By Prof. Maura Palacios Mejia
I am a professor at California State University, Los Angeles teaching Fundamentals of Writing for Biologists. I am an advocate for students learning science through active learning. In the Spring of 2014, I partnered with the Urban Resiliency Program to bring citizen science into my classroom. My objectives were simple; get students outdoors and active in the community through research and generate a dataset for their research paper. With the help of the Urban Resiliency team, I incorporated several programs into my course.
My students are urban city dwellers that work part-time and commute to school. This weekly workload plus the horrible Los Angeles traffic leaves them very little time to pursue activities outside of school, let alone explore the outdoors. I come from a similar background, and I can recall a strong disconnect from nature, even with all the biodiversity that exists in urban areas. Connecting with nature can have a profound impact ranging from mental, physiological, and therapeutic benefits. I knew this partnership with the Urban Resiliency Program could be very beneficial for both parties. However, I faced a challenge in convincing my students, who range from microbiologists to pre-medical students, that this project was worthwhile. I placed the project in a context that appealed to their fields of interest by discussing topics such as the changes in microbe communities to the human health benefits of trees in urban areas.
Operation Tree Canopy & Resilient Trees
For the first year, the hypotheses tested centered around the goal of the study, which involved comparing a measured variable, such as tree diameter, to drought. James Pineda comments “The outdoors broadened our horizons about the biological field, giving us a different angle compared to just the conventional laboratory specimens and compounds.” This easily implemented non-traditional classroom approach impacted my students in a way I was not expecting, shaping the dynamic, attitude, and interests of the entire class.
The following year students were given the freedom to address their hypothesis given the variables collected, and the research papers became very interesting. For example, one student focused their research paper on social justice issues by conducting green space analysis across Los Angeles County Parks in relation to race, education, and income. The main findings of the paper suggest that most parks are composed of concrete rather than green space and, despite most studies correlating smaller sized parks to race and income, this particular report was not in agreement. Another student explored the potential of using these variables to predict the effects of mitigating urban heat island effects across Southern California. They found that although the measured variables are important at a smaller scale, park size and structure played a stronger role in parks promoting cooling effects.
Operation Healthy Air: Habitat Mapping
This past summer, with the switch to Operation Healthy Air, students were asked to participate in Habitat mapping of locations where sensors had been placed to measure temperature, humidity, and ozone. They mapped a total of 33 locations spanning the Long Beach Area. The students also set up four sensors on campus, two in parking lots and two in lawns that were 200 feet apart. The students were not asked to write a report on this activity, but we did have a discussion session on the importance of air quality. I was surprised to learn how much my students did not know about the health effects of poor air quality. However, I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the issue of poor air quality and the joint efforts of San Pedro and Long Beach through the Clean Air Action Plan to reduce air pollution produced from the ships, trains, trucks, terminal equipment and harbor craft that operate in and around the ports. I was also fortunate to contribute habitat mapping of eight locations through the California Naturalist Program this past fall, which aims to foster a diverse community of naturalists and promote stewardship of California’s natural resources through education and service.
Some recommended improvements to the Habitat Mapping software are correction for glitches, such as not being able to access locations that are too close to one another, freezing of the screen with complete elimination of the work already inputted, and making the activity more fun by adding a reward for productivity. The class experienced a lot of technical difficulties, and frustrations in completing projects of various sites.
Students enjoyed getting the experience of being true scientists, carrying out a study from beginning to end for the Urban Resiliency Program. They independently developed a hypothesis, collected and analyzed data, and produced a final written product. For most students, this was their first experience outside of the classroom, directly applying what they had recently learned to an ongoing project with real-world implications. They started to view urban space differently, taking into account natural areas.
Working outdoors as a group also made students form stronger bonds and give them a sense of community that transitioned into the classroom and into long-lasting friendships. For the Operation Healthy Air project, student Madeline Currey states, “I was surprised at how many different ways green-spaces/plants can be categorized! Habitat Mapping taught me the importance of low-impact land use on wildlife conservation in urban areas.” The overall response by the class on the topic of air pollution was positive and the class wanted to contribute to collecting and analyzing of data.
I enjoy being a teacher because of the benefit of continually improving and growing through working with students. Collaborating with the Urban Resiliency Program for this project was my first exposure to “citizen science.” This experience taught me how combined efforts at a local scale can create a real impact in advancing research and solutions to current problems. This experience also generated an unforeseen outcome of an article published in the Applied Biodiversity Science Perspective Series (http://hdl.handle.net/1969.1/166246). This article discusses the use of citizen science to engage underrepresented communities, particularly co-creative equal partnership in an effort to address community-specific environmental issues.Additionally, this article also explored training programs as a mechanism to provide environmental job skills and empowerment through policy training for disenfranchised communities to advocate for environmental justice. My class will team up with the Urban Resiliency Program again this summer to continue on the Operation Healthy Air project, but in the meantime we have partnered with the Audubon’s center at Deb’s Park to carry out a study on natural alternative methods for pest control management of gopher populations.
I highly encourage educators at all levels to immerse their students, and even themselves, in citizen science projects such as the Urban Resiliency Program. I found a lot of support by staff in materials for the classroom, such as PowerPoint’s and video trainings, as well as materials for the field. My students were surprised at how fun learning, carrying out, and contributing to science could be. These type of collaborations are also an excellent mechanism to promote diversity in science, key to innovations and advancements in the field.