Community Science Education: A Personal Journey
By Raj Pandya, Thriving Earth Exchange, American Geophysical Union (AGU), Washington, DC
The message of this article is simple: it is important and worthwhile to teach geoscience through real-world projects that bring you and your students into close collaboration with local community leaders. I'll call this approach community science education: science education that accompanies and supports a sustained partnership with local community leaders and uses science to tackle community priorities. My experience shows that these kinds of projects make a real difference, engage students, allow you to follow best practices in science education, and can be powerful ways to diversify the sciences.
These projects aren't without challenges, though: current education systems weren't built for this approach and few of us have been well-prepared for this work. However, this kind of science and science education is important and potentially transformational—it can help students learn, communities thrive, science innovate, and in the geosciences it can help us deal with pressing global issues like climate change. I'd like to share some tips for how to do community science education. I'll situate all this in the context of my own experience and some of the existential crises that prompted my conversion to community science.
One of my formative experiences with community science education occurred when I was a new assistant professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. West Chester taught future teachers and the geoscience faculty were committed to modeling good teaching strategies—it was one of the things that attracted me to the school. I expressed an interest in project-based learning and was connected to Zulene Mayfield, who led a group working to fight a plan to open medical and industrial waste incinerators in her city of Chester, PA. Chester was a predominantly African-American community and many residents had fewer financial resources. Ms. Mayfield asked if my students and I could work with her and her neighbors to estimate the potential danger from the incinerators. I answered, regretfully, that I was looking for a project that provided more opportunities to learn the fundamental theoretical concepts in meteorology. Ms. Mayfield replied, "Young man, if your science is only theoretical, why do it?"
Lessons about Community Science Education
My interaction with Ms. Mayfield taught me two important lessons about community science education. The first was: you must adapt your curriculum to match local priorities. Good community science comes from meeting local leaders, listening to what they want to accomplish, and finding ways to work together on that. (Ms. Mayfield was able to find another professor to work with that year, I'm glad to say; I took her comment to heart and worked with my students the next year to design a class around an issue important to their families—flooding.)
It may require some thinking on your part to connect community priorities to educational goals. This usually isn't that hard, however. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) emphasize three things: cross-cutting concepts, science and engineering practices, and disciplinary expertise. Any community priority presents an opportunity to explore crosscutting concepts (patterns, cause and effect, systems and system models) or teach science and engineering practices. We are lucky in the geosciences: interaction with the Earth relates to many community priorities. For instance, in a recent project that was part of Earth Connections, a program which focuses community science education in the geosciences, an Atlanta neighborhood's desire for local improvement was advanced by focusing on rehabilitating a damaged local stream.
A good resource for navigating connections between science and communities is the Scientist-Community Partnerships Guide from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Resources with a tighter focus on science education include an excellent workbook for informal science educators, Partnerships for Impact, and a great article called "Place-Based Education: Connecting to STEM Learning Experiences." These three online resources (see RESOURCES at end for URLs) provide practical tips and sample case-studies that you can use to help with connecting, building relationships, and designing STEM educational projects with community leaders.
The second lesson I took from the conversation with Ms. Mayfield was: you must prepare yourself, and your students, to navigate the boundaries of science and action. Part of what I was saying to Ms. Mayfield back then was that I didn't know how to be practical. In order to work on community science education projects, I had to learn how to translate science into action. That meant realizing that some scientific skills—like project management, communication, teamwork, and project management—also worked in more concrete contexts. It also meant developing new skills, like learning about the boundary between advocacy and advising and deciding how to approach that boundary. A book I've found super-helpful for thinking about this The Honest Broker by Roger Pielke Jr.
The Purposes of Diversity
I had a second formative experience when I led a program to address the historical lack of diversity in the geosciences. We invited talented college students of color to a national laboratory to work with our scientists on cutting-edge research projects. One of the students asked if he could work on a project on tribal lands. Our laboratory didn't have a single project on tribal lands or working with tribal communities. (We were able to find a scientist from another lab who was doing work with indigenous communities in the Southwest and matched our student with her. Since then, our student has finished his PhD and now serves as a tribal science liaison in a federal agency.)
This episode called into question the point of diversity. Was diversity in science something we did for the sake of scientific demographics or did it have a larger purpose? Could diversity also be an opportunity to ask new kinds of scientific questions, develop new scientific methods, and benefit new communities? And if we wanted to frame our diversity-in-science efforts in that larger context, what would that look like? An excellent paper for thinking critically about what we mean by equity and what we seek to accomplish with equity in science education is "Everyday Science Learning and Equity: Mapping the Contested Terrain" (Philip and Azevedo, 2017).
To me, community science education seems like one answer to these questions. Community science offers a unique opportunity to advance equity in science education. Because it is place-based, it doesn't pull students away from their roots and their support networks. Because it begins with community priorities, it doesn't force students to choose between service to their community and advancement in science. Because it is done in collaboration with community leaders, it welcomes and celebrates community knowledge and culture, instead of implying, however unintentionally, that community knowledge is less important than scientific knowledge.
About three years after this student's question, I had the opportunity to test-drive community science education in that same internship program. I arranged for two interns to spend several weeks living in a Louisiana community that was rapidly losing land from a litany of environmental issues: the rerouting of the Mississippi, deforestation, canals cut for oil and gas pipelines, invasive species, and sea-level rise due to climate change. Their assignment for those weeks was to get to know the community and design a project— with community leaders—that used Earth science to advance community priorities.
The students were supported by Earth scientists, but they were also supported by two anthropologists who were experts in community science work. In fact, one of the anthropologists had used her PhD research to explore how to help scientists learn community science. She met with the students every night to talk about what they had learned, what went well, what they struggled with, and how they wanted to approach the next day. She helped them record and revisit the things they learned and look for patterns. She helped them explore what they were learning about the community and what they were learning about themselves. Because of her guidance, the students were able to build identities as scientists, community partners, listeners, and experts with something to offer. They became friends with each other, with their mentor, and with members of the community; those friendships persist to this day.
What I learned from this, more than anything, is that community science education requires you to embrace social aspects of science learning. While this is hardly surprising, it goes way beyond the kind of group-work we might see in a typical classroom. I find it helpful to explicitly call out the social nature of learning, the intersection of identities, and ask students to attend as carefully to each other's learning as to their own. You can support students through team discussions, reflective journaling, online discussions, peer mentoring, peer-problem solving, and reflections on cultural practices. A nice introduction to this useful way of thinking about learning, especially in the context of community science, is available in Chapter 4 of Learning Through Citizen Science: Enhancing Opportunities by Design.
Changing the Science Education System
The final existential crisis I'll share isn't my own; it is a true story that someone shared with me. It is about a young man in graduate school and his annual visits home. In each visit, his grandmother asks him to share what he's learning in graduate school. Every year, he tells his grandmother what he is learning, and she tells him to go back to school and continue his work. Because his work is getting more and more technical, each year he struggles a little more to explain it. Finally, he tells his grandmother he just can't. "Grandmother," he says, "there are words we use in graduate school that can't even be translated into our language." "Don't go back to school," his grandmother answers. "If what you are learning can't be translated into our language, how can it be useful to our people?"
What that story says to me about community science education has changed over the years. At first it was a simple call for the need to do more relevant research or an even simpler call for better science communication. Then it became about the lack of access to science and science education in some communities, especially communities of color. It also spoke to me about the need to reframe outreach not in terms of telling communities about scientific discovery, but in terms of engaging communities around their own priorities. It was a short walk from there to thinking the story's key lesson is the importance of asset-based approaches to science education. What if his local and community knowledge was the foundation for his work in graduate school, instead of something ignored?
Right now, while that story still contains all those meanings, the meaning that most resonates with me is that our system of science education isn't well-suited to community-based approaches. The science education system doesn't help or encourage students to connect with their communities. It doesn't educate our teachers in how to engage with communities, it doesn't orient our curriculum around local priorities, it doesn't enable the kind of cross-disciplinary teams necessary to solve local challenges, and it doesn't promote the kind of cultural competence we need to attend to the issues of equity inherent in many community issues.
That story makes me want to change the system. And to ask for your help. I'm working on changing the system through my job at AGU's Thriving Earth Exchange, which advances community science by helping launch and celebrate science projects that are rooted in local priorities. While we have lots of college and graduate students involved, we aren't doing as much as we could in K-12 education.
I hope the journey of my thinking about community science convinces you, as a science educator, to try community science education, and inspires a few ideas for getting started. Please do and please let me know how it goes. Together, we can change the system and make community science a regular part of science education.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018, Learning through citizen science: Enhancing opportunities by design: Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, https://doi.org/10.17226/25183.
National Research Council, 2013, Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, https://doi.org/10.17226/18290.
Pielke, Roger A., 2007, The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics: New York, Cambridge University Press, 190 p.
Philip, T.M. and Azevedo, F.S., 2017, Everyday science learning and equity: Mapping the contested terrain: Science Education, 101(4), p. 526-532.
Partnerships for Impact: A Workbook for Informal Science Educators and Outreach Specialists Working with Diverse Communities. Available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1siAvFwP4ddDy3SmVuxTVgWj7WSZvRRCE/view.
Place-Based Education: Connecting to STEM Learning Experiences. Available at http://csl.nsta.org/2018/09/place-based-education/.
Scientist-Community Partnerships: A Scientist's Guide to Successful Collaboration. Available at https://www.ucsusa.org/center-science-anddemocracy/connecting-scientists-and-communities/scientist-community-partnerships.
You can learn more about Earth Connections at https://serc.carleton.edu/earthconnections/index.html. More details about the Atlanta project are available https://serc.carleton.edu/earthconnections/regional_alliances/atlanta.html.
Learn more about Thriving Earth Exchange at www.thrivingearthexchange.org.