It was the right year to be involved in citizen science. Enter WeatherBlur.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, American families turned their houses into classrooms. The pivot was sudden and sometimes difficult. One of the positive side effects of going to school at home, for many children, was a chance to focus more attention on nature – not faraway wild places, but the kind of small wonders that happen closer to home.
And in several corners of the country, teachers working with a program created by the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance (MMSA) and supported by RTI International were able to help their students explore these small wonders and learn about local environmental issues. As the year progressed, as some schools stayed remote and others returned to various forms of in-person learning, they took action to help their communities.
What is WeatherBlur?
WeatherBlur is a citizen science program for schools that emphasizes student inquiry and hands-on science . Created by the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance and initially funded by the National Science Foundation, it partners teachers and students with scientists to launch scientific investigations of local problems, often focused on water, climate change, and natural resources.
RTI has been a partner for WeatherBlur since 2018, providing technical assistance for teacher professional development and helping expand the program from coastal Maine communities to schools on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama. Over the course of RTI’s involvement, 15 RTI scientists have advised students and teachers on their citizen science projects. Since inception in 2011, WeatherBlur has engaged more than 1360 students and 20 scientists in co-creating science investigations and community action projects.
Community-Based Scientific Exploration
Mickie Flores, who teaches science to fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders at a small school in coastal Maine, sought out WeatherBlur to broaden the horizons of students in her geographically isolated community. Over the years, her classes have studied climate change and wildlife populations, using the WeatherBlur program to identify environmental issues, practice scientific data collection, and connect with professional scientists. They’ve also communicated their results through writing, visual and performing arts, and presentations to civic leaders.
This year, Flores’ classes focused on measuring the local bird population. This activity worked well during both remote learning and in-person excursions to their school’s nature trail. Thanks to WeatherBlur, the students went beyond simple birdwatching, learning to create graphs and analyze their data.
“What WeatherBlur does is turn us into authentic scientists,” Flores said. “It took us all of September and October to really develop a good bird counting protocol.”
In another classroom on a different coast, Erica Wilson’s students have also embarked on WeatherBlur journeys. Wilson, who teaches sixth grade in Mississippi, has used the program in her classroom and also gone through WeatherBlur’s professional development with other teachers.
Wilson’s students chose to investigate microplastics, the tiny traces of synthetic materials that end up in the environment and find their way into water and living things. Commercial fishing is a mainstay in the local economy, so pollution from microplastics is directly relevant to the students’ lives.
After measuring levels of microplastics in their own tap water and working with researchers from Mississippi State University to analyze their data, the students felt motivated to act. They launched a recycling program and aimed to collect 500 plastic bottles per week.
“Our research has made students more environmentally aware of their surroundings and how to be good citizens when it comes to recycling,” she said. “Without WeatherBlur, I don’t know if it would have run as smoothly as it did.”
The recycling project earned local and even international recognition for Wilson’s students. The students earned three badges for their microplastic investigation and recycling action project at the 2021 Virtual GLOBE symposium. They were also invited to speak at the 2021 conference of the Mississippi Recycling Coalition.