COMPASS Outreach Spotlight: Urban Ecologist program sparks science interest in middle schoolers

Using an ASCB Compass Outreach Grant, a University of Akron Department of Biology group of graduate and undergraduate students created a program for local middle school students to explore plants and animals in their urban environment. Graduate students are part of the Integrated Bioscience program, which integrates biology with informal education. Undergraduate students came from various departments: integrated science education, biology, and psychology. We created the Urban Ecologists outreach program to encourage interest in science among middle school students.

The Urban Ecologist outreach lasted 4-weeks as an after-school program where students learned about the ecology in their area. The first week of the program allowed students to draw what they thought nature was and to create a drawing of what they thought a scientist looked like. This activity was used to show that there is ecology all around and that anyone could be a scientist. The second week’s activity focused on discovering plants native to northeastern Ohio, such as goldenrod and chicory. Students learned about native plants and what they might see near their homes, then we planted seeds in the shape of mazes. Throughout this week, students took care of their plants and watched their mazes grow.

For the third week of the program, students learned about insect intelligence and how an insect’s brain is different from a human brain. The University of Akron Neuroscience Club then joined our program and helped students to create brains using different candy. For the final week of the program, students got to go outside and find insects to test in their mazes. Students had to think about what might incentivize insects to complete the maze. 

To determine whether our program successfully influenced student opinions about their natural surroundings, we used an art-based evaluation. Students were asked to draw what they thought of when they heard the word “nature” both at the beginning and end of the program. We found an increase in drawings of animals that we observed on the fourth week of the program, instead of exotic things like giraffes and waterfalls, at the end of the event.

The students especially loved catching and observing animals in their natural environments. Some favorite finds included a woolly bear and a salamander. Many students had never even heard of salamanders and were very surprised to find one in their schoolyard. It is our hope that after experiencing this program these students will be more aware of their natural surroundings and know that anyone can be a scientist!

You can find the full program description with evaluation results in the Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal, Winter 2021 edition.

About the Author:

Rachael Kindig is an undergraduate student majoring in AYA integrated science education at the University of Akron and has worked in Richard Londraville’s lab for the past six semesters.