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Back to School: What’s new at Vital Signs?

Jane Park, September 4th, 2009

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.

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