By Yaela N. Golumbic, Ayelet Baram-Tsabari and the TCSS team
Teachers all over the world are expected to provide their students with enquiry-based science learning experiences. This is a far from trivial task: curricular are overcrowded, school science labs have insufficient supplies, and many teachers did not learn science by enquiry themselves.
No wonder so many budding students end up sprouting seeds in the dark and the light to see which grow better (spoiler: neither of them did, because Mom threw them away when they started to stink). Wouldn’t it be better if we could engage students with real, authentic and exciting science?
The Taking Citizen Science to School (TCSS) research centre in Israel engages students in citizen science projects, to break down some traditional barriers: between students, citizens and scientists; between formal and informal learning approaches; between scientific literacy and data literacy; between classrooms and out-of-school environments; between physical and online spaces; between education researchers and practitioners; and between science and science education.
Breaking down these boundaries can also support meaningful STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning, and TCSS involves educational science researchers from five STEM disciplines: mathematics, statistics, biology, earth science and environmental education. They work to integrate citizen science programmes into primary and secondary school classrooms as part of formal science teaching. Activities are designed to advance students’ science and data literacies, while also learning about the scientific field and gaining proficiency in scientific inquiry and data analysis.
To ensure this creates meaningful learning experiences, students go beyond data collection and analysis. We also work with teachers to become designers of their learning environments. Through this, they experience the full enquiry process and assume an advocacy role, raising awareness of their projects by sharing them with their communities.
Furthermore, TCSS supports scientists to develop new citizen science initiatives for implementation in schools. An example is the ‘Radon home survey’, which measures and maps concentrations in buildings of this dangerous radioactive gas that, in high concentrations, can cause lung cancer. Working collaboratively with scientists, the TCSS team developed a curriculum-based programme to involve school students in monitoring radon levels in their homes. It uses a simple, cheap technology for passive air absorption along with a mobile phone application designed to manage radon monitoring timeline and locations. Through eight structured lessons, students learn about the gas and its dangers, engage in class discussions, conduct radon measurements and analyse the data collected.
Our research indicates that students experience a new style of learning through performing authentic measurements and contributing to science. They become interested in the topic, motivated to learn about it, and express interest in promoting awareness of radon in their local environment. Participation in the radon home survey also inspires students to raise questions about social norms and democratic processes, investigating the role of governments and decision-makers in maintaining public health and wellbeing.
With new initiatives emerging on a regular basis, the potential for citizen science to raise public awareness, empower students and promote their environmental stewardship and responsibility is increasing. TCSS envisions a bright future in which, instead of sprouting seeds in the dark, we sprout new citizen science projects that foster meaningful and authentic STEM learning.