Volume 14 ● Number 1 ● Winter/Spring 2012ŚNetworking for Sustainability
GIS, Education and Citizen Science
Barriers to Understanding
Today’s environmental threats are different from the concrete, highly visible threats that we began to confront in the last century. Toxic pollution and its effects were very easy for the public to grasp, but the more serious threats that the scientists see today are not as easy for the public to understand. Climate change is a good example. As a shift in ongoing cyclical patterns with periods of months and years, climate change is by definition abstract and not directly observable. It can only be made visible through data and representations of data, and for most people, seeing is not understanding. Unsustainable fishing is another example. But when the public sees that new fish stocks are available every year, and that the weather is as variable and unpredictable as ever, they do not see the threats that scientists see. To make the difficult decisions that they will need to make in coming years, members of the public need to see and understand these environmental processes the way scientists do, in terms of dynamic systems.
I’m here today because, as an educator, I believe that we have an opportunity to use the tools and technologies that we’ve been discussing at this meeting to help provide the next generation with the environmental understanding they will need. I’m also here to tell you that our challenge is bigger than we might hope. There is a very seductive view out there that says if we just provide people with the right data through the right interfaces, then we can teach them to see and understand the problematic patterns that we scientists see in the data.
Distanced from Nature
This is indeed a compelling vision, and I’ve observed through a career of designing geographic information system (GIS) software for education that putting data and visualisation tools in the hands of pupils can provide powerful learning. However, I’ve also observed that we have a major obstacle to overcome before we can make that vision a reality, an obstacle that no amount of data and representations will be able to overcome. The problem is that people in our modern, urbanised, world are suffering from a lack of experience with natural processes, a lack of first-hand experiences in nature. This is a problem because we know from research on learning that first-hand experience is an absolutely essential building block for abstract learning.
To make this concrete let me give you a specific example. I would like to tell you about a perfectly typical thirteen-year-old American girl. Her name is Rosie. She happens to be my daughter. As a middle-school student, Rosie is currently studying earth science. But what is her experience of that world she is studying? Let me give you a brief picture of her life. Every weekday morning, Rosie walks about five hundred metres to board a school bus on which she rides for about ten minutes and immediately enters a climate-controlled school building. She then spends about eight hours in that building, moving from room to room before riding in another bus home. Even her physical education class is indoors for most of the year. After school, she typically spends most of her time indoors or travelling from one interior space to another. This is not a lifestyle that involves much in the way of direct experience of natural patterns. It provides nearly nothing to build on in her study of earth science.
I often say that in creating an optimal environment for learning reading and mathematics, we created the worst possible environment for learning about how the real world functions.
Now, I would like to be able to say that this is an example of where the United States is out of touch with the rest of the world, but this is the reality for most middle-class children in most of the developing world. And for completely understandable reasons, this is the lifestyle that people who live more exposed lives aspire to. So don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing against a modern lifestyle, but we do need to recognise that one of the unintended consequences of our improved quality of life is a decrease in first-hand experience of the natural world, along with a loss of opportunity to learn about natural processes and patterns.
It’s easy to be overly romantic about the lives of others, but as several people have pointed out at this conference over the last few days, our ancestors and the members of communities that still depend directly on nature for their livelihood do understand more about environmental process than most members of our communities. And as part of that, they understand what we’ve been talking about at this meeting: how interconnected Earth’s physical, plant, animal, and human systems really are.
So before we try to teach people about human-caused changes and natural systems and processes, we need to do some real remediation. We need to give them the opportunity to experience these natural systems and processes directly. But again it is not that simple. When we moved away from our immediate personal dependence on nature, we lost the motivation to pay attention to it. So in addition to creating opportunities for young people to experience nature directly, we also need to give them a reason to pay careful attention to it, to notice it. And we need to give them a reason that makes sense in their modern context.
Here is where I think that the environmental information systems that we’re talking about at this meeting have a really important role to play: they can provide that motivation. To show you what I mean I have another example. This is a citizen science project in North America called Project Budburst, and in Project Budburst ordinary people are tracking seasonal changes and plants throughout the year. Each participant picks a single tree or shrub to follow and he or she notes the dates when that plant goes through its annual cycle: first buds, first leaves, half in leaf, first flowers, etc., all the way through to the dispersal of seeds and the loss of leaves. Participants share this information in a common database, and we at National Geographic have created a GIS environment called Fieldscope to allow them to view and analyse the data from their plant along with the data from the tens of thousands of other Budburst participants around North America.
As a citizen science project, Budburst sounds like one of many that are crowd-sourcing observations as a way of collecting data for scientists, but Budburst was not designed by a scientist looking for crowd-source data. It was designed as an educational project. Here’s how one of the Budburst designers described it to me: she started by explaining that throughout human history people have had close relationships with plants. We monitored and cared for them in the same way we monitored and cared for the animals that we depended on for our survival. However, as our lifestyles have moved away from immediate dependence on plants for our welfare, we’ve lost our natural connection to them and their life-cycles. So Budburst was conceived as a way to reconnect people with at least one tree or shrub in their natural environment.
From the perspective of environmental education, Project Budburst is providing participants with exactly the kind of concrete experience they need as a foundation to build abstract environmental understanding—precisely what is missing from the lifestyles of Rosie and the millions of children like her. Individuals who monitor a plant through the seasons gain first-hand understanding of things like the critical periods for pollination and seed dispersal. When they hear that climate change can cause the life-cycles of pollinators and seed-dispersers to get out of sync with the plant cycles, they are able to understand it in terms of concrete experience.
Through their additional experiences with Fieldscope, which is essentially an environmental information system, they also have the opportunity to develop abstract understanding. In this case, they have the chance to take advantage of state-of-the-art GIS technology to learn about the variability in these seasonal patterns from place to place and year to year. With this understanding of normal variability, they are in a much better position to understand abnormal variation.
Utilising Eye on Earth
For me, Project Budburst offers a model for the way we can use this Eye on Earth initiative to advance environmental understanding. Imagine for a moment a global version of Project Budburst in which students from all over the world are recording observations, not just about plants, but about seasonal changes in insect, bird and mammal populations and about the physical environment: temperature, precipitation, water levels in lakes and streams. And in this Global Seasons Project, students at 37 degrees south in Argentina could compare their observations with students at 37 degrees north in Spain, and students in the south-western United States could compare their monsoon experience with students in south-western India.
I can’t claim that this kind of citizen science for learning is a new idea. The Globe Programme and others have run international citizen science projects with young people for more than fifteen years. However, every previous effort to implement citizen science for learning on a large scale has always run up against limitations in technology, infrastructure, or lack of resources. What makes this opportunity different is that instead of building an infrastructure from scratch, the way these previous initiatives have needed to do, we have the opportunity to take advantage of the resources of the Eye on Earth initiative. And I propose that we do take advantage of this opportunity, that we use the technology infrastructure we are going to build for science and decision-making for an additional purpose: to support a global citizen science community of learners.
Capitalising on this opportunity would require that we make a few specific commitments to environmental education in particular, but they represent a relatively small marginal cost with an enormous potential payoff. These commitments are: (1) make a public commitment to the importance of supporting environmental learning from experience to abstract reasoning; (2) create a customised set of tools to support citizen science for learners, tools that leverage the core Eye on Earth functionality. At the international level, we should develop resources and support a corps of educational specialists whose focus is building environmental understanding through these kinds of citizen science projects for learners. And at the national, provincial or local level, we need to commit ourselves to bringing these citizen science experiences to young people by incorporating them into our educational systems.
I believe that we, as a community of scientists and policymakers, have the responsibility to make these commitments as part of our initiative to build and use globally interconnected environmental information systems.
Modern society has separated us from the natural cycles that are critical to understanding environmental and ecological processes. This kind of understanding requires first-hand experience, and the Eye on Earth initiative offers us the opportunity to meet that need by providing both motivation and tools. We have a unique opportunity to make an enormous impact on environmental understanding. It will require an additional investment, but one that is well worth it. Let us not pass up this opportunity.