Why should students care about this small plant and its relationship with bacteria in the soil?

Eighty-one percent of United States citizens live in urban areas, a number that is expected to grow. Every urban resident is living in close proximity to a diversity of trees, vines, insects, reptiles, birds, mammals, and a web of other macro- and micro-organisms. Species are moving in, adapting, and growing with us. The Forest Service calculates that urban forests contain 3.8 billion trees. “With so many animals going urban,” National Geographic writes, “humans must view cities as part of—not separate from—nature.”

This curriculum highlights aspects of urban ecology, bringing common topics in an environmental or ecological curriculum home to city streets. Ecology and evolution research doesn’t happen far away – we’re learning important things about the health of urban ecosystems, how climate change is affecting plants, and how soil and plant health varies from one micro-habitat to another, right here in our neighborhoods. In this curriculum, students can explore their own yards and neighborhoods; issues of environmental justice, as we explore how soil health and plant diversity vary across cities; and climate change, which may be affecting the studied relationship.

The plant studied is one that students in the United States will see growing everywhere – once they learn its name, they’ll start noticing it every time they leave their home.

Are cities changing plant genes? Creating new species? What would that mean for us? What are the hidden impacts of human development?

Why teach this curriculum and be a part of this project?

Giving students time to do science, and learn scientific skills and practices, is crucial for creating critical thinkers and helping students enter STEM fields later in life, if they so choose. The new Minnesota state standards, the new AP Environmental Science Course Description, and the national Next Generation Science Standards all emphasize teaching science practices along with content, not as standalone asides. This curriculum enables students to practice scientific skills from asking questions, to collecting and analyzing data, to communicating their knowledge to the public, while learning from and interacting with current researchers at a major university. Students will not only know that they’re contributing real data to important research (contributions from students will allow this research to be conducted at a scale that the University researchers could not accomplish without their help), but gain connections and knowledge to help them as future college students or scientists.

In fact, the benefits to students of participating in citizen or community science are many. A 2017 study of 1500 Australian students found that there was a significant increase in environmental engagement after collecting data for a citizen science project and that students reported being more careful in data collecting after participation (Mitchell et al. 2017). Community science gives students a realistic taste of the field, shows them they have power and can make a difference, and introduces them to a scientific community.

Mitchell N, Triska M, Liberatore A, Ashcroft L, Weatherill R, et al. (2017) Benefits and challenges of incorporating citizen science into university education. PLOS ONE 12(11): e0186285. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.018628

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