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$1M NSF Grant to SIUE Supports Launch of Youth Science Network

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has granted $1-million to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville for the launch of a community project that will engage middle and early high school students in environmental citizen science.

The three-year grant supports the project, entitled “A Youth-Led Citizen Science Network for Community Environmental Assessment.” Collaborative partners presenting the authentic science experiences are the SIUE Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Research, Education and Outreach, the SIUE College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Environmental Sciences and the Madison County Housing Authority.

“We’re excited and grateful that the NSF sees the value in this project, and its potential for supporting youth in STEM,” said principal investigator (PI) Georgia Bracey, PhD, SIUE STEM Center research assistant professor.

The project’s ultimate goal is to empower more students to see themselves as scientists, ultimately generating a more diverse and inclusive STEM workforce.

“In order to pursue a STEM career path, students must be able to visualize themselves working in that career,” Bracey continued. “However, many students, especially those in underserved communities, don’t identify with STEM or with being a scientist. Citizen science, or the participation of the general public in scientific research, has the potential to offer meaningful and relevant STEM experiences for youth, developing and strengthening their science identity as they engage in authentic science. A stronger science identity increases the likelihood of pursuing a science career.”

Bracey’s co-PIs include SIUE STEM Center Director and Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences Sharon Locke, PhD, Ben Greenfield, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, and Adriana Martinez, PhD, assistant professor in the Departments of Environmental Sciences and Geography.

Working with SIUE faculty and local educators, students will design and conduct research in their communities, and then share their experiences and their results with the public through an innovative community dialogue format: Citizen Science Cafés.

“Participants will use a variety of hi-tech sensors and drones to collect and analyze soil, air, noise and landscape data from their surroundings,” Bracey explained. “During Citizen Science Cafés, students will present their scientific research and lead community members in hands-on citizen science, under the direction of Drs. Greenfield and Martinez and their graduate students. This will allow them to reach an additional 300 community members, including those families living in the subsidized housing developments targeted for this project. After testing and refinement, the project team will disseminate the Citizen Science Café model through the NSF-funded Teen Science Café Network, extending project impacts to a national audience.”

“This grant offers a great opportunity to strengthen the University’s mission and our Department’s commitment to equity and diversity,” added Nicholas Guehlstorf, PhD, chair of the SIUE Department of Environmental Sciences. “Three departmental faculty, Drs. Greenfield, Locke and Martinez, will participate in this strategic, NSF-funded plan to change individual lives and transform the collective identity, character and politics of future science employment. This innovative and evidence-based project will engage currently disadvantaged communities and youth with science learning and mentoring, which is an investment in a necessary environmental justice campaign to broaden American education opportunities.”

According to Bracey, the project supports the NSF’s vision of “advancing knowledge in STEM Learning and Learning Environments, Broadening Participation in STEM and STEM Workforce Development.” It also aligns with several of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas by focusing on humans and technology, and by examining how these experiences transform STEM education and career pathways in order to broaden participation in STEM.

Additionally, Bracey notes the project’s alignment with the vision outlined in the recent federal STEM education strategic plan, which envisions “a future where all Americans have lifelong access to high-quality STEM education” and involves pursuing three goals, including building strong foundations for STEM literacy, increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM, and preparing the STEM workforce for the future.”

Planning, program development and the hiring of educators and graduate assistants for SIUE’s youth-led citizen science network project are underway, with the student program slated to begin in fall 2019 and run through spring 2022. Students will get an introduction to citizen science and use sensors to monitor human impact in four environmental content areas, including air, noise, soil and the natural and built environment. Citizen Science Cafés will launch in fall 2020 and run through spring 2022.

The Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Center for STEM Research, Education and Outreach comprises an independent group of researchers and educators, innovating ways to engage students and the public in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Within the SIUE Graduate School, the Center brings together research faculty, graduate students and practitioners to conduct education research. The Center contributes educational expertise to SIUE undergraduate classes and provides professional development for K-12 teachers. The Center boasts a significant library of equipment and resources, which are available for loan at no cost to campus and regional instructors. For more information, visit or contact STEM Center Director Sharon Locke at (618) 650-3065 or stemcenter(at)siue(dot)edu.

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