We the people – using the power of citizen science: Michelle Anne Luebke at TEDxJerseyCity

We the people – using the power of citizen science: Michelle Anne Luebke at TEDxJerseyCity


Translator: Mishal Ali
Reviewer: Denise RQ Imaging, if you will that all the adults in the US
are in these ten figures. According to the most recent censuses, it is about roughly equal
in terms of gender balance. What if I tell you, that only two
of them can understand this? I’m not talking about the verbal literacy
necessary to read a newspaper. I’m talking about the scientific
and environmental literacy necessary to read the science section
of the New York Times, or watch a Nova program on TV. And sorry ladies, this is
actually wishful thinking for us. Men are actually more inclined
to be scientifically literate than we are. and as a female scientist,
I think this needs to change. Giving the complex environmental issues facing us today like global climate
change, fracking and GMOs – genetically modified organisms,
if you are not familiar with the acronym – it’s no wonder than many people
feel powerless to affect change. Often people feel intimidated by science,
putting up a wall to understanding. But how are we, as a society,
supposed to make the best decisions if only 20% of us can actually
understand what’s going on? And this is an improvement from 1957, when only 1 out of 10
had sufficient scientific literacy. I’m not suggesting that everyone
run out and become a scientist tomorrow, but I’m saying that we need to have
a basic scientific understanding, so that we can understand key terms
like knowing there’s actually a difference between climate change
and global warming, because there is. Climate change is
an all encompassing term; global warming is just an aspect of it, so, winters don’t actually negate
global warming. Oceans’ acidification,
changes in precipitation patterns and changes in frequency,
and intensity of storms like hurricane Sandy
that affected us all so deeply, and the recent typhoon
in The Philippines. This is not just something
that we need to worry about for the future this increases our resiliency
as a society. Thus, to be civically minded, I’ll argue,
we must first be scientifically literate. Miller describes
a scientifically literate citizen as someone who has a basic vocabulary
of scientific terms and constructs, and understands the nature
of scientific inquiry. Now, many of us think
we understand scientific inquiry, because we know
the scientific method from school. but, if you ask people what’s
a hypothesis, a lot of them say: “What you think will happen,
and what you trying to prove.” And in fact, this, from Scholastic,
has the hypothesis as: predicting the outcome to the problem. And I’m sorry, but that’s just not
how science works. Well, not good science that is. Science is all about
inquiry and discovery, not going into an experiment
with a preconceived notion of how it’s going to turn out. For me, experiential learning is
my favourite way to learn. I love the hands-on, fingers dirty, ‘let’s grab-a-sample-of-soil-
and-run-it-throw-our-fingers method, and figure out the percent of sand, silt,
and clay, which is actually real; it’s called the texture-by-feel method
and soil scientists used it. That’s how well I want to know
the Earth we live on. and I bet that I’m not
the only one, am I? Let’s see a show of hands
of who likes to learn by doing. Oh, my goodness, even better
than I was hoping for. So, once I realized how effective just being outside and being able
to answer questions were, much less doing scientific inquiry, it became clear that this is how
we can get people to understand critical scientific information that isn’t otherwise
reaching the general public. Since adults spend the majority
of their lives learning outside of school, we need non-classroom based strategies
to get them engaged and address the low scientific
literacy in our society. People need opportunities
to discern what’s actually happening from the one-sided terms
in the media, otherwise, it just looks
like a jumble like this. But not only do we want people
to know this information, we want it to be so recognized
that it inspires a behaviour change. That’s when I became passionate
about citizen science, and I’m here today to tell you how we can overcome
low scientific literacy and empower people to become active solutions to our nations
and environmental problems. So, what exactly is citizen science? It’s really as simple as people
participating in scientific research. Contact with nature has been shown
to decrease anxiety levels stimulate creativity, promote
civic advocacy, increase sustainability. Citizen science programs provide
access to these natural areas, especially on urban settings
when it’s not quite as obvious, or providing opportunities for
interactive and participatory learning. Citizen science is not a new concept,
it can be traced back to 1900, when the Audubon Society created
the Christmas bird count. Avid bird watchers would go out during
a two-week period in the winter time, and they would submit their observations
to professional scientists, who would then use
this information to do things like population studies,
and migration studies, and then, they can also document changes
associated with climate change. Citizen science programs
are incredibly diverse: they could be water,
birds, insects, even stars. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, it’s just that people are participating
in scientific research. and it’s all part of the ever growing
citizen science movement. I first found out about citizen science
when I moved to California, to run a creek monitoring program. it was a really special place because our program was actually initiated
by the people themselves. We had a lot of active friends
of creek groups. This group was collecting
information on apples, and this one was collecting
information on grapes, and this one was collecting
information on bananas. All really amazing,
but nothing was comparable. So, the county stepped in,
and we took control of the program, and we initiated protocols
that people can then use. And we had two different
programs that we ran: a GPS program and a bioassessment program. GPS is, we would take GPS units,
and we would go out, and we would document and map
both natural and man-made features, so that we could establish a database. And in our bioassessment program,
we collected benthic macro invertebrates, really just a fancy way
of saying aquatic bugs. And because these bugs live in the water for a certain time period
in their live cycle, what we can do is we can look at how they integrate information over time, and they tell us not only about
water quality but also habitat quality. So they become really,
really powerful tools, and they tangible, and people
can touch them, learn, see and explore. Everyone taught at this program
is being revolutionary, and it was really well received; you can see how much data they produced. The county also like it because it also
satisfied their outreach efforts too, so it was a twofer. I eventually realized
that well, data is great, – are great really – Thank you for knowing
the data is plural. While I realized that data are wonderful, the real story were
the citizen scientists themselves. So, I had the opportunity to go out with the friends
of Penhorn Creek Watershed one time, and we were doing a bioassessment. We got to this place, and it was
really dirty, there was a lot of garbage. and this women said: “Oh! I cannot believe that people just stand on the bridge
and throw garbage into the creek.” And I said: “Oh no, it’s not thrown in,
there is probably an outfall right there.” She said: “What’s an outfall?” I said:” Oh, you know on the storm drains,
if you’ve ever seen the sign “No Dumping” as it drains
to ocean, to river? It goes directly from your storm drain
through a pipe into you local water body.” And she said:” Really?
I thought it was treated first!” And I said: ” It’s not even filtered.” She was absolutely appalled,
and collected trash the rest of the time. Then, every time
I went out with that group, we brought this sled,
and we named it Rover, so when people had their arms
too full of garbage, they would yell: “Red rover, red rover!
Send rover right over!” (Laughter) Or the friends of Alhambra Watershed We were doing a GPS survey one time, and we heard this woosh! of water, and it would stop, and then
it would start again, and then, it would stop again. And they dug throw
the invasive ivy in the bank, and they found a small tube
that was gushing water, and it turns out it was the laundry facilities
from the senior citizens center. and they had been dumping
their washing machine loads directly into the creek
for who knows how long! The center didn’t even know
that the connection existed. Thanks to the effort of the friends
of Alhambra Creek, they contacted the City and the tube was disconnected,
and their laundry was then put in the sanitary sewer to be treated
before being discharged. I realized through all this
that to truly reach people, they need to feel like they are part
of something bigger than themselves. and that they can actually affect change. After five years in California, I decided I needed to learn how to teach to different learning styles, and I moved here to Jersey City,
because honestly, it is the closest to the Midwest
I’ve ever found, and I love it. (Laughter) And as [Leigh] would have it,
my department Head it an NYU, who later became
my adviser, mentor, and role model had just received a grant to start
a citizen science program for grades 5 through 12, using
the Hudson River as our laboratory. She brought me on to help her
launch the program. Since 2011, approximately 450 students in grades 5-12 and adults
have had the opportunity to go out to live and learn about biology
and chemistry of the Hudson River. 10 graduate students,
some sitting right here, have learned how the design
facilitate and manage this type of environmental
monitoring program. These kids go out, having never set foot
near the water before, thinking it is polluted,
thinking it’s dirty. and certainly not thinking about
the biology, the chemistry of it at all. We explore, and we engage
in scientific inquiry, and we learn over in time,
but more importantly, we inspire. We inspire students to engage
with their local environment. What we were doing is not
novel research by any means, but it’s valid and accurate,
and more importantly, if during this program we can inspire just one student
to become a scientist someday, then I feel that we have done more
for the body of science, the new research ever could. Like the fact even though it’s called
the Hudson River, it’s actually an estuary it’s this magical place
where the salt water of the ocean, and the fresh water
from the river up stream mix and because it is such a magical place only really truly remarkable creatures
can live there, like glass eels which were these translucid eels
that will then grow up to be American eels but they are so tiny and fragile
in their juvenile state. Or, did you know that there are
seahorses in the Hudson River? And blue crabs? And it’s just wonderful. I get excited about this kind of stuff. (Laughter) so, I realized that science
and citizen science allow us a one-on-one interaction with people and so, we begin at a personal level. In addition to citizen science, I also
teach environmental literacy for adults and I asked my students one time to keep track of all the garbage
they throw out for just two days. Just to see. Normal days. And weather they put it
in the garbage, recycle, composed, or if it is battery and light bulbs
that need to be handled separately. And one of my students,
[saw] the assignment and said: “Oh, I don’t recycle.” And afterwards, I said: “OK, does anybody have
any observations that they made?” And she looked at me,
and she went, “Plastic.” I said, what? she said: “Everything in my garbage
was plastic. I couldn’t believe it. That’s it. I’m recycling.” And just like that,
her behaviour had changed. So those are types of interactions
that are facilitated, that one-to-one level, and once we inspire people,
and we get them motivated, then they become community leaders, then we can step it out
to the community level, where we start realizing that, diesel trucks are actually belching out asthma producing particles
in our children. so that even breathing
becomes deadly for them. What we thinking of often
as social justice issues are actually environmental justice issues. and environmental health issues. Once we inspire our community
to get involved, and find out more information, and inquire about their environment
and their communities, we can step it out and our society
become more sustainable. My favourite part of being
both a scientist and an educator, is speaking to people. I feel that by broadcasting this message that people can be
powerful agents of change. both through their personal behaviour
and collective action. We will be able to influence
decision makers and truly change the trajectory
of our societies for the better. The more this message can be heard, the more I think people will be willing
to take the necessary steps to make our cities more sustainable. And that’s exactly why I think
we need citizen science. How do you get involved?
Because really that is the key here. First, I would say,
what do you like to do? What are you curious about? if you love birds, go get involved
with the Audubon Society. if you love water, and you are a teacher,
I would love to take out on the Hudson, and live and learn and explore
with your students. if you interested in urban issues
and green infrastructure, Sustainable Jersey City is
an wonderful, local organization working to do just that. And if you interested in food and you’re concerned about your health,
yours and your family, get involved, find a community garden. support a CSA, Community
Supported Agriculture or, meet your farmers at the local
Farmers Market at the Path Station. I leave with one last short story, about when I first realized
the power of the individual. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer
an environmental education, strangely enough, Peace Corps Volunteer
in the Dominican Republic, I was invited to this,
very public reforestation event. We had local dignitaries, and my,
weren’t they pleased to take a picture with a Peace Corps Volunteer as well! And what we did all day
was we planted trees that came in these little plastic bags
you can see all the saplings there. Everybody dutifully dug our holes, and took it out of the plastic bag,
and planted the tree into the ground, and throw the plastic bag on the ground. And I was appalled. And I thought, “Oh no, what we have done? we’ve come here to do such a good thing and, yeah, we’ve littered this landscape.” I was walking around,
picking up all that plastic bags, and this teenage boy comes up to me,
and he says: “What are you doing?” And I said: “well, I am picking up
the plastic bags.” And he says: “Why?
They will be gone in a day or two.” Because for him, ‘gone’ was blowing away. And I said: “Oh, but this is plastic, it’s actually takes thousands
of years to decompose,” and so we had a conversation about that. And then he looked at me, and he said: ” Yeah, but you’re just one person,
you cannot make a difference.” And I walked away and thought
about that, and I thought: “well, I don’t know, I feel like
I’ve always lived my life feeling that one person
can make a difference. And then I looked up on the hillside
and there were six people, including that same teenage boy,
and I looked at them, and I said: “I thought you said one person
can’t make a difference,” and he said: “but you are not
one any more, now, we’re six.” So, “never doubt that a small group
of a thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world indeed,”
as Margret Mead said. “It’s the only thing that ever has.” Thank you. (Applause)

Comments

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    Chris Sommers

    Great talk Michelle!! Thanks for bringing the important topic to the masses and the scientific community. Involvement and understanding of science by the general public is key to bringing the importance of environmental issues to the forefront.

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    Scott Honegger

    Yeah, Michelle !  Also take a look at a long history of "citizen
    science" from the humble farming community. If you think "feeling
    dirt" is good scientific method, my father taught me how to "eat",
    i.e., taste, dirt !   Promise you,….. it's an acquired taste……

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    Mary Leou

    Three years ago and still relevant and timely! Bravo Michelle! You were not only a star student at NYU's Environmental Conservation Education Program, you are a star environmental educator! So proud of you accomplishments. Prof. Mary Leou, NYU

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    Joel Oxley

    Great talk, I did disagree with about half of what you said, but you said your piece well. You're a great speaker.

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    Gilbert Mandaga

    Thank you Michelle in my home town we have started taking up this initiative. Your video has inspired and shared more insight!

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