The Urban Resiliency Project in the Classroom: An Evolution

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.

Reflections

Students
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.

Educator

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.

Leading, Training, and Motivating Citizen Scientists

By Namrata Sengupta

Ellie Perry has been involved with the Earthwatch Urban Resiliency (UR) Program since June 2014, as the Los Angeles area Program Consultant. She assisted with the Operation Resilient Trees project. Ellie recruited and led citizen scientists into the field as well as trained them to collect data independently, during these past years. As we are wrapping up the Operation Resilient Trees project to get ready for our new program Operation Healthy Air, we decided to catch up with Ellie and let her share some of her experiences in leading citizen science initiatives.

Ellie Perry (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie Perry (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q1. What has been the most exciting part of being associated with the UR program?

I think most of the excitement came with trying to build a citizen science program almost entirely from scratch in an area where the organization (leading it) didn’t have much of a local presence to start.  Since there were so many directions the program could go, it was an exciting process to build it from the ground up, try out different engagement models, and figure out what ultimately would stick and resonate with people in the region.  

(photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
(Photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q2. Which aspect of the program motivated you the most?

I was mostly motivated by the citizen scientists themselves, and how committed they were to contributing and volunteering their time.  During my tenure, hundreds of people dedicated hours and hours to collect data for this project, not to mention the many educators who led entire classrooms semester after semester in collecting data in the field.  To freely volunteer that much time and put in that much effort when the final policy impacts from their work are still years off, takes serious dedication and foresight.  Citizen science isn’t as immediately gratifying as something like volunteering at a soup kitchen, doing a beach clean-up, or working at an animal shelter, and a lot of potential volunteers get turned off by the fact that it may take months or years for their efforts to result in something tangible they can immediately see.  The fact that these volunteers decided to serve as citizen scientists fully understanding that is admirable.  

(photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie interacting with citizen scientists (Photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q3. What were some of the challenges you experienced while working with this program?

One of the current problems in citizen science as a whole is the general suspicion that volunteers will never be able to collect data as efficiently as a scientist.  Even though many of these measurements are relatively easy to take, there was constant scrutiny and pressure on the effectiveness of the training, the quality of the data, the competency of the volunteers, etc. especially since there was no previous benchmark to compare with.

Q4. Can you share one or two of your favorite experiences from the program?

Reverting to the issue of citizen scientist-collected data being scrutinized harder than that collected by scientists, it was incredibly satisfying to hear the results of the recent quality control study the lab/Earthwatch performed on the data.  There’s a recent blog post covering the full results, but they mostly found that the data the citizen scientists were bringing in was well within 95%+ accuracy of the data collected by themselves (which statistically is no difference at all).  It gave a lot of confidence to the researchers and Earthwatch, and it was a real affirmation that the training we were providing to the citizen scientists was effective.  

Ellie with Operation Resilient Trees - citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie with Operation Resilient Trees – citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q5. What message would you like to give to the larger community interested in getting involved in citizen science projects and initiatives?

I would say it’s important to be patient if you’re going to get involved with citizen science.  As I mentioned previously, it’s a very slow walk from data to results to policy impacts, not a sprint. Bridging the communication gap between science and the public is an incredibly rare skill, and it’s not very common to find leaders who can speak to both sides of the table equally well.  Being patient while the kinks that will ultimately arise as a result get worked out is important if you want to stay involved for the long haul.  

Urban Resiliency Program citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Urban Resiliency Program citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

To explore citizen science opportunities with the UR program, connect with us and learn how to get involved.