Science is so much more than testing and retaining theorems and principles. To make it fun, informal and enlightening for young students, Vivienne Byrd, a librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library and lead on the systemwide STEAM and Neighborhood Science Initiative, recommends educators teach it using neighborhood science, also known as citizen science.
“Neighborhood science is basically science for anyone, with or without a scientific background,” Byrd said. “It’s for everyone to be able to participate in science.”
It's an interactive and hands-on approach to science education that people of all ages can engage in and learn from. Byrd said that because it involves collecting and interpreting data, using technology and collaborating with communities, “It really connects all these kids to see how science is in the real world, instead of memorizing theories and scientific methods.”
Following a webinar she conducted for PBS SoCal, Byrd shared some ways educators can integrate neighborhood science in the classroom.
1. Promote Active Participation
Making STEM learning more hands-on is key, Byrd said. Teachers can promote this with projects that develop motor skills and require some form of physical activity. For example, teachers can have kids blow air through straws into cups of cabbage water and regular water to see the effects of carbon dioxide by observing the change in the color of the water.
“The way I see it is you will have kids really understanding [the lesson], not just memorizing it,” Byrd said. “You’re giving them that space to think, ‘Oh if this is happening here in our classroom, how is it for people who live in different parts of the world?'”
2. Tie Science to the Real World and Your Community
Community engagement is an important feature of neighborhood science, Byrd said, because it helps students become more aware of their surroundings and learn more about their neighborhoods and communities.
“You make that connection and it stays with them,” Byrd said.
For instance, she mentioned a project where children tested the pH levels from the water in their homes and made observations based on its taste and appearance. Then, students shared their results with each other, which helped them discover the differences in their water quality and how that could affect their families and neighbors, identify who has cleaner water and learn a bit about local reservoirs.
Neighborhood science is basically science for anyone, with or without a scientific background. ...It’s for everyone to be able to participate in science.Vivienne Byrd, Librarian III, Los Angeles Public Library
3. Think About Solving Problems
After doing neighborhood science activities, Byrd said teachers could encourage students to think about their next steps and how they can solve a problem by helping create a solution, which, in turn, can deepen connections to community and make students feel empowered to create positive change.
“Get them to think about what they can do,” Byrd said. “Why does my classmate have better water and we don’t? What step can we take to change the water quality in our communities or my apartment complex? Do I need to go to someone to talk about it?'”
4. Transform Data Into Action
Since data is everywhere and can be used to change the world, Byrd said educators should emphasize the importance of data — be it in photos, words or metrics — and how to interpret it so it can be used for change. For example, students can use the data they collected about the water quality in the community and write a letter to their city council asking for improvements.
5. Always Keep the Environment in Mind
Byrd said teaching science lessons that keep climate change in mind and are focused on conservation is imperative in today’s world because, "We are living on a planet that is going through a lot of not very pleasant changes,” she said. “The younger kids, this planet is theirs. We have to do whatever we can to help them survive the planet.”
“Everybody knows STEM is important,” Byrd said. “But instead of just teaching someone to be an engineer to build a better engine, we need to teach this person to be an engineer who can build a better engine and also build [one] that can use renewable energy.”