The Eagle Rock School Student as a Citizen Scientist

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At the risk of sounding boastful, I’d have to say that our Dragonfly Citizen Science class (offered in 2014 and again earlier this year) had global implications that far surpass what’s going on in the pristine areas surrounding our mountainside campus. And really, that’s why citizen science is so important.

Put simply, Eagle Rock School students enrolled in this class took samples of dragonfly larvae from water sources within the nearby Rocky Mountain National Park in order to determine the mercury levels within that larval stage. Mercury is a toxic pollutant that can be harmful to the health of both humans and wildlife. And because dragonflies spend most of their lives in the larval stage, our students visit the national park and collect dragonfly larvae from ponds and lake bottoms with nets.

As citizen scientists, Eagle Rock School students have the exciting opportunity to be involved in a national project coordinated by the National Park Service by investigating the risk and transfer of mercury around food webs. The samples are then sent to the USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center for mercury analyses. The study connects people to parks and provides baseline data to better understand the spatial distribution of mercury contamination in national parks.

Our Dragonfly Citizen Science students discussed what mercury is, where it comes from, and why National Park personnel around the country care about this. Students also became experts on identifying dragonfly larvae — among other living species — taking water samples and using sampling protocols.

When students find themselves within a national park several times a week, taking samples, gathering data and hiking to remote locations, they soon find themselves rooted in real science and research.

We aren’t sitting in a classroom, watching slides about dragonflies or discussing the dangers of mercury. Instead, we’re “out there among ’em,” experiencing first hand what it means to do place-based collaborative research.

So what good does becoming a dragonfly expert do for a student’s future? The educational benefits are many. In addition to learning how to collect and identify larvae and get comfortable with the habitat where dragonflies are found, students leave class knowing about indicator species. And that knowledge is fully transferrable because it applies to other organisms.

Students also gain an awareness of the impacts and dangers of mercury and what it not only means to dragonflies but to the entire food chain. And, of course, working directly and hand-in-hand with experienced national park researchers and staff members introduces the students to professional development. Students create networks with park personnel and acquire the responsibility to show up on time and prepared to conduct research.

As you can see, part of the class had students working with different National Park employees during the sampling. This certainly added to the experience and students were always appropriate with these folks and appreciative of their time and expertise. Lastly, students on more than one occasion were asked to explain the protocol they were following to other park volunteers, researchers, and visitors.

These types of classes are important because young citizen scientists are in a position to play a significant role the future of our wild places. How they vote someday and what they choose to do with their free time can be impacted in a positive way.

I really appreciate our students’ sense of seriousness and attention to detail when we were out sampling and following a protocol. Students displayed their understanding and mastery of using dichotomous keys when we were identifying the dragonfly larvae. They also kept a science notebook that documented their learning.

For students in this year’s Dragonfly Citizen Science class, we repeated the same four sites we sampled during 2014 — all within the national park. This enables us to build upon our capacity to do analysis on the previous year’s data.

If you’re interested in helping your students become citizen scientists, here is a sampling of some the things you need to encourage in your charges:

  • Use and understanding of the Scientific Method
  • Curiosity
  • Research
  • Data collection
  • Digital photography
  • Naturalist observations
  • Safety protocols
  • How to use Science Field Notebook

Curious to learn more? Just leave a comment or question below and I’ll follow up accordingly.

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Jon-Anderson-Eagle-Rock-SchoolAbout The Author: Jon Anderson is Eagle Rock’s Human Performance and Outdoor Education Instructional Specialist. He has worked at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center for 15 years. Jon came to Eagle Rock as a student teacher and then stayed on as an intern for a year. Before being hired into a full-time position, he works for two years in Denver, Colorado, at a K-12 school where he taught elementary physical education, high school history, and ran the 8-12 grade outdoor program. During his 15 years at Eagle Rock, Jon has been a house parent, taught many classes and directed and led a number of 24-day wilderness trips. For the last six years he has been responsible for running Eagle Rock’s Internship program and Citizen Science program with Rocky Mountain National Park, as well as teaching other experiential science and leadership classes.

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