Inspiring the Future Stewards of Watershed Health
A half-dozen adults aim their cell-phones skyward at the bald eagle soaring over this stretch of the Upper Mississippi River. The bird of prey is the first wildlife sighting on this September expedition of environmental educators, who vie to digitally capture his six-foot wingspan. Think Pokémon Go for the nature enthusiast!
“North American river otters are the most common of the 823 species reported so far, but we have a growing population of bald eagles,” Ranger Gordon Dietzman tells the educators who are learning how to use the iNaturalist social media app. He shows them how they can record their field observations in the app’s project database called “The Life of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.”
The citizen science project is helping Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MISS) define the variety of plants and animals that exists in the 72-mile river park. iNaturalist is one of the data collection tools that will be used by Twin Cities high school students this fall as part of Citizen Science 2.0, an environmental education program funded by the National Park Foundation.
“Eighty percent of high-school students want to study science, but 60 percent are bored by how they are being taught. We cannot reach our full potential as a society if we can’t find ways to spark a love for science in our youth,” said Alison Rempel Brown, president and CEO of the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM).
With nearly 18 million people relying on the Mississippi River as a source of drinking water, there is also a need to teach local teens the importance of this vital resource.
“We are eager to use the river as a classroom and build a river community around this park project,” said SMM’s program specialist, Julie Marckel.
Citizen science can be a powerful tool to spark an interest among more students, particularly those from underrepresented communities, to pursue college and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
“Teachers tell me, ‘my students are actually listening to you,’” said Lea Schram von Haupt, citizen science coordinator at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (JELA). The Louisiana national park is at the southern end of the Mississippi River — about 1,195 miles from St. Paul.
Citizen science programs engage learners in the process of science and address the practices outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards, with goals for each grade that embrace a hands-on, inquiry-based approach to learning science. On field trips featuring citizen science projects at JELA’s Barataria Preserve, students in grades 4 through 12 learn about the importance of protecting Louisiana's wetlands and participate in hands-on conservation and environmental projects. In some cases, they have an opportunity to upload their data to the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium website.
As part of a new chemistry module on water-quality monitoring, “Chemistry Matters,” 11th-grade students in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland will wade into streams of the Potomac River to investigate watershed health in their own schoolyards and nearby Rock Creek Park (ROCR). The Audubon Naturalist Society is partnering with this school district, which is the largest in Maryland, to provide professional development for high school science teachers to lead the field work in which students get hands-on experience with monitoring water quality, collecting data, and building a database. They also learn firsthand about urban environmental challenges such as stormwater management, alterations in water chemistry, erosion, and polluted runoff.
“We are using citizen science as a tool to teach students to solve problems facing their communities,” said Maggie Zadorozny, ROCR education specialist. “This is not just about collecting data. We hope they will develop a commitment to take action to improve watershed health.”
This project was made possible by a grant from the National Park Foundation through the generous support of the Veverka Family Foundation. NPF seeks support to sustain and grow Citizen Science 2.0 at more national parks.