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Ecology Explorers turns backyards into science labs

January 03, 2006

Through ASU, 2,000 students in 75 schools across the Phoenix metropolitan area have the opportunity to conduct real scientific research in their own backyards. The Ecology Explorers program creates a community of scientists with university researchers, K-12 students, and their teachers. The students collect data that helps scientists understand how the Phoenix urban ecosystem works, all while learning the processes of scientific methodology and increasing their knowledge of the surrounding environment.

Ecology Explorers is an initiative of the Central Arizona Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research project (CAP-LTER), a project begun in 1997 with funding from the National Science Foundation. The project is conducting long-term research in two cities – Baltimore and Phoenix – to document the negative and positive effects that human occupation has on an urban ecosystem as well as the effect that the ecosystem has on humans. The data collected by the Ecology Explorers helps the CAP-LTER researchers understand the current state of the Phoenix urban ecosystem. Phoenix, as a sprawling and ever-changing city located in the beautiful Sonoran Desert, presents an interesting and complex laboratory for the Ecology Explorers.

Before the junior scientists begin their research, the program provides special training for their teachers. Teachers visit field sites, learn scientific protocols, participate in inquiry-based activities, meet scientists, learn data collection and analysis techniques, and develop their own lessons to implement in the classroom. The program continues to offer support during the year through day-long topical workshops, classroom visits, and technical support.

One participating teacher reported, “It was surprising to see how this project affected the students. I had students coming in before school to report unusual bird sightings. Other students mentioned how they enjoyed pointing out local birds when they were out with their friends and family after school. For many of the students, this was the first time they had spent so much time by themselves in their backyards. Much to their own amazement, many students found that they developed a new awareness of and appreciation for the ecosystem in which they live.”

Participating in Ecology Explorers has also improved student achievement in the classroom by demonstrating to students the significance of their work. According to another teacher, “My students know that this research is for real. They know that accuracy is not only expected, but that it is being relied upon by others. As a result, the overall quality of our classroom work has improved.”

Using their schoolyards or backyards as the research site to study an urban ecosystem, students engage in the most creative and fun parts of science by getting their hands dirty and collecting real data. Students learn to look for patterns in nature, ask focused scientific questions, develop hypotheses, design and run experiments, and analyze results. Ultimately, students learn about how humans influence ecological factors and in turn, how those factors influence human decisions.

Students share their research with other students and learn about what other students have discovered through the award winning Ecology Explorers web site. The web site features a kid’s newsletter and ask-the-scientist page that gives students the ability to interact directly with the program’s research scientists. Flash animation games help students learn how to do arthropod and bird population studies. There is also an interactive game to help students see how land-use has changed over the past 50 years in the Phoenix area. In addition, teachers can use the web site to retrieve lesson plans and other resources.

The Ecology Explorers program was developed by the Center for Environmental Studies and is administered by the International Institute for Sustainability. The program recently received a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust to continue after-school science club their partnership with the ASU Service Learning Program.