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4-H clover Learning about aquatic invasive species and loving nature

4-H Water Watchers made a big leap in its fourth year. It was already an exciting learning experience for young scientists, designed to embed natural science experiences in recreational activities like with kayaking and trapping crayfish.

Over the past four years, dozens of young people learned to identify native and non-native species in 4-H, with Lake Superior and the rich natural setting of northern Minnesota as their classroom. Small groups met in person once a week for six weeks during the summer months, travelling to various sites in the area. The focus was on beautiful Lake County.

How could it get any better?

photo of water weed and students on zoom call

Same citizen science, different delivery

While everyone looks forward to the time when such activities resume, 4-H Water Watchers found firm footing in a new online format. Until COVID-19, educators Becky Meyer and Tracey Anderson had relied on their own considerable expertise, together with knowledgeable folks from the local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), for teaching.

When they took Water Watchers online, they realized that the program was no longer constrained by their own knowledge or by geography.

Meyer and Anderson designed activities to answer real-life research questions, and invited youth from across the state. In all, 19 youth in grades 6-10 across Minnesota became citizen scientists. They kept the weekly format, narrowed the focus to water, and invited a different expert for each session. The SWCD was there again, but youth also met University of Minnesota Extension experts like Angie Gupta, a forestry expert, and Megan Weber, an expert in aquatic invasive species.

With families home together, parents could go outside with their children to observe and enjoy nature. And, perhaps because parents didn't need to drive their children to the program site, participation went up.

The role of “I wondering” in science

In each webinar, educators gave participants a task: Go outdoors and choose a plant or animal in their backyard, a state park or elsewhere. Identify it using an app, upload a photo of it with location and observations.

The final piece of data each week is "I wonder...," a question that gets them thinking about what could come next — an essential part of the scientific research process.

The young citizen scientists enjoyed it all, from photography to plant ID to understanding ecosystems. Steinar, age 11, says he likes using the field guides 4-H offered in his tasks. “I like to take photos of different plants and animals and identify if they are invasive or non-invasive,” he says. "I learned it is important to know if plants around my house and yard are invasive or non-invasive.”

Contributing to scientific research

Data collection happens on an ARC-GIS survey tool called Survey 123. All of the data are combined into a database, and appear on a statewide map. The result is a rich collection of information. Anderson says she had been looking for a way to incorporate ARC-GIS into 4-H learning, and the new program design gave her a way to build it in.

The data youth collect contribute to scientific knowledge. "We hadn't collected data like this before," Anderson says. "This year we've tried to pull in real-life questions that scientists have." For example, a research question might be, "Which aquatic invasive species appear most often in Minnesota lakes?"

Young people connect their citizen-science learning to potential careers. "You can feed an interest but also show that it can be long term, something you just like, or that you could do for a job,” says Anderson.

But for this summer, the joy in observing and appreciating nature has also been a blessing. “Best thing I've seen so far was I found this really pretty purple flower, just the other day,” says Rayna, a ninth-grader from Carlton County. “It had bell-shaped flowers and it was really cool and really great.”

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