Vital Signs on Moving Towards Openness
Jane Park, July 23rd, 2008
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.