Sharing becomes a slippery slope when it comes to genomics: we need massive amounts of data in order to understand the human genome, but issues of privacy, abuse, and the distrust of institutions stand in the way. So how do we resolve this?
We talked to Robert Cook-Deegan, the director of the Center for Genomics, Ethics, Law & Policy at Duke University, about how the field of genomics is poised for takeoff, the challenges it faces as it scales, and how CC can step in as a neutral institution that will save the day.
What is the link between GELP and CC?
Genomics is completely dependent on a healthy mutualism between discovery science and practical application, yet the field is rife with conflict and deeply held ideologies and is rarely fertilized with empirical facts. Creative Commons is all about finding solutions that reduce friction in the intellectual property (IP) system and facilitate sharing of data and materials. So our roles are complementary and mutually dependent.
GELP is a corporate sponsor of Creative Commons–why do you think CC is important?
There are many academic centers with talent–we publish our own research at Duke, but we’re just not that good at putting things into action–but Creative Commons is the only place that is actually trying to get things done as a trusted nonprofit intermediary and catalyst.
I’m reminded of the epitaph on Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s grave: “She Saved the World. A Lot.” That’s what CC has begun to do in the world of art and writing; it’s helping save our culture from some of its own worst pathologies. It has the potential to do the same in science.
The field of genomics is poised for takeoff. This is not pure hype. In 1999, there was no published human genome; by 2003 we had a reference human genome; by 2007 Craig Venter and Jim Watson’s genomes were on the Internet. Nature estimates that today, several thousand people have been fully sequenced.
But that information is useless if it is not compared to sequences of other people and organisms. What matters is genetic variation and how that maps to phenotype–whether a person is likely to get a disease or is prone to certain risks. If there was ever a field that depended on network dynamics, this is it. I can’t predict who will make the most valuable contributions to understanding my genome, but I sure want them to do a good job. And they can only do a good job if they have access to lots of other peoples’ genomes. This is hard because many people have the same concerns for privacy, fears of abuse, and distrust of institutions that I do.
How in the world are we going to solve this problem? I don’t know. But I do know that most research institutions and private firms are more concerned with mining what’s under their control already, rather than sharing and creating value collectively. The real value of genomic data is going to require information vastly beyond the control of any single institution.
We need Creative Commons because it is a trusted intermediary non-profit institution that will enable the dangerous dark innovation jungle to thrive despite the entrenched ideologies and conflicting interests of all the critters that live in it. We’re depending on you. May the force be with you.
Join Robert and GELP in supporting Creative Commons and help ensure a bright future for sharing in the field of genomics by donating to CC today!Comments Off
At the beginning of this year we announced a revised approach to our education plans, focusing our activities to support of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. In order to do so we have worked hard to increase the amount of information available on our own site – in addition to a new Education landing page and our OER portal explaining Creative Commons’ role as legal and technical infrastructure supporting OER, we have been conducting a series of interviews to help clarify some of the challenges and opportunities of OER in today’s education landscape.
One major venue for the advancement of OER is through policy change at the local, state, federal, and international levels. We recently had the chance to talk to Christine Mytko, who is advancing OER at the local levels through her work as a K-12 educator and the lead science reviewer at Curriki. As a teacher, Christine brings a unique perspective to the conversation around open education and policy, and gives us important insight into how teachers on the ground are thinking about copyright and using Creative Commons and OER.
You are a teacher and the lead science reviewer at Curriki, which is known as the “next generation wiki” for K-12 education. Can you briefly describe who you are, your current roles, and what led to them? What would you say is Curriki’s mission, and how is it helping teachers like yourself?
For most of my teaching career, I have been a middle school science teacher in public schools. When I moved to the Bay Area three years ago, I was fortunate to find a job that combines both of my passions – science and technology. I currently serve as the K – 5 science specialist and middle school technology teacher at a small independent school in Berkeley, CA.
In 2007, I interviewed for part-time work at Curriki. Like many teachers, I was looking to supplement my income. What I found was a community of educators committed to creating, collaborating on, and sharing open-source materials. As part of the Curriki Review Team, I am responsible for reviewing submitted science materials and providing a public score and feedback for the contributor. I also help out with other projects as needed. Currently, I am working with another Bay Area Chemistry teacher to revise and submit an open source Chemistry digital textbook as part of the California Learning Resource Network’s Free Digital Textbook Initiative.
As stated on its main page, Curriki’s mission is to “provide free, high-quality curricula and education resources to teachers, students and parents around the world.” Its name, somewhat recognizably, is a play on the words “curriculum” and “wiki.” The Curriki repository does have many curriculum options, from lesson plans to full courses, available in various subject areas, educational levels, and languages. Curriki offers other resources, too, including textbooks, multimedia, and opportunities for community and collaborative groups.
All Curriki content is shared under the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY), planting it firmly in the OER space. Do you know why Curriki chose CC BY for all of its materials? If not, what do you see CC BY enabling that other licenses or “all-rights-reserved” content might not?
Contributors of Curriki content do have the option to select either public domain or a variety of CC licensing, but the default License Deed is CC-BY. I honestly don’t know specifically why Curriki chose this, but I must say it as an excellent decision. CC-BY gives educators the power to remix, share and distribute materials as needed to be timely and maximally relevant to their own curriculum.
The flexibility afforded by a CC-BY license allows for materials to be adapted quickly. I hear that a typical textbook revision works on a 7-year cycle. Curriki materials can be updated and “published” in a matter of seconds and the community can correct any content errors just as quickly. Many topics, especially in science and technology, are changing so quickly that education can no longer afford to wait for proprietary materials to go through their lengthy cycles of publication.
Currently, California and Texas are the biggest purchasers of traditional “all-rights reserved” textbooks, and publishers strive to meet these states’ requirements. Educators in other states (and countries) are forced to work within these proprietary constraints. However, OER [initiatives] such as Curriki allow teachers to freely adapt materials to best fit their pedagogical and cultural needs. Furthermore, by creating or uploading such materials onto a public repository, teachers will no longer need to work in isolation, continuously “re-inventing the wheel.” As relevant materials are freely shared among communities of educators, individual time spent on adapting proprietary materials will decrease, allowing educators to spend more of their precious time on other important areas of teaching.
Describe a class- or school-wide project where you have integrated CC licensing and/or OER. What challenges have you or your students come across while searching for or using resources on the web? How would you translate this experience for teachers looking to mark up their own resources correctly for OER search and discovery? What do teachers need to know?
In my technology classes, I now require all incorporated media to be Creative Commons, Public Domain or No Copyright. At first, after having free rein in Google Images for years, my students felt very limited in their choices. But after discussing the reasons behind copyright and copyright alternatives, many students understood the importance of respecting rights reserved.
There are so many excellent resources to help teachers and students use Creative Commons in their classrooms. The Creative Commons search page, Wikimedia Commons, Flickr CC group, and Google Advanced Search all are wonderful tools for finding alternatively copyrighted images. Websites such as Jamendo are great for finding CC music.
The language was a challenge at first for my middle school students. Although there are only six main CC licenses, my students got bogged down with terms such as “Attribution” and “No Derivatives.” It didn’t help that Google uses slightly different terminology (“reuse” and “reuse with modification”) in their license search filter. But the kids quickly became comfortable with the terms and procedures and, within a few class periods, they easily accessed and properly used “some rights reserved” media. Of course, I have the kids assign rights to their own work, which reinforces the licenses, and gives students the opportunity to think carefully about which rights are important to them.
As far as marking up my own resources for OER search and discovery, I am still learning about the process myself. In fact, prior to my work with Curriki, I was hesitant to “release” my work as open source. I had put so much time and effort into certain materials, I didn’t see the point of just giving them away on the Internet. However, the last few years, I have come to recognize the benefits of open source materials and have begun to post some of my formally guarded resources on Curriki as CC-BY; and I now freely share my new material. Now that I am more comfortable using and creating open source materials on my own and with my students, I hope to move on to work with other teachers.
What are the most common confusions or concerns of teachers when it comes to sharing their teaching materials? Do you think the average K-12 teacher is aware of open licensing alternatives, like Creative Commons? What are the various school or institutional policies for teachers sharing their materials?
I am certain that the average teacher is NOT aware of open licensing alternatives. In fact, many teachers I know still operate on the guiding principle of CASE – Copy And Steal Everything. I don’t believe teachers are lazy or purposely deceitful for using materials in this way; anyone who has taught in a classroom knows how much there is to do in an incredibly short amount of time. Sometimes, copying an (often copyrighted) activity and tossing it in your colleague’s box is merely survival. Even those teachers who are aware of copyright will often claim “fair use.” The problem is that teachers often overestimate their protections and privileges under fair use. And there is little training in copyright and fair use, let alone Creative Commons and OER. Not only is an average K – 12 teacher unaware of his or her responsibilities, he or she often does not know the rights and options available to him or her in sharing his or her own work.
There are a variety of roadblocks preventing teachers from sharing their own work. First of all, since creating curriculum takes so much time, many teachers are unwilling to share lessons because they feel the product belongs to them. Other teachers may feel that their work isn’t good enough to share. And even if teachers overcome these psychological blocks, there are still the technical issues revolving around how will they share their work as open source. None of the schools I have worked with had any sort of policies on, or time set aside for, sharing materials. In talking with my colleagues, they found a similar lack of school policy. Even in the rare case in which there was some sort of policy, teachers often selectively ignored it. Currently, most teachers do not have the access, training, and support necessary to confidently participate in the OER movement.
Curriki has been doing some work to tie their resources to state education standards (http://www.curriki.org/xwiki/bin/view/Main/BrowseStandards). Can you describe a little of that process to us? What are some of the benefits and challenges to including this information? How useful is it?
This work is not part of my professional duties at Curriki, however, I can speak to the process on a personal note as a teacher and Curriki member. Right now, when you visit a resource, you will see four tabs – Content, Information, Standards, and Comments. Choosing the Standards tab allows a user to view currently aligned standards, as well as gives the option to “Align to [additional] Standards.” The process itself is very intuitive; the user clicks through a series of menus and applies standards as he or she deems appropriate.
The biggest benefit will certainly be the convenience of browsing for resources by standard through the aforementioned jump page. The biggest challenge is to align all of the existing and future resources in the repository. Curriki is depending largely on the community to gather momentum for this process. Right now, in its infancy, only about half of the states have standards-aligned resources to browse, and even those collections are far from complete across subject areas and educational levels. Of course, members of Curriki are always welcome to browse unaligned resources by subject, educational level, or other criteria by using Curriki’s Advanced Search.
There has been a lot of OER talk at the state and federal policy levels, especially surrounding open textbooks. What do you think is the future of the textbook for the K-12 classroom? How would you like to see this reflected in policy?
I, like many educators, feel that the reign of the textbook is coming to an end. As a science teacher, I have rarely depended on a textbook for curriculum, and rely more heavily on both online materials and self-created materials. OER allow me to take better advantage of creating and sharing work within a collaborative community. While science and technology lend themselves to early adoption of the open source philosophy, I believe other subjects will soon follow.
Textbooks will not be able to maintain their current stronghold in K–12 schools. A recent New York Times article points out that “[e]ven the traditional textbook publishers agree that the days of tweaking a few pages in a book just to sell a new edition are coming to an end.” Textbooks are expensive and quickly become outdated. Printed errors are not correctable until the next edition comes out. In contrast, OER are inexpensive or free, constantly updated, and easily correctable. I would love to see the money saved by choosing inexpensive OER over pricey textbooks used for supplementary materials and teacher training. Or even better, districts can use that money to set aside release time and pay teachers to meet, collaborate and create OER content.
Lastly, what does a successful teaching and learning environment implementing the power of OER “look like”? Do you have any lingering thoughts—worries, hopes, predictions?
A successful learning environment is relevant, engaging, challenging, and flexible. OER material is current, as well as easily, and legally, adaptable to meet the needs of various learners. An OER community can provide a teacher with materials and support in meeting the needs of his or her particular student population. Resources that are freely shared end up saving others countless hours of redundant individual work and frees teachers from stagnating in a proprietary curriculum.
Schools are beginning to recognize the cost savings of abandoning the current textbook model, and I predict that publishers will adapt as the market demands of them. I hope that schools begin to recognize that teachers are a valuable resource and skilled professionals, and deserve to be compensated for their time spent developing curriculum. I hope districts begin to create policies and provide support to encourage teachers to share the materials they create.
Ideally, the classroom should be a place where students are not merely passive consumers of resources and media, but rather active collaborators, synthesizers and publishers of their own work. I hope that, from a young age, students will be held accountable for using others’ work in an appropriate way, and encouraged to share their own work as open source with some rights reserved, rather than falling back on the default of full copyright, or worse, not sharing at all. I want my students and colleagues to understand that, by sharing materials, they are contributing to a collection of materials that will benefit learners far beyond the walls of their own classroom. This is a significant shift in current educational philosophy, but sites like Curriki are a great step in facilitating a move in the right direction.3 Comments »
Many of you have heard about California’s Free Digital Textbook Initiative that launched last spring, which called for submissions of free digital textbooks in math and science for use by the state’s schools. Of the 16 textbooks submitted last year, 15 are openly licensed under one of the Creative Commons licenses—and all 10 that passed 90% of CA’s state standards are CC licensed.
In addition to individuals, the CK-12 Foundation, Curriki, and Connexions submitted open textbooks on subjects like Algebra, Calculus, Biology, Chemistry, Geometry, Trigonometry, and various other -ometries. You can check out the full textbook list and standards reviews at the California Learning Resource Network (CLRN).
Now, the Governor and his constituents are launching Phase 2 of the Initiative, calling this time for “content developers to submit high school history-social science and higher-level math course textbooks for review against California’s academic content standards.” From the press release,
“Resources like digital textbooks play a critical role in our 21st century educational landscape, and expanding my first-in-the-nation initiative will provide local school districts additional high-quality free resources to help prepare California’s students to compete in the global marketplace,” said Governor Schwarzenegger. “I urge content developers to jump on board this second phase and submit social science and advanced math material to help ensure California’s shift to a more advanced and cost-effective education system continues.”
Phase 2 is accepting submissions on a rolling basis, so if you (or your project) have an open textbook completed or in the works, make sure the CC license info is marked up correctly and submit it to the CLRN website. For more on licensing, visit creativecommons.org/about/licenses.1 Comment »
Photo by Vital Signs CC BY
Yesterday, Vital Signs kicked off their new site with more than 300 supporters, including Maine’s former Governor Angus King, who spearheaded the initiative that resulted in a laptop for every 7th and 8th grader in the state. Vital Signs, a field-based science education program at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, started 10 years ago just before the turn of the century. Since then it has evolved to “[leverage] Maine’s laptop program to enable students to participate in a statewide effort to find invasive species, and to document the native species and habitats most vulnerable to future invasions.” The new site “provides a digital platform, including social networking tools, to facilitate a fluid exchange of knowledge between students and experts. It changes each student’s relationship with science from distant spectator to thoughtful participant.” You might remember our Back to School feature on them, or even my Inside OER interview with Sarah Kirn, the Manager of the project, from the spring of 2008.
Back then, CC Learn and VS tossed around a lot of ideas on how to get them to move towards openness, and now more than a year a later those ideas have come to fruition. Their new site leverages the research and data of more than 50 middle school classrooms who are paired with real scientists, researchers, and conscientious citizens to explore and address the issue of invasive species.
“Stewarding 32,000 miles of rivers and streams, 6,000 lakes and ponds, 5,000 miles of coastline and 17 million acres of forest is a job for every Maine citizen, young and old,” said Andrew Fisk, director, Bureau of Land and Water Quality, Department of Environmental Protection. “Engaging seventh and eighth grade students in the issue of invasive species promises to build a heightened level of public awareness and a meaningful body of scientific knowledge. You never know who will save the next lake from a milfoil infestation. The kids are a resource of significant magnitude for us.”
Now Vital Signs work can be leveraged by other states and around the world. The new site’s default licensing policy is CC BY, which means that anyone is free to copy, distribute, adapt, or remix VS work as long as they attribute Vital Signs. The issue of invasive species is not unique to Maine, and now Vital Signs can lead in opening up the work that will enable future solutions.Comments Off
As students around the world return to school, ccLearn blogs about the evolving education landscape, ongoing projects to improve educational resources, education technology, and the future of education. Browse the “Back to School” tag for more posts in this series.
Last year, Sarah Kirn, the Manager of the Vital Signs project at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, popped into the CC San Francisco office and gave me a wonderful introduction into everything they were doing. This year, we’re closer in proximity, as Sarah is still in Maine while I am stationed in New York. As a preview of things to come, we connected over email about the progress VS has made since we last met.
To rewind and clarify, Vital Signs is a “field-based science education program” that “links 7th and 8th grade students and scientists in the rigorous collection and analysis of essential environmental data across freshwater and coastal ecosystems. Innovative technology, relevant content, and critical partnerships create an authentic science learning experience for students, a distributed data gathering network for scientists, and a statewide community of teachers, students, and scientists collaborating to learn about and steward the Gulf of Maine watershed.”
What’s new at Vital Signs?
We now have 47 teachers trained in how to use Vital Signs in their science teaching. These teachers hail from all across the state, from Aroostook County to York County. Teachers have already begun making and sharing observations themselves as a way to prepare for using Vital Signs in their classrooms.
To support this program growth we have hired Alexa Dayton to serve as our new Vital Signs Community Specialist. This new position will focus on bringing the citizen science and scientific communities into Vital Signs – as users of the data, as participants in the online community (discussing findings, commenting on data records, confirming or questioning identifications, contributing their own observations to the database), and as on-the-ground supporters of teacher and student field work. Alexa has experience in field biology, science outreach to rural Maine schools, web development and management, marketing, and computer science. We are excited to have her diverse skills brought to bear on supporting and growing our Vital Signs community!
We also have a new scientist partner, Dr. Les Mehrhoff, Director of the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England who is committed to serving as a Species Expert in our online community. He’s recruiting graduate students and others to join him in serving the Vital Signs community in this capacity.
In October a Maine Conservation Corps Environmental Educator will join us for a 10-month position to work with teachers in classrooms and after school clubs to support their use of Vital Signs.
We are collaborating with the MLTI professional development staff to plan Vital Signs-related science and social studies modules that MLTI will deliver this year to complement the summer teacher institutes and provide training for teachers not yet exposed to Vital Signs.
How does CC play a role in these new projects?
We’re spreading CC licenses around – to other education programs. GMRI’s VitalVenture project, a collaborative curriculum development project, has just provisionally agreed to use CC BY licenses, pending agreement by collaborating teacher. Les Mehrhoff, one of our Vital Signs scientist partners is going to use CC BY with his species photos.
And, of course, prior to our launch in November we will be finalizing the CC licensing for student-contributed creative works, teacher-contributed creative work, and citizen scientist-contributed creative work.
How are you leveraging OER in the classroom/with teachers?
All of our curriculum resources are open, so teachers will learn how to use OER through the course of using Vital Signs. As they become familiar with how OER works and become interested in other resources for teaching, we will point them in the direction of other OER.
The most exciting “open” aspect of Vital Signs, I think, is that the learning and work that happens within the system is open to the scientific community. Folks like Les, a well-known and well-respected expert on invasive plants in our region, will be regularly interacting with students on the subject of their contributions to the Vital Signs database. By design, every observation contributed to the Vital Signs site will confirmed or questioned by another member of the community. In this way, Vital Signs opens up students’ experience of learning science.
Tell us what you are most excited about!
Most excited about? It’s a tie between the enthusiastic response we are getting from teachers and students and the near completion of our program infrastructure. I can’t wait for the day (in November 2009!) when we make the www.vitalsignsme.org site live!
This project has been a long time in the development stages. It’s absolutely thrilling to have students contributing field notes like the following from a student in Old Orchard Beach:
“I am happy because I’m helping collect data for science, and was helping find if there are any invasive plants in Milliken Mills.”
“I saw brownish water, lots of leaves in the water, trees, plants, birds, bugs, grass, dead trees and plants, frogs.”
“I smell fresh water.”
“I hear birds, the wind, and water splashing.”
“I am suprized by what I found or didn’t find because even though it was an invasive species I thought I would find it.”
Likewise, it’s thrilling to read the words of a participating teacher from Kennebunk who says “In a nutshell, the Vital Signs program has made the science I teach richer, more real and more meaningful for both my students and myself.”
For more on Vital Signs, see our detailed Inside OER feature on Sarah from last year.Comments Off
CIENTEC, the Foundation for the National Center for Science and Technology based in Costa Rica, has announced its XI (eleventh) annual National Science Essay contest (the second to come out in both English and Spanish). The contest is open to all high school students around the country, inviting them to write on this year’s theme, “Community, Innovation, and Rights on the Web.” Essays from abroad are also accepted, but into a separate “guest” category. From the site,
“The Internet has transformed the lives of people, interconnecting them and giving them access to information, videos, and more. It fosters creativity and collaborative work in the development of new products, but often creates a conflict between easy access and the rights of authors. Some groups, like Creative Commons, have initiated a global movement to address this problem.”
The deadline for entries is September 15, 2009.
The same announcement in Spanish:
COMUNIDAD, INNOVACIÓN Y DERECHOS EN LA RED
La Internet ha transformado la vida de las personas, interconectándolas y dando acceso a información, música, videos y demás. Esta red potencia la creatividad y el trabajo colaborativo en el desarrollo de nuevos productos, pero frecuentemente genera conflictos entre el fácil acceso y los derechos de autor. Algunos grupos, como Creative Commons, han iniciado un movimiento global para facilitar el proceso.
Two very important conferences were held in Warsaw earlier this month (and late last month): “Open Educational Resources in Poland” (23 April) and “Open Science in Poland” (5 May). Alek Tarkowski, Public Lead of Creative Commons Poland, elaborates on the open education workshops held at each conference, one of which was led by ccLearn’s Ahrash Bissell:
“Two practical workshops on open education were organized by the Coalition for Open Education (KOED) in coincidence with two conferences taking place in Warsaw in April and May 2009: the conference on open education on 23rd of April 2009 and the conference on open science on 6th of May 2009. The first workshop, conducted by Susan d’Antoni from UNESCO and Richard Baraniuk from the Connexions project at Rice University, provided an overview of practical issues tied to open education, such as community building, IT tools and development strategies. The second workshop, led by Ahrash Bissell from ccLearn, focused on open licensing issues.
The two workshops were attended by a dozen representatives of NGOs active in the field of education and culture, as well as representatives from the Ministry of Education. Most important, they provided an opportunity for people working with open educational projects or considering starting such a project to meet and network.
As a result of the project, the Coalition for Open Education hopes to increase its number of member institutions, as well as enable the growth of open educational projects in Poland.”
For information on the conferences themselves, check out Alek’s detailed reports for both.Comments Off
The open educational resources movement has been picking up steam lately, even attracting the attention of legislators. What’s hot in the new Persian year (aka the start of spring) is the recently introduced “OER Bill“. What’s that, you say?
Well in its own words, it’s a bill “To require Federal agencies to collaborate in the development of freely-available open source educational materials in college-level physics, chemistry, and math, and for other purposes.”
Like David Wiley, we also don’t quite trust our eyes. (Italics don’t really do it justice either.)
Read further, and you’ll see that the bill requires all federal agencies expending more than $10,000,000 a year on scientific education and outreach to “use at least 2 percent of such funds for the collaboration on the development and implementation of open source materials as an educational outreach effort in accordance with subsection.”
The bill also complains a great deal about the cost of closed (versus open) textbooks. This is an undeniable fact that might finally get recognized by Congress. Read the full bill now.Comments Off
This month, the American Society of Cell Biology’s iBioSeminars added twelve new seminars to its original repertoire of twenty. The new seminars explore in depth topics such as “Odorant and Pheromone Signaling” and “Telomeres, Aging, and Cancer.” If you didn’t know already, iBioSeminars is the ASCB’s web seminar series featuring world-class scientists’ “on-going research in leading laboratories”.
Ron Vale and Bruce Alberts, two professors in Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology
and Biochemistry at UCSF, write:
“On behalf of the American Society of Cell Biology, we would like to welcome you to view our exciting iBioSeminars web seminar series, featuring 12 new seminars from world-class scientists. Our mission is to provide free-of-charge seminars from leaders in the life sciences to students and researchers throughout the world. iBioSeminars highlight recent research from leading laboratories but also contain more extensive introductions than are typical of university seminars. iBioSeminars are thus accessible to advanced undergraduates and beginning graduate students as well as to researchers who wish to learn about fields outside of their expertise. These free, “on-demand” seminars can be downloaded and viewed on a computer, an iPod or an iPhone, allowing you to view them anywhere – at work, at home, on a train, or in a classroom.”Comments Off
Photo by Petri Tuohimaa for GMRI, CC BY-NC-ND
“Sarah on a beach near Portland, Maine looking for two species of invasive marine crabs – Carcinus maenas (European green crab) and Hemigrapsus sanguineus (Asian shore crabs).”
In April, I had a chance to meet with Sarah Kirn, Program Manager of Vital Signs, a field and inquiry based science education program at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. The meeting took place in our sunny San Francisco office while Sarah was in town for the week. She marveled at the weather, her native state being Maine, where she has worked with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute since 2002. She explained that the Vital Signs program itself actually started in 1999. Back in 1999, Vital Signs was using Apple E-mates, something which, at my age, I’ve never heard of, much less used. The following are excerpts from our meeting, along with some recent edits over email.
I might have used it, I said. I remember using those old Apples…
“No, no, no,” she said. “It’s not an old box-style computer—it was an early portable computer. They’re really…kind of sleek and green and had a little stylus and keyboard. It was a great piece of technology that didn’t make it into mainstream use. So we started developing Vital Signs on Palm computers in about 2001.”
Let’s rewind a bit. Vital Signs, according to their website and info sheet, “is an inquiry-based, field science education program that links students and scientists in the rigorous collection and analysis of essential environmental data. Innovative technology, relevant content, and critical partnerships create an authentic science learning experience for students, a distributed data gathering network for scientists, and a statewide community of teachers, students, and scientists collaborating to learn about and steward aquatic ecosystems.”
Basically, Vital Signs is focused on giving students firsthand experience of being scientists in the field. The environmental data that students collect will be used by students and scientists—real, professional scientists—in their own research. How will Vital Signs do this? One advantage the program has is its geographic location: Maine. All seventh and eighth grade students in Maine have their very own laptops—and not just any laptops mind you, but laptops made by Apple, those cute white Macbooks with the sheen still on their covers. How did they score those? It starts with a governor who had a vision for revolutionizing education.
I read somewhere that the [laptops] are funded by either the state or the Marine Institute…
“The state. The program was started six years ago. Then Governor Angus King was nearing the end of his final term. He wanted to leave a legacy that would position Maine for success in the 21st century. He started thinking about technology in schools. He asked Seymour Papert, ‘how many computers do I need to put in schools to make a difference? If every school had a classroom full of computers is that enough? If every school had three classrooms full of computers, is that enough?’ Papert replied, ‘it really doesn’t matter how many computers you put in the classrooms unless each student has their own.’ Governor King took a budget surplus and made the first round of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative happen.” (Maine was also the first state with high speed internet access to every library and every school.)
So is it all seventh and eighth graders?
“All seventh and eighth graders and their teachers. It actually started with the teachers first, which was critical to the program’s success. Teachers got their computers a year before their students. Governor King had the insight to get teachers involved in the administration of the project. The woman he hired to run it, Bette Manchester, had worked as a teacher and as a principal. She had the insight that when you take a classroom where traditionally the teacher has been the one with all the knowledge and their job has been to impart that knowledge to their students, and you give all the students their own high speed, connected laptops, you’ve given all the students access to more information than could possibly be in their teacher’s head and this had the potential to flip classrooms upside down. So how [do] you help teachers make that fundamental transition in their role, especially given that teachers often have a different relationship with technology than their students do? There’s often more fear, there’s often less willingness to try things, there’s often more fear about being wrong and doing something that’s going to mess it up. So this is where Bette began.”
So how does Vital Signs fit into it—what role does it play with the laptops, with the Maine Learning Technology Initiative?
“We are developing a suite of software that will enable students to make and record rigorous observations of invasive species in their community’s aquatic habitats, and to work online with each other and with scientists to understand the meaning and importance of the observations they made. We will create an interface that allows students, scientists, and the public to query the database, create maps and graphs of the data, and share multimedia reports and data products. Most of this software suite will be web-based and all of it will be freely available to anyone, but it will also become part of the disk image installed on all 32,000 Maine Learning Technology Initiative laptops.”
So the whole point of Vital Signs is first of all to get students used to technology…
“No, not at all, our primary goal is to build science literacy. But let me back up and tell you a bit about the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute has a three-pronged mission. One, we’re doing fisheries ecosystem research. Fisheries have traditionally been managed on a species by species basis, but there is growing demand for a more holistic approach. Species-specific management was simple, but of course every fish in the ocean is eating other fish and competing with other fish for food and being eaten by other things like whales and other species humans want to protect. So there’s all sorts of complicated issues and if you look at it on a species by species basis, you’ve oversimplified it to the point where it breaks down.
“So we do fisheries ecosystem research and the twist that we bring to it is that we partner scientists with fishermen. Fishermen have spent, often, generations at sea. For example, I went fishing with one of our fishermen partners and I was looking around on his boat and I didn’t see any charts (he was using an electronic navigation system). I asked if he carried charts on his boat. He looked at me and said, ‘No.’ ‘What if your electronics break down?,’ I asked. He showed me a little notebook that has all the tows three generations of his family had made. He knows the bottom of the ocean the way we recognize streets on land. He just navigates by the bottom. So there’s that kind of incredible knowledge about where fish are, where you want to catch them, what time of year, the temperature of the water and all the rest. Fishermen also have tremendous skill in handling boats. So if you pair both the knowledge and the skill set of fishermen with the rigorous methodology of scientists, we can start one step ahead of everybody else. And contrary to what many people think, fishermen are not all out to destroy the ocean. They would like their kids to be fishermen, the way they are, and their father and their grandfather were. They are really interested in figuring out different ways to better manage the fish.
“The second thing that we do is community-building and education work around marine resources, bringing together managers, the fishermen, scientists, and environmentalists to all put their ideas on the table. We create neutral space for that to happen in what’s been and continues to be an extraordinarily contentious arena. We’ve become trusted for the neutrality that we bring to the table and for giving everybody respect and equal airtime.
“The third thing that we do, something that we see as essential to creating a sustainable marine ecosystem including humans, is science education. We’re committed to building science literacy in Maine so that citizens have the tools to understand natural resource issues and come to their own informed conclusions. We target our education programs at middle school, which is where researchers suggest that kids either stay in science or pop out of it.”
That’s actually kind of true.
“We have two active education programs at GMRI: Vital Signs and LabVenture!. LabVenture! is a fifth and sixth grade program that happens in our building. We’ve raised money to bring every fifth or sixth grade student in the state to our lab for a half-day immersive science experience. Every school district decides whether the program works best with the fifth or sixth grade curriculum, then we send a bus to the school to bring the students to Portland. We use technology to enable them to work independently of their teachers, and use the scientific method to solve a mystery.”
So they’re doing kind of field work?
“Yeah. The mystery is about the X-Fish––what is it and why is it important. They go through four stations. At one, for example, they use a microscope to look at the fish’s stomach contents and take images––still, digital images––of what they see. They make observations, make hypotheses about what they expect to find, document what they see, and then record their conclusions at each station. The concluding presentation of the LabVenture! program is a colloquium drawing from these student-collected digital assets to solve the mystery of the x-fish.
“Vital Signs will be for 7th and 8th grade students and will immerse students in their own communities. Students will go outside with their laptops and work in teams to investigate and document what they see. One person will have dry hands and sit in a dry place and enter the data, the other team members will take pictures of and identify species and habitats, use a GPS to get location data, use probes to measure water quality and soil quality, write general observations. The software will guide them through making their observations and provide on demand help. They’ll collect all that data, they’ll bring it back to the classroom, they’ll send it to our database. The teacher will have a chance to look at it to evaluate student learning. And then students will actually peer review each other’s work. With Vital Signs I see the opportunity to use technology to enable students to take on the work and the role of the scientist in the field—from asking the questions to collecting the data to analyzing the data.”
“We have two interconnected goals with Vital Signs. One, to give students a richer understanding and experience of what science is and how messy and complex it is. Two, to produce quality data that’s useful to the broader scientific community. We’ve already worked with scientists around the state who are studying invasive species and they’re really interested in the data that will come out of Vital Signs. This is a big motivating factor in the students but also the teachers who really like to be able to tell their students so and so scientists are looking at this question just like you are and they’re really interested in the data that you find from this site.”
I’m interested in how the peer review process actually works.
“We’re still working out the details, but the main idea is that students will develop an identity within the program. They’ll be able to gain and demonstrate expertise in the various data collection tasks-–-identifying individual species, taking crisp photographs that let viewers verify identifications, writing interesting and relevant observations, using the water quality probes, etc. When they have been recognized as having achieved proficiency in a particular task, they’ll be able to exercise their knowledge by providing a review of un-verified records. For example, if you’ve demonstrated expertise in identifying European Green Crabs, Carcinus maenas, you’ll be able to search the database for unverified sightings of these crabs and comment on whether they were correctly identified or not.”
Are you looking to expand this outside of Maine?
“Maine is absolutely the perfect place to develop and test Vital Signs, but our attitude towards practically everything that we develop, whether it’s in education or science or community, is that if we solve a problem that we have in Maine, that solution might be really valuable to somebody else outside of Maine. Maybe not for the same thing that we’re dealing with but for something else that they’re concerned about. So we’re always interested in building programs such that they may be modeled and may be replicated or extended outside the Gulf of Maine. With Vital Signs all our code will be released as open source software so the components can be used elsewhere. We’re very interested in partnering with organizations outside of Maine to expand or replicate Vital Signs.”
That’s where Creative Commons and open education comes in?
“Right. The first thing I talked to Ahrash [Bissell, ccLearn director] about was actually the student data, and how do you license it so that it is open to be used and obvious that it may be used. One of the things you come up against in education is the need to protect the identity of your students. And there are other considerations: if you’re working for [Creative Commons] or I’m working for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the product of our work is owned by our employers. But students, they’re not employees of the school…
“So what we’re working out is, exactly how do we create attribution? Who gets attribution? Are you able to cite this body of information? We really hope it’s used by people other than the students. And we absolutely encourage students to remix the data. There’s all sorts of things you can repackage and re-purpose.
“Every educational resource that GMRI has created has always been out there for people to use. When we post activities online we don’t presume that teachers will only use the activity the way we’ve written it. And often the activities that we write have suggestions for how to change them that might suit one group of students or an older or a younger group of students. So I think there’s a general assumption that what we post online is going to be reused and remixed.”
Currently, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s website (including what they have up so far for Vital Signs) is CC licensed under CC BY-NC-ND. The environmental focus of Vital Signs for the fall of this year will be Invasive Species Monitoring—so seventh and eighth graders will be out in the field collecting data on invasive species for scientists to study for their research.
When I asked Sarah how and why she ended up managing the Vital Signs program for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, she told me that her first job after college was as an Outward Bound sailing instructor teaching sailing courses off the coast of Maine. The experience inspired her educational [philosophy], or pedagogy, a word she normally doesn’t like. It’s all about giving students a genuine role to play and making learning contextual. After completing her masters in Oceanography, she realized she didn’t want to do just research and that she didn’t want to do just education. Vital Signs was perfect because it was “something in the middle.” “Vital Signs gives students a real role to play in answering authentic questions. When you put learning in an authentic context, it’s much more real.”
We all remember our math teachers don’t we? Sarah remembers her Calculus teacher back in high school…
“Mr. Smith, why are we learning calculus? What’s the big picture?” asked an eighteen year old Sarah.
“Well, Sarah,” he replied, “maybe you’re going to work designing cans in the future. Then you’ll have to maximize volume and minimize surface area…”
“There is no way on earth that I am going to design cans!” she remembers thinking.
Among her many activities including sailing boats, hobnobbing with local fishermen and consulting with scientific experts in her field, Sarah has not quite made the time to design a single can yet. But she is spearheading the ongoing Vital Signs project, which is a significant indicator of the changing science education landscape towards sharing and openness.