Creating Citizen Scientists

Colorado fifth graders became citizen scientists to advocate for smarter water use.

Kneeling down on the banks of the Poudre River in Fort Collins, Colorado, a fifth grader took a sample of water and measured its quality, recording the findings in a notebook. Later that same day, the same fifth grader took a sample from a pond near a cattle feedlot whose source is also the Poudre River. The results were vastly different.

She snapped some photos and shot some video footage as well. She planned to use the data in a mock city council meeting at the end of science summer camp.

Back at the museum, the students delved into an archive and read about water issues in Colorado in the 1800s. Together they collected information and insights on large sheets of butcher paper, constructing a shared body of knowledge. That knowledge was put to test at the mock city council meeting, where they were asked questions such as these:

When Fort Collins floods again, which citizens will get the brunt of the damage? Which areas of the city will be most affected? Who lives there, and what resources does the city need to provide to help them?

I know the Dust Bowl was a problem in Colorado at one time. Should we worry about drought conditions now?

We need more places to live for our growing population. Some of my constituents think we should build apartments in the floodplain. Some people disagree. What should we do? Who should we listen to?

In another camp a year later, fifth graders Skyped with city council members from Namibia in southern Africa to hear about the role of water in their country. They also worked with a local artist and a writer of ecopoetry to create art and creative writing projects about water. At the end of the camp, students designed, shot, and edited a 3-D digital dome film and assembled an anthology of their artwork and writing. They gave a public reading of their work and screened their films at the museum’s digital dome theater.

Even young students have the capacity for developing civic agency if they are equipped with advocacy, leadership, and literacy skills.”

These children were taking part in a two-week summer camp designed to hone their science and writing skills as citizen scientists. The camp was developed as part of the Intersections project and involved a partnership between Colorado State University’s Writing Project and the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery.

In designing the program, the organizers wrote in their final report, “We believed that even young students have the capacity for developing civic agency if they are equipped with advocacy, leadership, and literacy skills.”

On the surface at least, writing and science don’t seem to be natural partners. But the writers and scientists in this project found that, together, they could create a richer, more rewarding project than if they had done it alone.

Poets helped the children see water in a new light. Digital tools and texts helped the youth better understand water issues locally and globally. Students’ labs encompassed the entire museum, university classrooms, the nearby fields, and, of course, the Poudre River, “as it rushed down the canyon and flowed right behind the museum itself.”

“In the process,” the organizers wrote, “students gained access to a multitude of resources and people,” including scientists and artists across the local community.

The partners have since expanded the two-week camp with offerings during the school year. This extended time frame allowed both the Writing Project and the museum staff to forge deeper and more sustained connections.

“We wanted students to care about science learning,” the partners wrote in their report, “because they care about the local and global contexts all of us inhabit and because they believe their voice has a rightful place in conversations where science is concerned.”

The students, the partners wrote, saw themselves “as confident, scientifically informed youth advocates with the authority to add their voices to conversations about why water matters in Fort Collins and across the globe.”

The Writing Project and the museum plan to continue its rich partnership beyond the scope of this project because, they wrote, “we can accomplish more together than either of us can accomplish alone.”

Follow this blueprint to create a similar program.