patience. Working across many people with multiple goals and interests and getting everyone on the same page all the time is challenging, so we have had to revisit our communications and meeting structures frequently over the life of the project. Luckily our shared vision is strong and that has helped us navigate many of the challenges that have come up.

Advice for Those Considering a Collaborative Grant Proposal: If possible, partner on small collaborative projects or just attend events together early on in the process. Learn how the different organizations operate and the strengths of the different players that will be your team on a multi-year project. But also, team members come and go from the different organizations, so establishing the foundations of goals, norms, and structures for the project that can be passed on for onboarding new personnel can be really helpful. Ongoing communications are really key, so using a platform like Slack has allowed us to stay in relatively good touch even though we are not in the same city. With all of this said, meeting in-person is invaluable and should be prioritized whenever possible. Also, make time to have fun with your team; it doesn’t have to all be work!

Project Product(s):

  • Research instruments for studying youth agency and identity with environmental science for elementary students, including observation and fieldnotes guides, pre-post surveys, and semi-structured photo elicitation interview protocols.
  • Handbook for Community and Citizen Science with elementary-aged students that highlights best practices learned from the project for facilitating community and citizen science amongst schools and community-based watershed organizations.
  • NGSS standards-aligned supplementary curriculum for 3-5 grade teachers and students, guiding them through forest science data collection and analysis and sharing their results with community partners.
  • Research publications in peer-reviewed journals and short briefs for practitioners.

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