Citizen Science Design: Rockweed & Forest Ecology

This project involved Sumner Memorial High School students in work that assisted 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.


Much of this work was exploratory: we were learning by doing. But we did begin with a few conjectures that were framed in terms of the kinds of science learning that we hoped to provide and support. Although many of these students, despite their history with school, were clearly intelligent and capable, we were aware that most had views of science that ranged from indifference to hostility. The saying, “It took someone with a college degree to screw this job up this good,” captures some of the students’ perspective, a perspective gained by working with and among adults who distinguished between real know-how gained on the job and book learning that is disconnected from practical application.

Consequently, the learning that we hoped to engender was aimed at:

  • Expose students to the perspectives and habits of work that are characteristic of good scientific work — attention to protocols and details, consideration of interactions between parts of a system, use of simple models to organize thinking, the requirement that assertions be backed by evidence, acceptance of more than one possible explanation in the absence of evidence to support a choice between explanations, and so on.
  • Encourage students to see science as a legitimate, useful way of developing insights that complement insights from practice.
  • Provide students with evidence that scientific work is something that they can do.
  • Provide students with experiences and problems to engage with that increase their attention to the complex ways that elements interact within the forest and ocean systems that comprise much of the economic base for the communities in which the students live. Put another way, encourage them to see not just resources, but also the systems that support those resources.

Within the context of these goals, our conjectures were:

  • Students would leave the program with a better understanding of the nature of scientific work and a more positive view of science as something potentially useful
  • Students’ own self-efficacy with regard to scientific work would increase.
  • We would see change even among (and perhaps especially among) the students who expressed strong disinterest in the program at the outset.
  • Place attachment matters
  • With regard to work with the school, we would, over the course of the first year, develop working relationships that would support more ambitious work together in subsequent years.


  • Support from a pair of local foundations enabled us to support two Schoodic Institute scientists in weekly work sessions with students. One scientist focused on characterizing the meiofauna in rockweed; the other on characterization of seedlings and saplings in a forest gap.
  • Schoodic instructors led the fieldwork, lab work, and classroom work related to data analysis. Teachers at the school attended the sessions at Schoodic and provided supports in terms of connecting this work to documentation of student learning and progress toward gaining proficiencies required to meet curriculum and graduation standards.
  • Working as part of a team, students were responsible for investigation of a research question and presentation of findings and discussion in an end-of-year poster session.

What We Learned

The assertions here are based on observations of and conversations with individual students. As described in the write up on our EASYES work, we also used this year to develop an instrument that can be used in pre-test / post-test data collection about students’ perceptions in subsequent years.

  • Students did change their perceptions about scientists and science — in a few cases quite dramatically, moving from visible, active irritation with the process to active engagement not only with the scientists leading the classroom work but also with guest scientists who came in to meet with the students.
  • Self-efficacy in field work (e.g., identifying trees, counting stems within quadrates along a transect) increased visibly over the first few field sessions.
  • Over the course of the year some students did become more sophisticated in their thinking about other factors within the marine or forest system that might account for the observations they were making.
  • A new conjecture: our sense, in watching the students engage in this work, is that student engagement might be strengthened if we moved from questions that were primarily of interest to Schoodic Institute scientists to questions more connected to issues within the communities that the school serves and where the students live and work.  As I describe below, this conjecture quickly began to move into new design work focused on shellfishing.

Other Outcomes

This project garnered attention in local news media. Perhaps due to that, among other things, the school received expressions of interest from other community entities interested in working more closely with teachers and students. One of the calls to the school was from a member of a local shellfish committee who would like to engage student in investigations of predation and reseeding on local clam flats. I describe the outcomes of this call below in the description of the Community Shellfishing Support program.

As this project got underway, Sumner began a broader movement toward greater emphasis on project-based learning throughout its program. This has created opportunities for us to engage students in the mainstream program in project-oriented citizen science while continuing to work with the faculty and students in the alternative program.