As part of work in AP Environmental Science, high school students
at a rural boarding school used low-cost aerial mapping
tools (cameras suspended from balloons or kites) to answer
questions about their school and the surrounding area. Working
with a curriculum co-developed by a CCS researcher
and their AP environmental science teacher, each group developed
questions, identified research sites, and assembled
balloon-mounted cameras using open source plans available at the
Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab).
They produced research notes detailing methods and findings, and
published them to the Public Lab online community, and to members
of the school community. The project created opportunities for
critical thinking about local issues, pushed the students to
think creatively about the technical challenges of obtaining
useful aerial images, and challenged them to stay organized as
they grappled with unfamiliar techniques on a fairly tight
Species or system studied: Varied – Student-driven
Research questions were elicited from school community or
developed from student interests and experiences. Topics included
habitat mapping, thermal properties of rooftops and paved
surfaces, and water management.
Research site: rural boarding school
The school campus includes more than 400 acres, adjacent to a
national forest, and farmland. Aerial mapping investigations
included the health and functionality of vegetation in a
bioswale, a survey of dormitory rooftops, and examination of
variation in habitats.
Participants: high school students
Thirty-three 11th and 12th graders in 3 sections of an AP
Environmental Science class. The class was joined by a UC Davis
researcher and visited by an experienced aerial mapper.
In the boarding school setting there were opportunities for
students to work during class time, and to conduct research
outside of class. The project used aerial mapping techniques and
online resources, building on methods of Public Lab
(publiclab.org). Audiences for individual projects were
locally-based: the school’s environmental action committee and
facilities department were the primary clients.
Duration: 3 weeks
The project filled the last 3 weeks of the academic year,
directly following the AP exam. Each week consisted of three
50-minute sessions, and an 80-minute “lab period.”
Institution: rural boarding school
The project took place at a boarding school of about 250 students
in a small town in Southern California. The small, tight-knit
community emphasizes connection with the outdoors, and students
enjoy close relationships with faculty.
Students had spent the year developing observations about local
flora and fauna in a research notebook and some drew on this work
for their aerial mapping project. Some students were also engaged
to varying degrees in environmental and outdoor activities, such
as sustainability council, environmental action committee, and
the camping and horse programs. These provided context for the
To learn more about aerial mapping, visit publiclab.org, and see
blog post for insights on aerial mapping in an
For more information about this project, contact Ryan Meyer.
Key Practices In Action:
Through in-depth case studies of diverse YCCS projects,
we have documented youth-centered key practices that
are effective in promoting learning and environmental
science agency. Click the headers below to learn more about what
those key practices look like in this particular case.
Sharing Findings with Outside Audiences
Linking research to community interests motivates the
work, but sets a high bar.
Instructors spent time in the lead-up to the project polling
community members for their ideas, and translating these into a
menu of projects that students could choose from. Some groups
took these prompts seriously, forming their project around the
stated need and interacting with community members as they
developed and wrote up their findings. Other groups focused more
on the challenge of conducting a successful flight and analyzing
the resulting data, and did not engage as meaningfully with the
community’s questions. However, the short time frame made it
difficult to structure interaction with key audiences and follow
up on student findings and recommendations.
Each group also contributed one or more research notes to Public
Lab’s online community of practice, where people all over the
world share their experiences using aerial mapping techniques.
This venue required students to articulate their methods and
findings within the community’s scientific norms, widened the
scope of potential contribution beyond the specifics of their
results, and set a tone of creativity and tinkering in science.
For example, one group sought guidance on the Public Lab website
on how to conduct flights using a smartphone camera, as opposed
to the standard point-and-shoot. Finding very little, they
developed their own approach to constructing a durable and stable
rig. They developed a standalone research note about their
engineering feat, and posted it on the Public Lab site.
Ensuring High Data Quality
Students develop their own internal data quality
standards, learn from their mistakes, and iterate.
Students grappled with the challenge of generating good quality
aerial images that could speak to their research question. For
many, this meant making and then learning from mistakes. This was
especially true given the limited time available to learn about
and discuss these issues before diving into the projects. Issues
such as flying conditions, camera settings, and the
interrelationship of camera resolution, field of view, and
height, all impacted the students’ results. After each flight,
students downloaded their images and examined them to determine
what had worked, and what hadn’t. They applied these lessons to
one or more follow-on flights. Instructors were available to
participate as needed, but the students were encouraged to
navigate these challenges within their groups.
Projects varied widely in terms of the information needed in
order to get good results, and the feasibility of the chosen
methods. This meant that there was no single external standard
for data quality that the students could look to, nor did the
projects identify external technical experts who would actively
evaluate or use the student-generated data. This gave students
the opportunity to take ultimate responsibility for developing
data quality stands, but also meant that there was no obvious
pathway for external validation that students could directly
follow or learn from.
Interacting with Complex Social Ecological Systems
A new perspective leads students to develop new questions
about their community.
The aerial mapping projects very literally gave students a new
perspective on their community and local environment. Many
students became absorbed in careful scrutiny of images that gave
them an unfamiliar view of familiar places. This often led to
broader reflection about a variety of issues and, in some cases,
deepened awareness of interactions between natural and built
environments. One group became interested in the role that
rooftops play in issues such as building safety, insulation and
energy efficiency, and community aesthetics. They interviewed the
director of facilities to better understand what they were seeing
in their images. Another group attempted to determine the
efficacy of a bioswale, constructed several years ago in a local
pasture. They became interested in the general problems of
erosion, drainage, and water contamination, and gained a new
appreciation for the need to address these issues on campus.
Research Notes. Online research notes with
introduction, methods, results, and discussion, including photos
annotated and/or stitched together to create digital maps.
Why: Inform members of the boarding school
community about issues of concern or interest, and ideally,
support better environmental practices.
Why: Contribute to ongoing discussion about
effective aerial mapping techniques and their application in a
range of contexts.
Audience: School community members such as the
facilities director, sustainability council, and environmental
Audience: Teaching staff interested in
developing coursework that speaks more directly to local
Audience: Public Lab online community, and
Public Lab staff.
Impact: Some projects can be revisited by future
student groups, to create a long-term data set.
Impact: Within 6 months, research notes had
received collectively more than 1200 views, and some had
been “starred,” indicating that Public Lab community members
intended to follow the discussion.
Impact: Teachers at the school will offer an
aerial mapping elective (outside the AP Environmental Science
class) to continue developing the curriculum.
Outcomes & Evaluations
The instructors elicited feedback from students in an online
Public Lab provides tools for tracking interest in and
appreciation for individual research notes. Students and
educators see page views, the number of people tracking
discussion of their posts, and “stars” (similar to “likes” on