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Secondary school pupils become citizen scientists

21 February 2019

In September 2017, Science LinX started an EU-funded project to involve secondary school pupils and their teachers from the Netherlands, Spain and Cyprus in research as real ‘citizen scientists’. Project leader Maaike de Heij explains what has been done so far.

‘Society is facing major issues, like dealing with climate change. School pupils are tomorrow’s citizens, so we want to equip them with the experience and knowledge that will allow them to take part in debates on difficult issues’, De Heij explains. This is done by introducing these pupils to real and complicated problems and helping them to think about solutions.

Project leader Maaike de Heij (left of center) and SUSTAIN colleagues during a presentation in Spain | Photo SUSTAIN
Project leader Maaike de Heij (left of center) and SUSTAIN colleagues during a presentation in Spain | Photo SUSTAIN

Human needs

In the SUSTAIN project, scientists, teachers, pupils and several other partners, such as communication specialists, collaborate to develop teaching modules in each of the three countries, based on the concept of sustainable landscapes: ‘People use landscapes for different purposes, like agriculture, work or relaxation. But this affects the ecology of these landscapes’, explains De Heij. ‘The important issue is balancing human needs and ecology, so as to create sustainable landscapes.’

The groups from the three countries all chose a local issue arising from this concept. In Spain, the issue is water management; on Cyprus, the illegal trapping of migratory birds. In the Netherlands, the problem that school pupils are tackling is the dwindling numbers of birds, such as black-tailed godwits, in meadows.

Citizen science

‘They start by interviewing stakeholders, like farmers, nature conservationists and politicians’, says De Heij. ‘In this way, they become introduced to different viewpoints.’ In the second step, the pupils go outside and start collecting data for themselves, like information about soil structure or the number of insects and birds in different meadows. ‘By doing this, they learn how to perform experiments and collect data.’ Biologists from the University of Groningen assist them in practicing their ‘citizen science’.

School pupils during field work in a Frysian meadow | Photo Science LinX
School pupils during field work in a Frysian meadow | Photo Science LinX

These steps are moulded into a teaching module by teachers from the pupils’ schools, with the help of scientists and education specialists from the Faculty of Science and Engineering. The same steps are taken in Spain and Cyprus, so that all-in-all, the project will produce three different teaching modules. Although the issues are local, the teaching modules should be universal enough to be used all across Europe.

Testing

‘We are now in the process of testing the modules in the three countries’, says De Heij. Last year, around 100 pupils took part in a pilot of the Dutch module. This spring, two classes will test the teaching programme. ‘Last year, we found that it was hard for fifteen-year olds to work with the accuracy needed for real science.’ After the modules become finalized, they will be evaluated during a meeting with all partners on Cyprus this fall. ‘At that stage, we will also discuss any adjustments’, says De Heij. After that, more schools in the Netherlands, Spain and Cyprus will start using the teaching modules, which will subsequently be made available to schools across Europe.

Pupils of the Heritage Private School on Cyprus, one of the schools participating in SUSTAIN | Photo SUSTAIN
Pupils of the Heritage Private School on Cyprus, one of the schools participating in SUSTAIN | Photo SUSTAIN

Involving school pupils in science is part of a trend to include the general public in science. There are many citizen science projects, which allow those without formal training in science to help to collect or interpret data. The current Science LinX exhibition ‘Beyond the Lab’ in the University Museum is part of the same trend. The exhibition tells seven stories about citizen science, ranging from diabetes patients who take control of their own treatment to enthusiasts who created their own laboratory above an Amsterdam café to hunt for new antibiotics. The exhibition is open until 14 April.

More information on SUSTAIN is available on the project website.

Last modified:21 February 2019 2.38 p.m.

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