Citizen Science Design: Broadly Focused Mercury Study


  • Teachers expressed interest in increased opportunities to involve students in inquiry
  • Also expressed interest in direct connections with working scientists
  • Our desire to encourage more thinking about systems and interrelationships rather than disconnected chunks of scientific knowledge


  • Given support in the form of PD focused on the process of inquiry, coupled with technical support WRT a particular problem focus (Hg in the environment), teachers would incorporate more project-oriented investigations in their teaching
  • Direct connection to a working scientist would matter in terms of teacher confidence and student response
  • Teachers would participate in an Web-based community of practice to share experiences, concerns, and so on
  • Successful use of field based inquiry by some teachers would encourage other teachers to adopt similar practices


  • Participation by high school (primarily grade 9 and 10) teachers from a number of Maine communities.
  • Summer workshop that involved teachers in a multi-day inquiry including formulation of their own questions, research design, data collection, analysis, and presentation of findings
  • General focus during the school year on mercury in the environment
  • Participation from a scientist (Dr. Sarah Nelson) who liked working with students
  • No strong focus on a particular research question … instead, focus on students and teachers developing their own questions
  • Collection of samples that would be analyzed for total mercury content (THg).
  • Substantial investment in preparing support materials
  • Investment in Web-based community for information sharing among teachers and between the scientist and the students.
  • Culminating poster presentations by students.

What We Learned

  • The scientist’s participation was viewed as valuable, even essential, by teachers and students
  • The project was very time consuming for the scientist
  • Students and teachers had a lot of difficulty formulating good questions
  • There was little evidence that the work we did with teachers transformed colleagues’ practice
  • But, for a small number of teachers, the experience was transformative
  • Most teachers did not much use the Web-based community, but liked getting together in person
  • Most teachers made minimal use of the support materials
  • The students had almost NO idea of how to work with data.  They produced graphs that were unrelated to their question — as if the graph was an end itself that had no further purpose. More troubling: most of the teachers did not have a perspective that caused them to see this as a problem, and when the problem was pointed out, did not have pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) and, in some cases, content knowledge(CK) that they could use to address it.
  • The posters were more successful than PowerPoint as a way for students to share what they learned and to provide evidence of learning

Other Outcomes

  • Evidence of surprisingly high mercury levels in biota in some ponds and streams.
  • Evidence of substantial spatial variation in THg.