Extension Volunteers Help Bring Citizen Science to NH Classrooms

Schoolyard SITES fosters community-based science education through teacher-volunteer partnerships
Teacher Elaine Marhefka conducts research in the woods

Each week she visited the schoolchildren, Mimi Jost brought “treasures,” according to second grade teacher and team partner Kate Zimar. One day Jost pulled tree samples from her bag so that the students’ small fingers could count the circular rings and determine each tree’s age. Other times her pockets bulged with tulip bulbs, bean seeds and even a mushroom that she found growing in a glass bottle. That prompted lots of questions. Why did it start growing in there? How long did it take to grow?

An avid naturalist and Extension volunteer, Jost visited Mast Way Elementary School in Lee throughout the 2018-19 school year. Jost is one of several Extension volunteer participants of the Schoolyard Science Investigations by Teachers, Extension Volunteers and Students (Schoolyard SITES) research program. Schoolyard SITES pairs UNH Cooperative Extension science volunteers with elementary school teachers to create a community-based professional development partnership to bring citizen science projects to elementary students. It’s made possible by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF Grant No. 1721133) and in cooperation with the UNH Leitzel Center.

Volunteer Mimi Jost
Mimi Jost

In late May 2019 participating teachers from three NH school districts and Extension volunteers convened on the UNH campus to present their science projects. Classroom assignments ranged from bird identification in Lee to precipitation mapping in Rochester to maple syrup tapping in Portsmouth.

UNH Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Wayne Jones Jr. explained how the program demonstrates high-impact learning experiences that align with the university’s strategic priority to “Embrace New Hampshire,” as outlined by UNH President James W. Dean, Jr. in early 2019. “The gem that is UNH combined with the strength of the local school systems creates something truly special,” Jones said. “It’s important that we grow and celebrate these valuable partnerships.”  

Teachers and Volunteers Present at the Schoolyard SITES Conference
Panel discussion at the Schoolyard SITES Showcase held in the UNH Elliott Alumni Center

With support from the volunteers, Schoolyard SITES teachers designed a citizen science curriculum for their elementary students. Program content and activities aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards and school district requirements. Students learned about biodiversity, seasonal precipitation patterns, plant phenology and/or wildlife habitats. Some classrooms focused on bird identification by setting up feeders and participating in Project FeederWatch. Students drew field guides featuring red-breasted robins, cheerful chipping sparrows and other common backyard birds. Some classrooms studied native trees, using data collection, measurements and graphing to track growth or maple syrup production.

Before participating in Schoolyard SITES, Melissa Cunliffe, a fourth-grade teacher at Gonic School, had never heard of citizen science. “This program has changed how I structure my whole curriculum to think about the changing seasons. It’s especially meaningful for urban places like Rochester. Many of my students live in apartment buildings. It’s important that they develop a connection with their environment and realize they are stewards of the earth.”  

Teacher Melissa Cunliffe
Melissa Cunliffe

Kathy Prewitt, a fifth-grade teacher, explained that their precipitation study using CoCoRAHS addressed scientific cross-cutting concepts such as scale and proportion. “The kids have been really excited about their contributions to the dataset and comparing their measurements with other schools…Schoolyard SITES works really well. I’ve never seen kids learn decimals so fast. This year they had context.”

UNH Vice Provost of Outreach and Engagement and Director of Cooperative Extension Ken La Valley recognized the importance of Schoolyard SITES in moving the state forward. “We need the workforce of tomorrow to be able to communicate effectively and understand complex issues. This is an outstanding example of teachers and volunteers coming together to make a meaningful difference in STEM education,” he said.

Students explore the canopy of a forest
Students studying the canopy of the forest

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