YCCS Urban Creek: Teen Summer Program

Case: Urban Creek

Teen Summer Program



In the Hillview Creek project, organized by the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists (EBAYS), students meet daily during the summer to conduct water quality monitoring at a local urban creek. Monitoring  includes collecting water samples, analyzing levels of ammonia, nitrate, and phosphate, and entering the data into Excel spreadsheets for analysis. In the fall, a subset of students continues work, meeting weekly to collect, graph and analyze the data, and prepare findings for presentation to scientific, community and government audiences. In addition to monitoring work, the group conducts creek clean-up, invasive species removal, and plantings of native species. Over the last 4 years, these activities have transformed the site from an overgrown area that encouraged illegal dumping to a park-like space, used and appreciated by the community.

Species or system studied: Water quality.

Once or twice weekly, the group assesses levels of ammonia, phosphate, and nitrate in an urban creek. At least once a season, they also conduct a macroinvertebrate survey and collect data on dissolved oxygen levels.

Research site: Urban creek.

Hillview Creek runs for approximately 1.5 miles before joining another creek and emptying into San Francisco Bay. Most youth participants live less than one mile from the creek. Although the creek runs through a number of small parks,  many sections are inaccessible – down steep embankments, surrounded by heavy brush, surrounded by private property, or underground. The creek is heavily impacted by dumping, human and animal waste, and growth of invasive species.

Participants: Middle & high school students.

During the summer, a group of 3-10 demographically diverse participants, ranging in age from 13-17, participate in the program. In fall and winter, a subset of these continue work on weekends. Monitoring work is also conducted during the school year by students from a nearby high school.

Structure: Community-based.

Most students join the project during the summer as part of summer employment, internships, community center programs, or as a result of recruitment at local schools. The group meets at the creek for sample collection and restoration work, storing tools in a neighbor’s basement, and meets at a community center and local high school for data entry and analysis.

Duration: Variable.

Youth participate for 2-3 months over the summer. Between 3 and 6 youth continue work through December to prepare for presentation at a large scientific conference. Youth can also drop-in for a session, join for only the summer, or only the fall. Some youth continue for more than one year, with opportunities to become project leaders and mentors. The project has been working at the site for 5 years (as of 2017).

Institution: ISE.

The project is run by EBAYS, a program of the Lawrence Hall of Science, an informal science education (ISE) institution based out of UC Berkeley. EBAYS is focused on giving young people from marginalized communities opportunities to experience authentic science and develop community leadership skills. Partnerships with community advocacy organizations, city agencies and local schools are also critical to the project. Funding sources vary from year to year, from city employment programs for youth, to small grants from local foundations, to larger grants that cover multiple aspects of the organization’s work.

Other activities:

In addition to collecting and analyzing data, the youth create posters to present at AGU, and craft presentations to city agencies and to local advocacy organizations. They also engage in restoration work during weekly sessions and community volunteer events. These events are often planned in collaboration with youth, and involve removing invasive species, planting native species, and making other improvements to the area surrounding the creek. The group goes on field trips to regional parks with plant collections and recruits scientists and community members with relevant expertise to visit the group. Youth participants often join EBAYS’ other YCCS projects, researching a range of environmental and community health issues. For example, in one recent project, students conducting an air quality study discovered that exposure rates at a popular transit station were far above EPA limits.

Curricula Resources:

No project resources are currently available for download.


Kevin Cuff, EBAYS Program Director. Learn more about the program and contact project educators at http://static.lawrencehallofscience.org/ays/

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

Sharing findings with both scientists and neighbors helps youth see a role for science – and themselves – in their community.

Working with EBAYS educators and scientists to summarize their findings about water quality at the creeks, the Hillview group produced a poster to present at AGU, an international scientific conference. The findings and graphs they developed were are also presented to local foundations. Program staff facilitated this work by guiding development of the team’s research submission, providing feedback on content and design, identifying an undergraduate mentor to provide advice, and securing funding for transportation to the conference.

The project also gave students opportunity to share the work not just in formal environments, but to volunteers at community work days, to community groups, and informally to community members who ask about the group’s activities. When these audiences visited the creek, project staff worked to position youth scientists as knowledgeable spokespeople.

During his first year with the project, presentation at the scientific conference became a chance for one student, James, to learn the norms of the scientific community. He was convinced by his older brother to wear a tie, but came to realize that “science” included wide range of people and topics. In his second year, work on the team’s poster gave James a chance to take the lead, teaching other other students how to compile and analyze data, drafting the research abstract, and leading editing of the poster.

Presenting to community members was also crucial to James’s development of “environmental science agency” (ESA) – a feeling that he had access to tools and inclination to make positive change around him. As a returning group member, James often took responsibility for describing to the team’s work and findings to volunteers and community members who visited the creek. These conversations changed James’s perception of the community: he came to see that despite a few that dumped in the creek, many neighbors valued the creek. With positive feedback on the group’s efforts, James saw that his own work and participation in this community space were valued.

Ensuring High Data Quality

Educators encourage youth to build from confidence with protocols to leadership in the group and investment in the scientific work.

In the Hillview Creek project, ​EBAYS mentors and trains students to collect high quality data, specifically, on nitrate, phosphate and ammonia levels. To facilitate peer teaching, encourage discussion of water quality readings, and ensure consistency, they pair experienced students with new students. Early in the program, educators describe why particular parameters are in use and help students understand how chemical and physical characteristics can reflect creek health and human impact on it.

Over the course of the program, students become confident with data collection protocols and knowledgeable about routines; students know what they have to do and often begin work before receiving instruction. Once this is established, the program gives students responsibility for teaching collection and analysis techniques to volunteers and new students during weekly sessions and special events.

Some students take on specialized, if informal, roles in the quality of data. For example, one participant, Janey, became her team’s leader in data collection in multiple ways. First, Janey saw herself as someone who would just “get things done.” Data collection involved obtaining water samples from tricky parts of the creek and as some students backed off from getting down the bank, Janey’s willingness to jump in without delay helped her establish a role and take ownership of it. She developed her own methods for handling multiple chemical tests simultaneously, which were taken up by other youth in the group. Second, Janey became proficient in water testing techniques and was given responsibility for organizing group members during data collection, and during public presentations, the lead educator and other youth often turned to her to explain data collection methods.

Interacting with Complex Social Ecological Systems

Engaging with issues that have no easy answers can provide opportunity for sophisticated reasoning about nature, community, and the roles – good and bad – that we play.

While investigating water quality in Hillview Creek, the team encounters issues common to urban creeks with vegetation that obscures visibility and community use, including sewage leaks, animal waste, trash dumping, and human defecation. The research sites on Hillview Creek were also known to neighbors as places where people went to smoke or otherwise hide. For this reason, the youth participants’ initial perceptions of the creek were complicated. Though they saw the robust plant life as natural and seemingly healthy, they knew that the some community members didn’t value the creek and didn’t necessarily value the presence of young people there.

As they studied water quality at the creek, worked to improve it, and talked with city representatives, community members and EBAYS educators, the youth participants grappled with complex trade-offs. First, participants came to understand that “not all green is good”: ecosystems dominated by non-native species may look healthy but don’t necessarily provide the same ecosystem function as native ecosystems. In addition, by comparing two different creek sites – one that passed through a manicured park and one that had dense vegetation – participants saw trade-offs in the design of green spaces. They saw that although a site with dense vegetation and other features that protected it from high human traffic might seem more natural, a more park-like environment can lead to a healthier creek, since visibility and neighborhood investment might reduce dumping. Third, youth participants saw how public perception of green spaces shapes human-ecosystem interactions. They recognized that their restoration work improved community perception of the creek and pushed the city to direct more funding towards their efforts.

Lastly, the issue of homeless encampments impact on creek water quality pushed students to think about the complicated choices involved in addressing multiple problems, both ecological and social, at once. Though they saw the negative impact that homeless encampments could have on the creek, they also knew - some of them from having experienced poverty in their lives and communities – that the people in the encampments were struggling and could not simply be thrown out.

These are issues without textbook solutions. They provided occasions for discussion and reasoning, as well as a chance for youth participants to understand that even small actions could impact the environment and community – for better and for worse. EBAYS educators and scientists facilitated youth engagement by placing the participants in position to interact with a wide variety of creek stakeholders – from neighbors, to city officials, to volunteers from other parts of the city – and allowing them to step up when and where they felt ready. Working at the creek also required that EBAYS staff spend some energy dealing with delicate or long-term demands when they arose. This work not only facilitated the relationships with city officials and neighbors, but allowed for site continuity such that youth could see how long-term involvement in a site could make a difference. Educators provided opportunity during project sessions to talk together about potential solutions to problems and what actions the youth participants would recommend and be interested in pursuing.

YCCS Products

Data: Weekly Ammonia, Phosphate, Nitrate values in the creek
  • Why: Ammonia, Phosphate and Nitrate values produce a baseline understanding of fluctuations in creek health, and can help alert researchers to events such as sewage breaks and fertilizer run-off.
  • Audience: Large conference of geoscientists. Students present a scientific poster with methods, findings, background write-up, and graphs of data.
  • Audience: City government, Department of Environment. Students give a presentation with slides highlighting data trends and tentative conclusions. Database of long-term data is also made accessible to agency representatives and used by EBAYS staff in discussions with city agencies.
  • Audience: Local foundation, environmental advocacy and citizen groups. Students give presentations at creek and informal Q&A with passing community members.  
  • Impact: Prompted city government to test creek for sewage leaks, document pollutant levels that were higher than acceptable values, and eventually add creek to ongoing E. coli monitoring; Raise local awareness of potential impacts of illegal dumping and animal waste; Raise scientific community’s awareness of environmental issues facing urban creeks in California.
Restoration: Invasive species removal and planting of native species
  • Why: Re-establish habitat and ecosystem function provided by native species; keep site clean, open and inviting to discourage illegal dumping; create opportunity for youth and community participants to act directly to create change and learn about native species.
  • Audience: City Government. Interaction through city maintenance departments and at community events, such as Earth Day, keep the city aware of recent changes.
  • Audience: Neighbors and community members. Through informal conversation at the site, volunteer days, and occasional community tours, community members see the EBAYS participants’ improvements to the research site.
  • Impact: Created a more park-like environment that activates the creek as a community space and encourages stewardship; Gain attention of city who directed more resources of the park, including native plants and supplies for volunteer days; reduced dumping near the creek and reduced use of creek bed for illegal activities; research and restoration model got taken up across city as part of summer employment program 

Outcomes & Evaluations

​EBAYS program goals include supporting students to develop “critical thinking skills through scientific research and exploration,” become leaders in their communities, and gain STEM skills through hands-on work in science.  They also believe the program can “foster both increased understanding of important scientific concepts, as well as greater appreciation of how scientific research contributes to addressing issues relevant to students’ lives.”

EBAYS educators informally assess these outcomes, tracking markers such as continued participation in the program, increased connection to other science learning or leadership activities, shifts in performance at school, and increases in conservation activities. EBAYS has also worked with evaluators at their host institution, the UC Berkeley Lawrence Hall of Science. Over the last few years, they have used the following instruments to assess the program’s effect on student attitudes and conceptions about the relevance and nature of science:

  • Changes in Attitude about the Relevance of Science (CARS) survey (M.S. Siegel, M.A. Raney, 2003)
  • Q-sort for Scientific Behaviors (K.D. Peterson, R. Ponzio, 2003)
  • Whiteboard Models
  • Student Journals
  • Student Interviews



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