While low-income and minority communities suffer disproportionately from poor environmental conditions, members of these communities tend to be under-represented in participatory scientific projects and informal science learning opportunities. There are many benefits to community-driven STEM projects, both for individuals' experiential learning and for the betterment of communities. Expanding participation also contributes to a more complete understanding of complex environmental problems, including STEM content and skills. This project engages members of racially and economically diverse communities in identifying and carrying out environmental projects that are meaningful to their lives, and adapts technology known as NatureNet to assist them. NatureNet, which encompasses a cell phone app, a multi-user, touch-based tabletop display and a web-based community, was developed with prior NSF support. Core participants involved in programs of the Anacostia Watershed Society in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, and the Reedy Creek Nature Preserve in Charlotte, NC, will work with naturalists, educators, and technology specialists to ask scientific questions and form hypotheses related to urban waterway restoration and preservation of native species. They will then collect and analyze data using NatureNet, requesting changes to the technology to customize it as needed for their projects. Casual visitors to the nature centers will be able to interact with the environmental projects via the tabletop, and those who live farther away will be able to participate more peripherally via the online community. This study is funded by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments. This includes providing multiple pathways for broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences, advancing innovative research on and assessment of STEM learning in informal environments, and developing understandings of deeper learning by participants.
The research project, led by researchers from the University of Maryland, College Park, with collaborators from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the University of Colorado, Boulder, will provide answers to two questions: 1) How do community-driven informal environmental learning projects impact participants, including their motivation to actively participate in science issues via technology and their disposition toward nature preserves and scientific inquiry, and 2) What are the key factors (e.g., demographic composition of participants, geographical location) that influence the development of community-driven environmental projects? Researchers will gather extensive qualitative and quantitative data to understand how community projects are selected and carried out, how participants approach technology use and adaptation, and how informal learning and engagement on STEM-related issues can be fostered over a period of several months and through iterative project cycles. Data will be collected through motivation questionnaires; focus groups; interviews; tabletop, mobile, and website interaction logs; field notes from participatory design and reflection sessions; and project journals kept by nature preserve staff. Through extensive research, iterative design, and evaluation efforts, researchers will develop an innovative model for community-driven environmental projects that will deepen informal science education by demonstrating how members of diverse communities connect environmental knowledge and scientific inquiry skills to the practices, values, and goals of their communities, and how technology can be used to facilitate such connections.