National Park Foundation's Citizen Science 2.0: Featuring Parks as Places of STEM Learning

    Mission statement 

    As the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service (NPS), the National Park Foundation (NPF) generates private support and builds strategic partnerships to protect and enhance America’s national parks for present and future generations. NPF protects our nation’s treasured places, connects people to nature, and engages the next generation of national park stewards. Citizen Science 2.0 (CS 2.0) is the centerpiece of a suite of new and enhanced NPF-NPS educational programs that seek to ensure that more students and teachers from underserved communities can experience national parks as places of learning.

    Core focus area 

    National parks are an integral part of the nation’s learning ecosystem in the 21st century. NPS engages about 2 million young people every year through formal education programs. Environmental education partners extend that reach to many more K-12 students across the country through programs that showcase parks as places of learning. As a focus area of NPF’s strategic plan, parks as places of learning aims to raise awareness of national parks as educational assets among teachers and school administrators. Citizen science can specifically spark students’ interest in studying science, technology, engineering, and/or math (STEM) in college, while engaged in scientific inquiry about our nation’s diverse ecosystems in the ultimate outdoor classrooms.

    Program Description
    CS 2.0 brings together national parks, local schools, and environmental partners to engage middle- and high-school students in hands-on, scientific, inquiry-based field studies on watershed health and water quality. The environmental education program is designed to connect students and teachers in grades 6-12 to their local national parks, shifting the traditional focus on one-time “field trips” to ongoing “field studies.” Working with environmental educators and NPS education staff and resource managers, students can design and undertake their own citizen science projects that address local issues and involve them in the scientific process.

    This Centennial grant-funded program currently supports citizen-science teams at eight national park sites, including an education partner and one or more local school districts. The initial sites are Anacostia Park (DC), Cabrillo National Monument (CA), Cuyahoga Valley National Park (OH), Great Smoky Mountains National Park (NC/TN), Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (LA), Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MN), Rock Creek Park (DC), and Saguaro National Park (AZ). These NPS sites represent a variety of geographies, watershed characteristics and challenges, and urban and non-urban school districts.

    Program Model
    The CS 2.0 program model at the eight NPS sites includes the following elements:

    • Watershed-focused activities tied to STEM curriculum: Embedding watershed science activities into the classroom curriculum can enhance environmental and science literacy and foster a commitment among young people to the stewardship of this natural resource. CS 2.0 activities focus on the investigation of human impacts on local watersheds. Activities include designing research questions and methods, collecting data, analyzing and interpreting data, and disseminating findings. By following a protocol and then entering data into a shared database, students can contribute to scientific knowledge about park resources and share their findings with NPS resource managers and partners. For example, students and teachers at Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), the largest district in Maryland, aim to measure, design, and test mitigations to the stormwater runoff problem in the rivers and streams near their schoolyards and nearby Rock Creek Park as part of a new chemistry module. “Chemistry Matters” engages 11th-grade students in investigating the health of the Potomac River Watershed, aligning with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and state standards. With the initial pilot completed in the 2017-2018 school year, MCPS plans to implement the module at four additional high schools during the following two school years and is evaluating the program for application in all 25 of its high schools. For this project, the Audubon Naturalist Society and NPS staff provide professional development and support for MCPS teachers.
    • Inquiry-based and place-based learning: Citizen science projects engage learners in the process of science as outlined in the NGSS, embracing an experiential and place-based approach. National parks and their related watersheds provide ideal outdoor laboratories for these authentic field experiences. Educators agree that with such real-world, relevant experiences are more likely to spark an interest in science and watershed stewardship than sitting at a lab bench or in a classroom lecture. “We are using citizen science as a tool to teach students to solve problems facing their communities,” said Maggie Zadorozny, education specialist at Rock Creek Park. “This is not just about collecting data. We hope students will develop a commitment to take action to improve watershed health.”
    • Professional development for teachers: CS 2.0 recognizes teachers as a key strategic audience for--and partner in--this work. Professional development workshops train teachers in science protocols and databases with a focus on how field studies support classroom learning specific to state education standards, NGSS, and environmental and science literacy plans. Workshops also are designed to help teachers develop a comfort level to conduct outdoor field studies. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, education partner Institute at Tremont provides in-classroom coaching in addition to teacher workshops to help educators gain confidence with scientific tools and methods to collect data on water quality, watersheds, and environmental and climate issues.
    • Shared learning across park sites: NPF is committed to supporting a community of practice among participants for CS 2.0. About 30 environmental educators, park rangers, and school teachers shared what they have learned, contributed to external evaluation of the program, and discussed strategies for the second year of the three-year, pilot program at the first convening in September 2018 at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, MN. NPF also has established an online portal where participants can post materials and access resources such as a Citizen Science Teacher Handbook and a program logic model.
    • Connections to NPS resource management: Natural resource managers are vital partners who provide valuable input on resource issues and scientific protocols to ensure student data are high quality and relevant to NPS resource management. CS 2.0 is aligned with Pillar 4 of the National Park Service Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Framework: Enhancing Stewardship and Science Access and Engagement. This pillar seeks to communicate information about the condition of park resources, processes, and values to the public. Citizen science clearly has the potential to contribute to long-term NPS ecological monitoring programs. To that end, the CS 2.0 project at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area called “Big River Scientists” is being designed in collaboration with local experts and regional watershed natural resource managers at this partnership park.