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Connecting Citizen Science to Education

Image of Biscayne Bay and Brickell (Source: Marina Baklarova on Pexels)

Last summer, I worked as a 5th-grade science teacher for a non-profit that focused on educational equity. In my first lesson with my 5th-grade students, I told them that my goal for them this summer was to get them interested in the topics we were going to discuss and in the end, that they will be able to see themselves as scientists. I hoped that the students would see themselves how I saw them: as curious and knowledgeable scientists.

Biscayne Bay as our Backdrop

Halfway through our program, the 5th grade went on their field trip to Virginia Key on Biscayne Bay. This marked the culmination of what they learned—making hypotheses and detailed scientific observations—and to become scientists. As we unloaded the bus, we faced the beautiful Biscayne Bay. Thanks to the folks at Miami Waterkeeper, the 5th-grade team was able to learn about the threats to the Bay, such as point-source pollution, rising sea levels, and additional water quality challenges.

Miami Waterkeeper walked us through a collaborative activity, where students used a container with a user-friendly Secchi disk that when dropped in water measures the turbidity, or clarity of the water. The container was submerged to collect a water sample. The activity asked students to work in groups to gather data about Biscayne Bay’s pH balance and turbidity as part of a collective effort to study and understand water pollution threats to Biscayne Bay.

According to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, the Biscayne Bay “ecosystem is threatened by nutrient pollution from storm-water runoff, sewage pipe breaks, septic tanks, fertilizers, plastic pollution and other contaminants.” (1.) The article posted by the chair of Miami-Dade County Biscayne Bay Task Force, Irela M. Bagué, solely focuses on the economic impacts of the threatened Biscayne Bay, commenting: “Biscayne Bay is vital to our economy. Miami-Dade County’s annual GDP is over $100 billion, and a large part of it stems from real estate, trade, and tourism, all of which depend on a healthy environment.”

The impacts on the community must be highlighted beyond economics. This body of water is crucial for the health of Miami-Dade’s ecosystem. Biscayne Bay serves as an estuary; the National Park Service adds, “It is a place where freshwater from the mainland mixes with salt water from the sea. The bay serves as a nursery for marine life.” (2) The Bay, as it is colloquially called, is rich in nutrients and is a productive ecosystem where “[f]freshwater flow brings nutrients from inland areas. Plants combine these nutrients with energy from the sun, carbon dioxide and water to produce food.” (3)

Further, Biscayne Bay serves as a symbol for the community as the emblematic background for the city—the backdrop to Miami. Community collaboration to study the Biscayne Bay’s declining water quality is critical to finding solutions.

Engaging in citizen science

As a civic educator, the activity hosted by Miami Water Keeper aligned with my goals: I felt immensely proud of my student’s excitement and engagement because Biscayne Bay is a pillar in our community and they had the enthusiasm to find a way to help the water.

After the activity I read Mario Alejandro Ariza’s Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe. This book showed me how the activity we partook in was citizen science, or as Alan Irwin, a sociologist at the Copenhagen Business School defined it, “Science which assists the needs and concerns of citizens… developed and enacted by the citizens themselves.” (4)

The 5th-grade field trip exemplifies citizen science because students assisted an organization in tackling the concern of water quality, point pollution, and non-point pollution of a body of water that is important for South Florida.

The citizens that Irwin points to are my 5th-grade students that developed their own data sets to assist the worry of the community. witnessed how citizen science encourages students to get excited about their involvement in the study and tackling of climate change. My 5th-grade students embodied scientists and they were able to observe their impact on climate research.

A deeper dive into the themes of citizen science

In addition to highlighting the value of citizen science I experienced, I also want to explore the complexities of citizen science. In the aforementioned book, Disposable City, Ariza introduces the intricacies of citizen science. First, he connects environmental literacy to citizen science.

Arizatells the narrative while measuring sunny-day floods, “I was assigned to measure king tide’s effects on a corner of North Miami known as Arch Creek, a neighborhood that, in recent years, has become synonymous with sunny day flooding.” (5) People in his group were journalism students and “[t]o them, sea level rise was just a vague threat before this exercise in citizen science.” (6) In addition to this reaction, students had no awareness of this flooding prior to this class exercise, yet after the collaborative project, the journalism students showed “concern” over the climate change phenomenon.

Ariza’s narrative reflects citizen science’s connection between environmental literacy and environmental education. Because these students are not directly impacted by the flooding, the citizen science experiment increased their awareness of the problem of king tides on low-lying communities. Prior to the citizen science exercise, students displayed a disconnect: the flooding is not directly in “their” community. Now, there is a greater literacy of how climate change impacts different communities.

Additionally, Ariza argues: “Part of the logic behind the citizen scientist exercise has to do with the difficulty of communicating the realities of climate change through news media…Getting average citizens to go out and participate in the data-making and -collecting process is a way to drive home the incremental nature of change and the reality of it on an experiential level.” (7) In this excerpt, Ariza discusses the accessibility of climate communication; as in, how climate data is portrayed to all audiences through media and communication platforms. Ariza’s argument is that citizen science projects must be portrayed in accessible formats to communicate climate threats to every audience.

Both of Ariza’s themes show a unique effect: citizen science increases awareness of climate issues. It challenges the “ignorance is bliss” opinion, only to make audiences cognizant of the varying impacts of climate change. However, these themes stood out to me as only applying to audiences where certain climate impacts are not present in their communities.

For the people that take part in citizen science in their own communities, what is the result? Like the 5th grade trip, their data and stories are incorporated. To tie it all up, there is a sense of urgency and justice that sprouts from citizen science: there are stories behind climate change that must be included in the discourse. There are narratives and experiences within each increment of sea level and temperature.

Swimming in feedback loops

Published research adds additional layers of complexity to what citizen science does for environmental education and now environmental justice. In the chapter, “Citizen Science, Health, and Environmental Justice,” Ceccaroni et al provides a visual that captures the intricacies that have already been discussed and more—including feedback loops.

Figure 12.1 (Source: Courtesy of Ceccaroni et al.)

Their research focuses on the feedback loops that arise from participating in citizen science in education and the impacts it can have on environmental policy and environmental justice movements. First, they break down how “[i]n a positive feedback scenario, higher levels of engagement in environment-related citizen science activities (r01) can lead to increased monitoring of, and lobbying for, environmental issues (Nascimento et al. 2018). The resulting evidence and lobby (r02) can lead to new, positive, and measurable environmental policies. Well-designed and well-administered environmental policies can have a positive impact (r03) on both the environment itself and environmental justice (Bullard and Johnson 2000).” (8)

To breakdown what the chapter is saying, citizen science projects in education begin the cycle depicted in the figure. To simplify the lesson, there is more potential for environmental lobbying and petitioning to the government if more people participate in citizen science projects. With this movement, there is a higher likelihood that environmental policy will be passed that centers the needs of the communities that are petitioning the government and delivering justice to the people that are continually affected by climate change.

On the other hand, the chapter explains that “A negative feedback scenario can also be observed. The absence or reduction of environmental justice can lead to reduced levels of engagement in environment-related citizen science (r06). Lower levels of participation in environment-related citizen science (r01) can lead to decreased monitoring of, and lobbying for, environmental issues by those directly affected by them (r02). This can result in environmental policies that are poorly designed, poorly administered, and inadequate for addressing the needs of the community (r03). Inadequate environmental policies can harm both the environment itself and environmental justice (r03). Both a compromised environment (r04) and an absence of environmental justice (r05) can harm human health (Pearce et al. 2010) and, further, can decrease engagement in environment-related citizen science (r06). They can also increase engagement, as citizens might be motivated to change the situation.” (9)

For the negative feedback scenarios, the opposite occurs. Less participation in citizen science leads to less engagement with governmental organizations that often create guidelines for environmental laws and help to address the demands of communities. The effects of this only perpetuates the cycle; the chapter explains that with less environmental justice collaboration with the government, there will be a lower propensity for people to participate in citizen science activities.

Entry point of influence

However, in both scenarios, the role of citizen science is underscored as an “‘entry point for influence’ shown in Fig. 12.1 [that] represents the impact that citizen science can have within these feedback loops.” The application of citizen science, as entry points of influence, can impact the outcomes of the feedback loops. Citizen science is the window of opportunity that can determine the implementation of environmental justice, the application of education on environmental issues, and the level of engagement around environmental issues.

The chapter outlines the possibility of an entry point of influence creating positive effects within the feedback loops. To them, [t]his can be achieved through increased and improved citizen empowerment, data accessibility, public transparency, research relevance, and knowledge production (English et al. 2018).”(10) The entry point of influence is the language of research saying how influential citizen science is for communities and their stakeholders; the influence boils down to increasing awareness; community empowerment, as in how does this affect us and how can we have a say in science and our future; and knowledge creation, or co-creation, where narratives of the community are included in decision making.

Critiques and Discussion

After reviewing what the feedback loops are, I wanted to include in this discussion of citizen science the chapter’s critiques. The first critique is coined as the reinforcement of “neo-liberal transfer of responsibility.” The authors consider:

Citizen science needs to be situated in the broader dynamics of neoliberalism, where accountability for health and well-being is increasingly individualised… Yet, such personal-level attention can shift the scale at which health or environmental problems are conceptualised, from social/structural to individual. Citizen science needs to navigate the challenging situation in which collecting data can sometimes reinforce the neoliberal transfer of responsibility to citizens (Kimura 2016; Kimura and Kinchy 2019). (11)

What I understand the authors are getting at is that the issue of transferring responsibility is tackling how we structure our conceptions of environmental issues; there has been a shift of placing the blame on individuals and having them, via collecting their own data, to solve the problem.

But, if we keep (or shift) our view to interrogating climate change as a structural problem, then the transfer of responsibility is no longer placed on the individual. As a result, participating in citizen science can illuminate how climate change directly impacts communities, plus shows how it is not the sole responsibility of the individuals to fight this problem alone. Through citizen and community empowerment and co-creation of knowledge, the voices of the communities that are affected by the structural problems are heard. Citizen science is a vehicle for transitioning from individualistic to community-based approaches for climate actions.

My students left their impact on the Biscayne Bay Beach Source (Source: María Durán González)

Biscayne Bay: shared knowledge and further interrogations

Further, the chapter offers a crucial series of points: “scientific questions are asked by people in power: only their knowledge counts, and the science, while presented as a benefit to the citizens, is used as an effective means for control. Ultimately, science is for the people in power, not the citizens…it is pertinent to additionally consider:

  • Whose knowledge counts when asking the question?

  • How is science being used?

  • Who, ultimately, is the science for?”

The chapter asks to interrogate how citizen science is being applied and the power dynamics at play. I saw how 5th-grade scientists can have a voice in how climate problems are being studied in their communities, have solutions that they implement, and how their knowledge plays into the problems that affect them directly. Through the vast analysis of the complexities of citizen science I observed how applying pillars of agency, accessibility, and knowledge-creation can create meaningful impacts in the field of education and citizen science.

In my own educational pursuits, the engaging activity under the beaming Miami sun allowed me to see the joy and scientific curiosity I aimed to capture all summer in my 5th-graders. They heard about the water pollution challenges facing Biscayne Bay and felt compelled to learn more about how they can influence water quality measures in Virginia Key. They happily jumped in the water and splashed around to collectively capture water. I felt as though their experiential knowledge was included and appreciated in the citizens’ science exercise, because their stories were shared in the data collection. The scene I observed was as if they were celebrating in the water of their community—water that faces immense challenges, yet their enthusiasm with the activity showed appreciation for the ocean and water that have shaped our livelihoods in Miami.

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