Today we have a guest post from Andrew Collins. We met Andrew while doing fieldwork on the streets of NYC and have been impressed by the innovative work he’s doing to improve student engagement in science research and conservation. Andrew recently attended ScienceOnline Teen, and shares his experience below. Enjoy!

Beaver! Fox! They called out. An Owl! Looks like a Coyote! As the camera trap videos continued to play, more and more species took form. Yet while the students alertly watched on, listing one wild animal after another, we sat patiently … waiting to reveal a secret.

On April 13th, scientists, journalists, artists, students and educators came together for a day of learning at the ScienceOnline Teen conference. The goal of this event was to build connections between students & teachers and the online scientific community and to discuss how new media is changing the world of science. Our session at “#ScioTeen” was designed to give students a head start on a research adventure (Check out the slides from my talk here!). Those camera trap videos weren’t taken from Yosemite National Park or along the Appalachian Trail. They were taken right here in New York City, from parks and wooded areas just within the five boroughs. This revelation surprised most students in our session — Where in the world are these wild animals living and what are they doing wandering around the Big Apple?

When we think New York City, we almost always think urban jungle – a land of concrete and steel inhabited by few species beside ourselves. While it’s true our city is not the Peruvian Rainforest or Tanzanian Serengeti, the green spaces found here do support substantial and ecologically valuable wildlife populations. From rare beetles and wasps to stealthy wolves and hawks, New York City is home to a truly dynamic set of plants and animals. The goal of our session was to help students not only recognize this biodiversity living all around them, but to encourage them to be active explorers of it through citizen science projects. This burgeoning field allows students and other amateur scientists to contribute directly to scientific research. Students have the ability to contribute reliable data and also take leading roles in developing research questions that will help improve the health and resilience of our city. Citizen science is equally beneficial for student learning outcomes, allowing them to improve both their knowledge of ecology and inquiry skills as young scientists. By profiling projects like BudBurst, Journey North and School of Ants we hoped to encourage them to gain a better understanding local biodiversity and add to cutting-edge research by participating in citizen science.

As a former teacher and current graduate researcher, the opportunity to discuss and share ideas with students and scientists in one setting was extremely powerful. I saw many interactions that made me optimistic for the future of our work as educators and growth of STEM fields. It is only by involving students in the scientific inquiry process that we can improve science education and inspire the next generation of science researchers.

At ScioTeen, I was also able to connect with other educators to discuss a recent project we launched: the Ant Exploration Comic. Our team of illustrators and scientists are coming together to create an engaging classroom resource for students – one that will help them both learn science content and build reading skills. As the name implies, it’s a comic all about ANTS. From leaf cutter ants in the tropical rainforest to ancient ants in the Jurassic Period, each comic piece will explore a different themeWe would greatly appreciate any comments, advice and support and look forward to sharing the comic with you once we finish!

Update 4/30/13: Andrew just shared a blog post about his session written by one of the teens attending ScioTeen, Paige – Check out her great post!

Andrew Collins is a science communicator and educator focusing on ways to improve student engagement in science research and conservation. He is particularly interested in citizen science and its role in providing valuable outside-of-the-classroom learning experiences.  Andrew taught middle and high school science in the New York City Schools and is currently studying for a degree in Conservation Biology at Columbia University. He actively writes about urban ecology and conservation on his blog, NYC Ecology.