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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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