An interview with Lauren Birney, Assistant Professor of STEM Education at PACE University and Director of The STEM Collaboratory NYC™. Dr. Birney leads the NSF-funded CCERS project, which connects teaching and learning to the restoration of New York Harbor to create enhanced learning and life outcomes for students historically underrepresented in STEM fields. The $5M, 3 year project connects teachers, curricula, technologists, developers, and scientists, with the restoration of New York Harbor as its platform, to create enhanced learning and life outcomes for students historically underrepresented in STEM fields.
What’s the big idea of your project?
The big ideas are the model, the curriculum, and the platform. The project is creating a collaborative model of 10 independent institutions working together to create a curriculum and digital platform to give students the opportunity learn about STEM as they participate in a real research project to restore over 11 million oysters to the New York Harbor. We have a brochure that gives a nice snapshot of the partners and what each partner is doing.
The curriculum, which being co-designed by teachers, scientists, and curriculum developers, is being implemented in the New York City public schools, the largest school district in the U.S. To me, the most important component is the lasting impact, the sustainability of that impact, and integration within the community. It’s a wonderful opportunity and has become a signature grant for New York City. If it can be done here in this large city, it can be replicated at different scales and different locales – like in Australia with koalas, or with fish in Finland. It’s kind of like the song New York, New York – If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. That should be our theme song!
What is the biggest success you’ve had in getting people to work together?
As scientists and researchers we’re often so involved in our own realm. That is definitely one of the challenges we face: How do we bring people – who have full time jobs already – together on a project and have them work at capacity. You have such a short time from when the grant is given to achieve what you want to achieve. I was talking with some NSF program officers last week and they asked a similar question: How do you give your partners the training to work together well?
The integral component is communication and collaboration. Without strong communication, people can feel left out, and there can be a lack of understanding about the trajectory we want to move in. I have a natural affinity for collaboration and bringing people together; I’m a connector. I try to make each person feeling very important and extremely valuable. I love to read books about how CEOs run companies, and what works and doesn’t work. A cadence that seems to work is where you do push people beyond their capacity but still understand and appreciate the context they work in. Everybody in this project was chosen because they were extremely dedicated to their individual craft and invested in the project outcomes. You just have to be aware of where people’s capacity is, and push in the right direction.
So my biggest daily challenge is to make sure that the oars are rowing toward the same goal and we’re all rowing in unison. It’s not always easy with all the entities in different locations: Columbia is all the way up on the Upper West Side; Governor’s Island in one location, the New York Aquarium is over on Coney Island, then we have the University of Maryland, and some researchers on the west coast. Since we’re not physically in the same place, it’s really important that we connect. We do that through weekly and monthly meetings by phone or video conference with all the partners, and visiting sites. We have two design weeks together each year so that all the team comes together. We do some team building activities, like bowling or rock climbing, so people get to know each other. You have to make sure that everyone buys into the ideas and concepts as you row forward. I also have a project manager who reports to me on what’s happening, and helps with the day-to-day management. You have to have a project manager for something this large.
Can you say more about the digital platform for teachers that you’re building?
The digital platform was initially being designed by a team at the University of Maryland, and then we brought in private company called Fearless Solutions to move it forward faster. The project was originally proposed to be 5 years and they gave us 3 years instead, so we had to ramp up quickly. The platform supports the core communication piece: All the lesson plans, data for teachers and students, data that is uploaded from the field through an app, and data uploaded in the classroom through a web interface. Because this is an ITEST project, the communication piece is paramount. The digital platform was just completed and is usable. To me it’s key to the project: once you design the platform and it’s functional, you can learn how it works best with different settings – even outside of the current project. The other day, I spoke with a physics professor at Berkeley who was interested in working with the platform. The hope is that it can be used in other content areas and projects eventually.
A lot of detail and work has gone into this piece. As with the curriculum, in designing anything within the project, we have scientists, educators, and academicians involved. We approach design by listening to what makes sense and what actually works from each perspective. One you field test it, before you know it, the app is obsolete. So we backed up and said let’s do the digital platform first, and the app will function off the digital platform. But having students be able to enter the data — like pH, acidity of the water, growth of the oysters, and video from different locations – all of those things will be usable by all the schools throughout New York City. If you can’t get to the water’s edge, you’ll still be able to have access.
How many teachers are involved?
NSF Project Information
Title: Curriculum and Community Enterprise for New York Harbor Restoration in New York City Public Schools (Award Details)
Investigators: Lauren Birney, Meghan Groome, Denise McNamara, Jonathan Hill, Robert Newton
Right now we have 52 teachers. We accept 30 middle school teachers per cohort, and each has 30 students. The first cohort of teachers started in February 2015, and we start a new cohort every February. It’s a 1-2 year program, so the first cohort is in its second year.
The teachers usually visit the restoration station, which is placed into the harbor, 3-4 times/year. We do Saturday teacher training for those teachers, to show them how to take measurements and how to build the restoration station themselves. The field science component involves scientists coming out to help explain concepts. Sometimes science is scary, so that’s a barrier to overcome. We have trainings with scientists from all over who over come and talk to the teachers about the content so they feel comfort with the environmental restoration piece.
We didn’t limit the people applying to the program to just science and math teachers; we allowed English language arts (ELA) and social studies teachers to apply as well. If you want to study the geography of New York harbor, there should be a way to integrate the curriculum into your classroom. We also wanted to connect people at school sites so there is a sense of local support. If you have a solo teacher working at a site, the project will more likely fail. So we ask for 2 people at each site, and the administrator has to buy into that. The teachers get a stipend, and the school gets one to purchase equipment that supports the type of curriculum they’re implementing. In June, we do a big event on Governors Island where the teachers and students presents their research. We have oysters they can eat, but they aren’t from the harbor; you actually can’t eat the oysters from New York Harbor – until maybe 2030!
Are you thinking this as a Design Based Research (DBR) project in action?
The original design was to have a 1-year ramp up phase with more time for design, but we really had 5 months. So we designed everything at the same time as creating the implementation and finding the challenges. It was almost developmental evaluation; conducting research at the same time doing the development. We had 3 goals: for students to become more interested in STEM, for teachers to integrate STEM in their classroom, and to develop the actual collaborative model about what makes it work and function right. And one of my long term goals is to create a San Francisco Bay project, so maybe we’ll have an opportunity to collaborate with SRI and CIRCL there!
Can you tell us more about the curriculum piece?
We have a design team that includes field scientists, curriculum specialists, and teachers who help with both the design and testing in the classroom. As curriculum becomes apparent, they implement various lessons plans and tell us what works and what doesn’t. So the curriculum gets vetted on the front end early on, and works in unison with the field science piece. I was a biology and chemistry teacher for 20 years, and the idea of kids being able to go out in the field, actually produce things and try things out, and bring them back to the classroom to share with their classmates is super important. They learn what research looks like. As we design curriculum, that’s paramount: What works, what’s the research component, what does data look like, creating tools and skills for kids in the field and in the classroom, and having them actually do things. It’s near and dear to my heart.
The curriculum is designed around science, but there are ways that non-science teachers can support the science component—for example, by doing a report on the geography of New York Harbor and how it relates to the measurements and the surrounding community.. The global science, integrative science pieces are being integrated in the ELA and social studies areas. What kids are doing in science shouldn’t be totally foreign from what they’re doing in these other areas. If it’s’ being done across the board, it makes more sense to the kids. So that’s what we try to do with the curriculum.
Is there a citizen science or a smart and connected learning piece?
Yes. The central idea behind the Billion Oyster Project was put the oysters into the New York Harbor to make the water clean and support the Clean Water Act. We want to get the community and parents involved in ways that feel meaningful, so we opened up a citizen science piece of having them go out into the harbor and participate in restoration. In a summer camp, the kids also designed apps that were integrated into the oyster project. The kids love the coding piece. We’re bringing in environmental policy, too – PACE Law School is going to be a part of this. The project has gone in the trajectory of Smart and Connected Communities for Learning, bringing these various entities together to make this a smart community that’s not just solely education based or solely science based. We can make change happen by changing people’s views, making curriculum and technology interesting for kids, and through environmental law and policy.
We had the devastating superstorm Sandy that wiped out Staten Island. So there’s a big push from the EPA –a 60 million dollar grant to design a coastline which will use oyster shells as a substrate so that the tidal flow coming in like that won’t happen again. A component of that grant is an educational center offering opportunities for community members to participate in the citizen science piece. We collaborate with the company that is funded under that grant on this citizen science piece.
How do you see this work being sustained?
We’re getting our data now, and would like to extend the project for two years. We’re also looking at the venture capital world or an angel investor to help sustain this after the grant ends. This seems like a clear direction that smart and connected communities will need to take. We need to create a business model that works. There are deliverables that will come out of this – a digital platform, apps, a model – but will those be marketable? But it may make sense to some VCs to incorporate this into other projects they’re doing in other urban cities that live on the water’s edge. The Clean Water Act applies across the U.S., and people want accessibility to clean water. We have all this water here, but nobody can go in it! Environmental efforts for smart and connected communities may draw funding from other institutions. Urban communities need citizen science.
2016 Showcase Video on CCERS – Curriculum and Community Enterprise for the Restoration of New York Harbor through New York City Public Schools
Environmental restoration and citizen science: Curriculum and Community Enterprises for Restoration Science (Brochure)
CIRCL Primer: Smart and Connected Communities for Learning
STELAR Center: Blog post on Smart and Connected Communities in Practice: The Billion Oyster Project