CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.
Ruth Kermish-Allen is the Executive Director of the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance (MMSA). She served as the Conservation Psychology Fellow and a faculty member for the Conservation Psychology Institute at Antioch University New England. Before that she was the Director of Education at the Island Institute in Rockland, ME and a high school science and math teacher.
How did you get started in cyberlearning?
Over the past 10 years I have been fascinated by the role that technology can play in helping kids connect to the outdoors and to their environment. I come from an environmental and science education background. I actually started my career with an aversion to technology because I had wanted to connect kids to the natural world, and give them the chance to feel that they can really impact change. However, I began to see the role that technology could play: giving them a leg up, giving them something potentially that adults don’t have. I began to experiment with what kinds of technologies are out there that could potentially better connect kids to the natural world. I also wanted to give them a sense of empowerment as well. In many cases, the kids would run circles around the adults in their use and application of technology tools to address real world problems. Through connecting with Janet Kolodner, I was able to understand a little bit more about the cyberlearning program which led me to apply and it’s all history from there.
What makes you wake up every morning and want to work on this?
Since I work so closely with teachers across the state in some of the most rural areas, I see every day how desperately they want to connect with their colleagues, I see how deeply the students want to share their stories and lives with others, and I see the challenges rural communities are up against. Economic, social, and environmental declines are the norm, but I see educational technologies as a strategy to alleviate and innovate out of many of those situations.
For example, projects like WeatherBlur (www.weatherblur.com) connect a young person’s interest in developing relationships in the digital world to the natural world. Plus, cyberlearning projects provide teachers, especially those in rural areas, with the opportunity to give their students access to cutting edge learning technologies. WeatherBlur, specifically, allows these rural communities and rural populations to not just feel like, but to know that they are providing powerful data and powerful information to help inform decisions in both their space, and globally.
Community members get immediate feedback from scientists via WeatherBlur. We had a pilot project, way back, where the kids were doing a bycatch inventory, and they heard from scientists saying, “You found what? Go back and tell us more!” People of all ages are out in their communities, out on the water, out in their fields gathering and sharing data in real time, and it’s super powerful: They are using it to answer questions, and they are providing brand-new, hyper-local data to scientists that they would never have had otherwise. Plus, rural community members are connecting with scientists and experts who can provide valuable insight into local decision making that the rural communities would have never had a chance to connect with other than through a non-hierarchical online learning community like WeatherBlur. Contrast this with many data collection initiatives that kids do. They just stop at the data collection. In essence: “Here you go, I’m all done, I hope that you’ll be able to use it.” But the WeatherBlur project takes it to the next step: It’s more like: “Okay scientists, here’s a question that we have, help us figure out how to answer it and let’s analyze it together, let’s figure out what it means, let’s dive a little bit deeper together.” When kids get those excited responses from scientists to go back and gather more data, it’s really powerful.
What would you like policymakers to know about your work?
I think that what Congress, especially representatives of rural regions, needs to know is how powerful cyberlearning strategies are in connecting our kids to the greater global community. Without the broadband, and other access to technological resources, they tend to be left behind. Many rural communities are tackling really important questions, and the ability to access information is very important. They need to be able to connect to global communities through these cyberlearning technologies. Access will amplify the voice of this often disadvantaged community, and that is something that I am really passionate about. I feel that by utilizing these cyberlearning technologies, Maine and other rural communities really have the potential to show some exciting models with it. But often times, citizen science projects are re-inventing the wheel, and the cyberlearning community is researching what types of infrastructures are really working to allow citizen science to enable local action, and to enable learning. To connect the very unlikely suspects (such as fishermen, farmers, young people, local business owners), there are a lot of lessons that the cyberlearning community, and my project, has to share with Congress about what works and what doesn’t work for broadening participation and impact. Another piece that I’d want Congress to know is that there is power in our young people: in rural, and probably all settings. Children aren’t seen as peers, so giving them the power of these technologies and these kinds of questions, shows that they really are, in many cases, our communities’ best resource. So how do we give them a stronger voice to showcase what they can offer?
What kind of help or support would you like from the cyberlearning community?
I participated in other PI communities like this, like the ITEST STELAR group, and I think what has been really helpful, from both CIRCL and others, is just letting us know about opportunities: grant opportunities, publishing opportunities, opportunities to help us showcase our work. All this is really helpful and they are already doing that in many different ways. Sharing opportunities for sub-conferences, like the Smart and Connected Communities for Learning innovation lab, has been extremely helpful. They’ve been so good about providing opportunities for PIs and others to really get engaged in defining what comes next in understanding what NSF cares about, and understanding what challenges we are dealing with. Those little sub-conferences have been helpful in many different ways, so more of those, please!