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The power of authentic science inquiry

By Rebecca Meyer

4-H Water Watchers: Girl using a loupe (magnifying lens) to look closer at a frog.
We have all probably seen the news stories annually of youth who compete for and even win national science awards for what is groundbreaking research to solve problems like clean water, prevent health concerns, energy, etc. These young people are obviously involved in authentic science endeavors as a part of their youth development—working with communities of science professionals on real world scientific efforts that build our understanding and capabilities to manage real-world challenges. As it turns out, research studies, as well as my own experiences, suggest that science authenticity can play an important role in enhancing how young people perceive the attractiveness and value of STEM learning.

Over the course of my STEM teaching career, I have learned that there is a connection between engagement and authenticity. These are two fundamental dimensions we should be paying attention to as we design youth development programs. One project that encapsulates these two dimensions is Driven to Discover: Enabling authentic inquiry through citizen science, in which I was fortunate to be a team member designing the curriculum and supporting youth in the program. This programming focuses on using real citizen science projects as rich learning experiences for STEM inquiry. The evaluation results from observational data and interviewing youth and facilitators (teachers and volunteers) provided two key dimensions that worked together to foster success. These two dimensions were authenticity and engagement. 

Thinking about making our programs engaging is a very instinctive part of youth development programming. Through our research and design efforts, our team underscored the importance of considering the extent to which the program is engaging, identifying a number of factors to ensure program success. What novelty is being included in the experience, how much variety is included in the content and sequencing for learning, and where the group is practicing science are all factors to consider when designing engaging STEM programs. 

Coupled with this engagement, youth had authentic experiences, contributing to real science to address real world problems while working side by side with faculty and researchers. Another important and distinctive aspect of the Driven to Discover program is that youth and their adult leaders were involved in collecting data for National Citizen Science programs (i.e. ebird and monarch larva monitoring) as a way to settle in to the scientific process, learn practical skills through their practice, and ultimately spark and devise ways to answer their own science inquiry questions.

When we talked with youth and adult leaders, it was apparent that this involvement in authentic environmental science efforts resulted in data that helped to answer a variety of national and even global questions about birds, insects and other species. This was an attractive and valued dimension of the program—it helped youth understand and identify themselves as scientists in many cases. 

Over the years, I have adopted this philosophy in similar ways to design and host the Water Watchers program with my colleague in Lake County where youth are involved in a range of engaging activities, but also using real protocols with county soil and water conservation district staff to monitor area lakes for aquatic invasive species. Youth in this program have made first finds, and reported findings to county commissioners. In a similar way, being involved in authentic scientific endeavors adds value and attractiveness to this program. It also helps the young participants identify as scientists and as part of a community contributing to using science to manage real environmental challenges in their local landscape.

We understand the importance of designing for engagement in science (and engineering) to draw in participants, and we know the characteristics within the program design to focus attention on to ensure successful outcomes. But, we should also consider how our learning opportunities involve youth in authentic science as well.

How are you balancing participant expectations with attention to authenticity and engagement?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator

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  1. A great reminder of the importance of these two elements! I also think about the age of the learner and how they apply. I think engagement plays a huge role across all ages, but I wonder if authenticity is as important for our younger audiences (lower elementary)?

    1. Authenticity in younger audiences has been something I've toyed with in the last couple of years - how much jargon/lingo do we give vs. balancing with the 'fun' factors?

      My favorite example was doing the baking soda-vinegar experiment(s) with a group of K-5, and when exploring the pH scale, the first graders were the ones most interested in researching acids/bases! We also broke down the chemical reaction into a doodle of color-coded, simplified chemical structures, and could have spent all day toying with reaction equations. It blew my mind how interested the 'littles' were in something I hadn't learned until high school!


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