‘SIGNs’ Program Integrates Citizen Science and Climate Change Education in Alaska

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Scientists, teachers, and informal educators are integrating citizen science collected by Alaska Native youth with Western science to study climate changes in Alaska through the Arctic and Earth STEM Integrating GLOBE and NASA (SIGNs) program. The project team, which includes Alaska CASC Tribal Liaison Malinda Chase, recently assessed the needs of community members participating in the program.

A man stands on the edge of a low cliff severely undercut by the ocean. Closer to the camera a chunk of coast has fallen off

Eroding permafrost on Alaska’s Arctic Coast. Credit: Christopher Arp, USGS. (public domain)

The rate of warming in the Arctic is twice that of the rest of the world. Changing climate conditions such as permafrost thaw, vegetation shifts, and altered precipitation, wildfire, and sea ice patterns are negatively impacting public health, access to traditional foods, transportation, industry, infrastructure, and public works in Alaska. Regional stakeholders have expressed a need for data on pressing climate change issues, as well as a desire to increase climate change learning in schools and within local communities. One option for communities trying to prepare for uncertain futures in the face of climate change is to engage in citizen science. Citizen science, often described as a partnership in which members of the public conduct research for and with professional scientists using standardized protocols, offers significant potential to address climate change issues in communities across multiple scales. 

In 2016, a K–12 classroom learning program called Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) responded to this need and potential by recruiting citizen scientist volunteers through the newly released GLOBE Observer app. GLOBE has been connecting students around the world since 1994 and GLOBE Alaska at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, established in 1996, has more recently begun integrating Indigenous knowledge with GLOBE in many classrooms. Alaska is quickly becoming a model for schools in rural Alaska by encouraging teachers and students to work with elders, emphasizing the importance of traditional knowledge in climate change research. This also provides an opportunity to include Alaska Native community members in citizen-science-based climate change monitoring programs across the state.

The Association of Interior Native Educators (AINE) also implemented a program in 1996 designed to promote Indigenous knowledge, encourage learning from Alaska Native elders, focus on the Alaskan environment, and integrate these ways of learning into Alaskan classrooms. Through AINE, educators developed lesson plans based on what they learned from Alaska Native elders during annual camps. Currently, the AINE, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Columbia University are partnering to extend the original AINE model to include a climate change education camp academy for Alaska Native educators, local leaders and planners, and rural community members called Signs of the Land Camp.

Researchers recently used the two models set forth by GLOBE and AINE to develop a third approach to climate change learning across formal and informal learning settings in Alaska. The program, called Arctic and Earth STEM Integrating GLOBE and NASA (SIGNs), is being designed to engage formal K–12 teachers, informal educators, and community leaders—such as elders, village or town council members, and civically engaged community members—to work with youth to address climate change issues. The project seeks to improve instruction on climate change, increase scientific literacy, increase engagement of underrepresented youth and adults in STEM, and increase capacity for communities to respond to climate change issues.

To support the development of the SIGNs program, researchers performed a needs assessment of the target audience in a new study co-authored by Alaska CASC Tribal Liaison Malinda Chase. This assessment aimed to detect any support needs crucial to successful participation in SIGNs. Researchers asked participants to identify 1) issues related to both climate change and citizen science expressed by these target audiences, and 2) benefits these audiences associated with participating in climate change education programs based on the GLOBE citizen science model, interacting with NASA scientists, and civic engagement. Data was collected from individuals who participated in two GLOBE training sessions and one AINE Signs of the Land Camp academy via questionnaire-style surveys, and findings were supplemented with insights from published studies. Results were categorized by climate change and citizen science interests, benefits sought through GLOBE training, and additional support needed by participants from three target audiences. They found:

Turquoise bay waters with forested island and snow-capped mountains in background

Lituya Bay, Gulf of Alaska.

(public domain) 

  • Formal K-12 teachers identified their primary interest as increasing engagement with students. Benefits include establishing a personal connection to climate change, experience with real STEM science and data, and more active participation in local and global climate change discussion. They seek support in science teaching strategies, connecting with scientists, climate change learning materials, and integrating traditional knowledge with western science.
  • Informal 4-H educators are interested in natural resource, agriculture, and environmental health citizen science projects, and consider youth engagement in their communities and youth experience in STEM to be beneficial. They seek support in GLOBE training, youth engagement, and connecting with formal teachers.
  • Community leaders and members are interested in climate change mitigation strategies, local and global impacts of climate change, and climate change science that includes knowledge from elders. They find opportunities for climate change dialogue, integration of elder and scientific knowledge, and community engagement with and empowerment of youths to be beneficial. This audience requires support in climate change communication training.

These findings are being used to refine the Arctic and Earth SIGNs learning program, so that it can best reach Alaskan schools and communities seeking to address the challenges arising from a rapidly changing climate.

View all results from this study, including detailed descriptions of target audiences, here.

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