Design of Middle and High School Citizen Science Programs

I have been invited by a National Academy of Science committee to share some of what we have learned at the Schoodic Institute in more than 10 years of designing and implementing citizen science programs in schools. The invitation was an opportunity to review our work, see how we addressed design problems and encountered new ones, and to consider what we learned from all of that. In this post I summarize Schoodic Institute’s work with citizen science and schools over the past decade and then use that summary to propose 8 key elements that should be considered within a design framework for citizen science in schools . 

This summary is built from a review of some of the work with have done with many schools and other partners, including the Center for Research in STEM Education (RiSE Center) at the University of Maine, the National Park Service, the Island Institute, Hurricane Island, and the Herring Gut Learning Center.  I focus on the programs that I think have been most influential in shaping our thinking about program design.

The First 10 Years

Below is a list of the programs that were most important to our thinking about the design of citizen science programs for schools up through 2016. Clicking on the bold faced name for each program will take you to a page that describes the the background and motivation for the program, design conjectures, and lessons learned from each of these programs in much more detail.

  • Broadly-Focused Mercury Inquiry: A decade ago we put together support materials and professional development to help teachers use investigations of mercury in the environment as a way to involve students in project-oriented inquiry and to connect students to working scientists.
  • A More Narrowly-Focused Mercury Study: We found that the broad focus of the first project made it difficult for teachers and students to formulate questions that could be answered with the data that they were collecting and that were pedagogically useful. So, we tightened the focus.  The tightened focus also made the work more useful for Dr. Sarah Nelson, who was the scientist cooperating with the teachers and the students.
  • Data Literacy: During the first project we also learned that students had not yet learned how to make sense of real world data. Further, most science teachers had not received professional development or support in their pre-service preparation that provided them with support for teaching students how to make sense of data. So, we offered professional development focused just on that problem.
  • Snowpack Monitoring: Although the more narrowly focused Hg study was successful in a number of ways, it was difficult to keep the project going over time because: (1) the work had served its purpose for the scientist and she was ready to move on to the next step in her work, and (2) analysis of samples for mercury content was expensive. (I should add, however, that the work that the teachers and students did with Dr. Nelson led to a much larger, nationwide citizen-science mercury monitoring program that is now in use in more than 70 national parks. The point is not that the program was  unsuccessful, just that it was difficult to sustain across a network of Maine schools.)  So, we developed a project focused on year-after-year collection of snowpack data at many sites around Maine. Dr. Nelson led this project because she knew that she, along with colleagues, needed a better picture of geographic variation in snowpack across Maine. This appeared to be a promising way to:
    • Design a project that teachers could use again and again while still involving students in novel questions.
    • Collect useful data less expensively.
    • Provide data that might be useful to a number of scientists, thereby reducing the burden on Dr. Nelson.
    • Involve teachers in the work of sustaining a project over time.

The following picture provides an overview of how these projects fit together, with questions from one project providing the basis for the next stage of work.  The dates across the bottom of the picture are rough timeline that shows how this work developed. Clicking on the picture will bring up a larger version.

At the end of the snowpack project we had come to a “pause.”  We had many different kinds of evidence confirming our sense that connecting citizen science to schools was important work. But we had also become more sharply aware of issues that still needed to be addressed.

Changing the Way Teachers Teach: We had, over the course of a decade, met and supported a hundred or so science teachers. The majority of these teachers were exceptionally dedicated to engaging their students in something more than “school science.”  We had worked, and continue to work, with a number of these teachers over many years — in a few cases dating back to the beginning of our work at the Schoodic Institute. A few of the teachers told us that our programs, and others like them, were what kept them in the profession.  We had evidence that we had expanded the capabilities of many of these teachers.

Scale Up Issues: However, we had seen evidence that the exceptional work that these teachers were doing rarely spread beyond their classrooms. In a few cases the teachers brought a colleague on board, but, more often, they worked alone in their schools, perhaps because what they were doing WAS so exceptional — so beyond what other teachers felt that they could do, or wanted to take the time to do.

Sustainability Issues: It also seemed that the only way that we could support this kind of work was by continually writing proposals to secure new funding. We wanted to provide funders with ways to make investments in improving teaching and learning, but it sometimes seemed that much of our work was more an expenditure than an investment: money spent to do something valuable while the money lasted, rather than money invested to create an ongoing return.

A Bright Spot for Underserved Students?: Over the decade of doing this work, we had many teachers tell us that one of the most valuable things about the authentic science experiences that we facilitated as that they opened opportunities for students who were otherwise disengaged from science and, more generally, from school. We work in a rural region where high school graduation rates are often in the 70% – 80% range, so making a difference for students who are not well-served by traditional approaches to teaching and learning matters to us. But, the evidence that we were making a difference for these students was second hand. More important, we had little insight into why or how these project-based, authentic science programs were making a difference.

Restart: Recent Work

In early 2016 we received an email from a teacher who manages an alternative program within Sumner Memorial High School (our local high school).  Students submit applications to join the alternative program if they feel that the mainstream program at the school is not giving them what they need or that they need an alternative approach to learning. Many of the students in the program would be at risk of not graduating without such a program. Their reasons for needing alternative arrangements vary widely, including the need to work to support their family, difficulties with more textbook-centric approaches to instruction, problems with having fallen behind and need for an opportunity to catch up, and a desire to engage in more project-oriented learning, among other things.

Although Schoodic Institute, working with Acadia National Park, offers a 3-day residential program for grade 5-8 students, much of the Institute’s work has been with teachers. What we knew about our programs’ impacts on students was second hand, through teachers. In this email request and the meetings that followed, Sumner was seeking help in working directly with students to provide the core elements of their science instruction over the course of a school year.  This promised to be an opportunity to help out with a valuable local program as well as an opportunity to take a fresh look at the ways that we connected citizen science to schools.

Below are the programs that have followed from our work with Sumner (and, subsequently, with other schools and other partners, including the Center for Research in STEM Education (RiSE Center) at the University of Maine, the Island Institute, Hurricane Island, and the Herring Gut Learning Center. As before, clicking on the program names will take to you separate pages with more information about these programs.

  • Rockweed & Forest Ecosystems: The initial work with Sumner students involved assisting two Schoodic Institute scientist in their research. One group collected seeding and sapling data in a forest gap as part of a study of forest regeneration. The other group characterized meiofauna in rockweed forests at two sites. The outcomes from this project were encouraging in a number of ways; in particular, it provided evidence about the process of improving students’ science self efficacy and about how this, in turn, might change their perceptions about the nature and utility of science.
  • Community Shellfishing Support: This new project emerged from the Rockweed & Forest Ecosystem work. Sumner teachers and students, including students in the high school’s standard program as well as those in the alternative program, will assist town shellfish committees and the Maine Department of Marine Resources in field work and analysis that will assist the shellfish committees with management of clam flats.  In this first year we will work just with Sumner students and towns that Sumner serves. Our broader goal is to provide teachers with resources, professional development, and network support so that the program can expand to serve schools and towns all along the coast of Maine. One important conjecture that we will explore is that the existing infrastructures associated with the management of clam flats and other coastal resources can become part of the support system for teachers.
  • Effects of Authentic Science on Youth Expectations about Science (EASYES): Throughout all of our work we have built on the assumption that there is something especially important and valuable about the “authentic science learning” that citizen science makes available. But even a quick review on the research and practice literature that has developed around authentic science learning will show that “authentic” means different things to different practitioners and theorists. The broad meanings of “authentic” make program design difficult, since it appears that there are many program features that could be important–too many to incorporate coherently within a program. Moreover, some of these features are expensive and/or difficult to implement well. Consequently, in collaboration with partner organizations, we initiated EASYES last year, a research program intended to provide evidence about which elements of authenticity make a difference for different groups of students.

The following figure illustrates how these projects fit together. Once again, clicking on the figure will bring up a larger version.

Contribution to a Design Framework

The reason that NAS has invited me to present to their committee is that they are seeking to offer a design framework (or frameworks) that will be useful to practitioners and researchers. I believe that observations and generalizations emerging from the past decade of work by Schoodic Institute and its partners are potentially applicable to eight dimensions of design for citizen science programs intended to improve science teaching and learning in schools:

  1. Science learning
  2. The nature of the scientific work beyond the school
  3. The role and contribution of scientists
  4. Data quality
  5. Data Literacy
  6. Scaling up
  7. Sustainability
  8. Investment vs. Expenditure

What follows is a summary of the principal things that we have learned about these key design dimensions.

On Science Learning

  • Programs must address learning for students who have no interest in the “STEM pipeline” as well as for those potentially interested in STEM careers.  Citizen science work appears to be particularly useful in supporting learning for these students.
  • Such learning includes developing understanding of what science is and what it involves so that students can separate “junk science” from science that is likely to be useful in decision making.
  • The learning should result in a sense of science self-efficacy with the goal of making science less alien and something that is only for other students. We need a better understanding of the level and nature of self-efficacy that is associated with science becoming something that is not “other” (“I can’t do that,” “It has nothing to do with me,” “I think it is boring,” and so on.)
  • “Authenticity” seems to matter, but we need a better understanding of what makes a students’ work on a project authentic from the student’s perspective.

On the Nature of the Scientific Work Beyond the School

  • Support for hypothesis driven research is possible and can be useful, particularly during very early stages of an investigation, but is usually not sustainable as an educational program.
  • More narrowly focused questions help with question formulation in the classroom. (Important: the questions of interest to the scientist are rarely good questions from a pedagogical standpoint. Consequently, a good citizen science investigation supports questions at both levels.)
  • Work focused on environmental monitoring can be easier to develop into a year-after-year program (see caveats about data collection), but can be hard to sustain financially.
  • Work focused producing outcomes that are locally useful, rather than generalizable, appears better suited to what teachers and students can do. (It might be possible to provide teachers with common supports for work that is locally differentiated.)

On the Role and Contribution of Scientists

  • If one can find a scientist who has the skills and interest required to work with teachers and students, such people bring huge value to the program and to interactions with students. But they are hard to find.  And, mostly, they do not get rewarded for such work.
  • For academic scientists, data or samples to support peer-reviewed publication is important, and the quality demands of such work can be a barrier to collaboration with schools beyond very early stage studies.
  • However, scientists working in state agencies and similar positions can be useful, important partners and resources. This is particularly true if they need data that are more important because they are useful locally, rather than useful in support of generalizations and peer-reviewed publications.

On Data Quality

  • If a project seeks to work across many teachers and classrooms, it is very likely that it will encounter difficulty with data quality if it is relying on students to make measurements.  This is a particularly vexing problems when measurements are coupled with events such as snowstorms that can occur on any day, at any time.
  • The problem is less severe if data collection can happen on one occasion or just a few occasions. The problem is most severe when collection extends over longer periods of time.
  • Regular data collection over the course of months is often in conflict with the structure of the school year and teachers need to move from unit to unit, apart from the problem of accurate measurement.
  • Use of automated data collection devices is advisable whenever possible.
  • Collection of samples, rather than data, can get around the measurement problem.

On Data Literacy

  • It is a pretty safe bet that students do not know how to make sense of data. This is true for most students in advanced courses as well as students in introductory courses
  • But, students can learn to do this.
  • Data literacy starts with an understanding that individuals within a group vary (dogs, trees, acorns, thunderstorms, whatever), and that describing this variation is at the heart of scientific work.
  • Science teachers need professional development to help students gain these skills; most science teachers do not have the pedagogical content knowledge required to do this.  Counting on the math teacher to do the instruction is usually a bad idea.

On Scaling Up

  • We have seen little evidence that providing PD and supports for one teacher in a school changes what other teachers do.
  • Our work on instructional change in other projects suggest that supporting teachers as leaders and providing them PD aimed at helping them work effectively with colleagues is important.
  • Even with such trained teachers in place, they need an external infrastructure to support their work with other teachers.

On Sustainability

  • Support for teacher networks is critically important (see above).
  • The support required appears to be relatively light weight (part-time), but has to be there.
  • We are currently thinking in terms of blends of local supports — related to the productive work that teachers and students can do locally — as a useful approach to sustaining citizen science work in schools over time.

On Investment vs. Expenditure

  • If we hope to see more citizen science and other project-oriented work in schools, there must be investment to develop the infrastructures required to support teachers as they work with each other and with outside resources to learn how to improve.
  • Improvement in teachers’s professional capacity should include improvement of their ability to facilitate and support professional learning among colleagues — in other words, to serve as teacher leaders within the improvement infrastructure.
  • We note that much of the support for education improvement and professional development is tends to be focused on the short term, aimed at support for particular projects rather than systems or networks of projects. These are expenditures rather than investments.


On this page and on the other pages that I link to from this page I draw upon work by others.  Here is a list of those books and articles.

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3 Responses to Design of Middle and High School Citizen Science Programs

  1. Sarah Kirn says:

    Hi Bill,
    Great post. I so appreciate your reflections on your work at Schoodic and with Maine teachers and schools.
    I do have a question about your comments on scale. Have you seen that the PD you provide to teachers around citizen science or other project based science impacts their approach beyond these units? And what kinds of “external infrastructure” do you imagine would support teachers in sharing what they are learning with their colleagues?
    Have a wonderful time in DC! I’ll be watching from my desk.


  2. Sarah —
    Thanks for the read and the comments … and QUESTIONS! Here is my thinking about some answers.
       The PD that has had the most impact on teachers beyond an individual project — by far — is the work we did on data literacy — helping teachers help student make sense of data. Many (most? I think so …) of the teachers who participated in that PD have incorporated data sense-making in all of their science teaching. There are many reasons for this, but among them is the way that attending to data sense-making has powerful and relatively quick effects. As I said to the National Academy of Science committee, the reason that students have a hard time making sense of data is because they have never been taught how to do it. Once someone takes the time to teach them, it is pretty rewarding to see what they can do.
       WRT to infrastructure, our experience has been that teachers can make a difference beyond their own classroom–facilitating improvement in other classrooms–if they have the opportunity to learn how working with colleagues and with administrators requires different skills and a somewhat different “stance” than is required in the classroom. There is no one “right” way to do this leadership work — how teachers lead reflects who they are — but professional development, guided reflection, and support from like-minded peers can stimulate growth of leadership skills. BUT, even given professional development, it is difficult to facilitate change all by oneself. The most important infrastructure requirement is that teacher leaders and teacher innovators need a way to connect with each other, learn from each other, and support each other in reaching out to colleagues and to school administrators.
       At the National Academies meeting we heard an excellent presentation from Linda Peterson, who is the middle school science specialist for the Fairfax County Public Schools. She made a compelling case for working with her district, rather than just with individual teachers, because the district has the infrastructure to bring teachers together to consider and implement new ideas. The district, through its teachers, can do the translation between the scientist’s ideas and the needs of teachers, and do it in a way that supports programs over time.
       BUT (and this is the key thing for you, me, and others working in rural areas), the Fairfax County Public Schools enrolls 110,000 students. We have only 182,000 students in all of Maine. The median size of a school district (not just a school) in Maine is about 380 students. With few exceptions, Maine school districts cannot provide the infrastructure to bring science teachers together to undertake substantial design and review of new initiatives. Mostly, science teachers in Maine work in relative isolation, except for organizations like yours, the RiSE Center at UMaine, the Maine Math and Science Alliance, Island Institute, our own work at Schoodic, and others that bring teachers from many districts together to think together and learn from each other. But, as it stands, even that ad hoc infrastructure is fragmented and, in some cases, working from grant to grant. That is a really important issue: our work is usually focused around a new idea or program, rather than being about connecting teachers to refine and develop programs — attending to their own development and concerns instead of attending to implementation of something new.
       We need an infrastructure that supports practicing science teachers who are experienced in community and problem-based scientific inquiry who want to share what they have learned with colleagues. Your organization, mine, and others could have a lot to do with creating such an infrastructure, but it is not about us … it needs to be an infrastructure for teachers working with teachers. It also needs to get off on the right foot in the sense that it needs to by hungry for new ideas and insights, which is where your organization, my own, the University of Maine, and others come into the picture.
       What does such an infrastructure entail? For one thing, some staff support. People who handle the logistics of bringing teachers together, of publicizing and distributing what the teachers create, and of finding the support for this work. And, of course, a communication infrastructure to link teachers together. But I also think that it is important that this infrastructure be pretty light weight. A too-large infrastructure becomes too conscious of itself. I am most concerned with enabling and supporting leadership among science teachers, not about creating yet another non-profit organization (YANPO — I like it!).
       WDYT? Does this make sense to you? How might we get this started?


  3. Jenn Page says:

    Hi Bill,
    Thank you as always for sharing your thoughts in such a great format. Even though I was struck by many of the things you said, the one that has continually bubbled to the surface of my mind is that it “might be possible to provide teachers with common supports for work that is locally differentiated”. This is at the heart of what we are trying to do with our aquaculture professional development on Hurricane in conjunction with the Island Institute and Herring Gut. While we are using aquaculture as the vehicle, and we are concerned about helping teachers actually implement aquaculture in their own schools, we are ultimately training teachers to identify and implement locally relevant projects to spark student engagement and learning.

    In my mind this is very similar to your work on data literacy professional development for teachers: providing tools and training for teachers that are broadly applicable across disciplines, locations, and contexts. As you mentioned, Maine is characterized by small school districts and bringing teachers together for any sort of training is often difficult at best and finding funding for training and travel is tenuous. With those constraints, what are your thoughts on the types of ‘tools’ that require in-person supports for teachers versus things that can be accomplished ‘just as well’ by lower level supports, ranging from video conferences to webinars or even simply online print resources such as lesson plans? Where do we put our effort/money to have the greatest impact in Maine let alone beyond using our existing resources rather than creating YANPO 🙂 in order to address the needs of schools and individual teachers?

    Neither question has a very straightforward answer and both refer broadly to what you are thinking about in your entire post (i.e., where do we go from here?) but they are very much in my mind as our organization contemplates the next step in our own development and how we can be the most effective resource for the populations we serve. Thank you again for the great post – always a pleasure to see your summaries that draw on your own extensive experiences in addition to the experiences of colleagues and thought leaders in the field.


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