Combining Science and Civic Literacy

Students in the Citizen Science Institute, a magnet, alternative program housed at Marshall Middle School in Olympia, Washington, do scientific and civic investigations. These students are doing seasonal bird counts at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually Wildlife Refuge in Olympia. Photo courtsey of Tom Condon.

Why should teachers blend science with civic literacy? Because “happiness comes from being part of something bigger than yourself…Students get to understand and research community issues…[and] serve as ambassadors in the community,” asserts Tom Condon, who co-teaches the Citizen Science Institute (CSI), a districtwide magnet, alternative program housed at Marshall Middle School in Olympia, Washington. CSI involves about 60 students in grades 6–8 in rigorous scientific and civic investigations that help them “become experts who can teach other students,” Condon contends.

“We do field investigations, not field trips. Students tend to think of field trips as days off,” maintains Matthew Phillipy, who co-teaches CSI with Condon. “We work really hard. By eighth grade, students have done about 50 different investigations,” Phillipy reports.

For example, students worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to track the endangered bull trout, which are native to the Northwest. “We used an idea from a Science Scope [article] about tracking endangered species using GPS [the global positioning system],” says Condon. Students explored the impact on the bull trout of a dam built in the 1940s to control floods on nearby farmland. “Dams impede their migration paths,” he notes.

When students tracked the trout, amazingly “one fish showed up at a local saloon,” Condon recalls. “Dan Spencer of [FWS]…talked about how the tracking worked and why the fish appeared near the saloon, 100 yards from the river.” Students had to weigh the benefits of the dam to farmers versus its effect on the trout. “They experience science in the field and being part of the solution,” he emphasizes.

CSI students complete two STEAM-posium (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) and civics research projects each year. Projects include a written paper and oral presentation. “We invite scientists to see what students are learning,” says Phillipy.

“The sixth graders have less experience with getting in front of people and talking. By eighth grade, they’re much more confident talking to audiences” as a result of their three-year CSI experience, notes Condon. “They serve as leaders and mentors to the younger students.”

The civics projects can focus solely on social issues or integrate science. Phillipy recalls a student with a learning challenge who couldn’t always recognize colors. “To her, it was a social issue because she was less accepted by the other students,” he explains. For her project, “she pulled in the science” by discussing what happens with the brain’s synapses with this condition, he relates.

Students find that “if you can tie in the science, it makes your arguments more relevant because you can back your opinions up with the facts,” according to Phillipy.

CSI students “learn how to behave in society. Our eighth graders leave us civically minded and understand how science works,” Phillipy relates.

The Value of Water

“I lead a series of Water Workshops with Friends of the Chicago River [a nonprofit advocacy organization working to improve the health of the Chicago River system]…called Teens H2O,” says Linda Keane, professor of architecture and environmental design at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). She established Teens H2O for students ages 11–14 because “when the water cycle is introduced in second grade, [the material] doesn’t go deep enough [for students] to understand how water gives us life…I wanted to get [Chicago-area] students to understand—[in a way that’s not always possible in school]—that we are on the Great Lakes Basin, [which provides] 84% of the surface freshwater for the United States,” she explains.

In addition, the teen years are “critical years to capture students’ [interest] before they graduate,…especially for the two-thirds of students who are not going on to college,” Keane maintains.

Once students apply for or are chosen by teachers for Teens H2O’s free workshops, “we meet them at designated places [in] downtown [Chicago]—the McCormick Bridge on the River Walk, The Chicago Line Cruise Boat Company, or SAIC—and start our water workshops. Each site has different activities,” Keane relates. Workshop themes are “Water and Me” (SAIC), “Freshwater and Lake Michigan” (The Chicago Line Cruise Boat Company, which provides an eco-cruise for the students), and “Life On, Along, Above, and Below the River” (McCormick Bridge on the River Walk).

“At first, we talk about what we need to live. Students sometimes forget air, but almost always think of water, as Chicago is on Lake Michigan. They take it for granted,” she observes, “but many of the students have never been on the river.”

Students use water interactives, simulations (water cycle, watershed, water pollution), and games (water equivalencies) to study water’s role in society. For example, they can calculate the relationship among water, energy, and climate change using WECalc ( or simulate improved water infiltration by replanting prairies, wetlands, and forests with WikiWatershed ( “In WikiWatershed, they can see a map of Chicago and see the effects of heavy rainfall,” Keane points out. The workshops access material from (, a free e-learning website Keane co-founded and directs that provides informal learning opportunities for students and teachers to explore project-based learning (PBL).

Students learn key principles in water quality and conservation while conducting field research outdoors and creating place-based projects. “We want to engage students as citizen scientists, [without them thinking they] have to be hydrologists,” Keane contends, although “we mention and they think about [science, art, and design] careers in the workshops as well. As citizens, they can do water testing and contribute” to the health of water sources.

“We show that everyone pollutes the water because of what they do. Students learn what kinds of garbage come from what businesses and why it needs to be addressed. Students learn about the role green roofs play in storm water management.” Many students, she adds, “never had thought of caring for water before or how special where they live is in relationship to freshwater.”

Most of all, they experience “science used as advocacy to make change. Helping people help others is a passion most scientists have,” Keane emphasizes.

Healing From Harvey

“A year ago, Hurricane Harvey devastated our community, flooding 16,000 homes, 3,300 businesses, and [a high school in Kingwood, Texas]. I won a grant from our district’s education foundation to coordinate a district-wide PBL on learning about, restoring, and protecting the Lake Houston Watershed. Eighteen teachers and 13 campuses in our district signed up to participate, with more teachers and students asking to participate as [we publicize] the project,” says Kathleen Goerner, secondary science coordinator for Humble Independent School District (ISD) in Humble, Texas. “People are trying to understand how [the devastation] happened and how to prevent it from happening again,” she explains.

Residents also tried to grasp why certain decisions were made, such as the opening of the floodgates by the San Jacinto River Authority, which resulted in “even more flooding; the whole Lake Houston area was devastated,” Goerner reports. Teachers told her it was important for students to understand as well. “We had lots of parent input, too,” she adds. “Harvey brought us a big community issue that everyone wants to learn about.”

One teacher who is a Federal Aviation Administration–certified drone pilot won a grant to buy drones. “He intends to have students do drone surveys of the river and lake as dredging projects proceed…I [reached out to] conservation groups in Houston…; they hope to partner with schools and provide speakers,” Goerner relates.

The hurricane coincided with changes in Humble ISD. The district traditionally hadn’t done a lot of PBL, “but this past year, several campuses brought in BIE [Buck Institute of Education;] for PBL training for teachers and administrators,” says Goerner. The district is also transitioning “from a traditional learning district to a more personalized learning district [in which] students have options to plan their own time and choose their own projects within a structure,” a change that aligns well with creating hurricane-related units and community projects that students will relate to personally, she observes.

Some of the teachers’ ideas and driving questions for units include Save Our Soil: How Can We Reduce the Amount of Erosion on Lake Houston?; Harvey: What Else Did He Bring to the Ecosystem Besides Water?; and Rockin’ Awesome: How Can We as Environmentalists Create a Natural Filter to Clean Our Water in Our Local Watershed Due to the Impacts of Harvey?

“We have a new superintendent who led the community in creating our Portrait of a Graduate,” which lists the traits Critical Thinker, Communicator, Personally Responsible, Creative Innovator, Global Citizen, and Leader and Collaborator. This portrait is guiding teachers in helping students learn the science behind the disaster while becoming civically engaged in the community, she relates.

“There’s still work to do; we’re not back to normal,” says Goerner. For students, “the damage from flooding doesn’t heal quickly, even if you’re back in your home. Some students are terrified of rain now.” She hopes the PBL units and opportunities for students to do conservation work will not only help them become more involved with the community, but also will give them “a way to process the flood” and heal from the trauma.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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About Debra Shapiro

Associate Editor of member newspaper, NSTA Reports ( Editor of Freebies for Science Teachers ( and NSTA Calendar ( pages. Follow me on Twitter: @Debra_NSTA
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1 Response to Combining Science and Civic Literacy

  1. Linda Keane says:

    The Water Workshops are a partnership with Friends of the Chicago River, The Chicago LIne Cruise Company, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, and the eLearning Designopedia. The workshops were supported in part by Hive Chicago, Chicago Community Trust, and The Peterson Family Foundation..

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