Aroostook County June 30, 2023

Empowering Youth Scientists: A Year-Long Exploration of Climate Change in Northern Maine

A youth led, data collection project on forest ecosystems in Aroostook County.

What we did

Educators from the Ashland District School, Van Buren District School and Francis Malcolm Science Center along side support from the Maine Forest Service and Katahdin Learning Project set out on a year-long, place-based learning endeavor to guide youth in exploring the following questions:

  • Is the climate in Northern Maine changing?
  • What local data can students collect to investigate climate change?

The project centered around the collection of local data using both soil and air sensors as well as time lapse cameras to collect data from different points in the County (Ashland, Van Buren and Easton) transforming these spaces into hubs of scientific exploration. Complementary learning experiences were developed for youth at the science center and their respective schools to engage youth in understanding their local data within the context of some longer running data sets. They were able to use this combined data to look for patterns that might reflect a changing climate. Students formulated their own questions to guide their investigations such as “how does snow depth change soil temperature” and “how does sun contribute to change in soil temperature”. Students from Ashland and Van Buren shared their questions with each other for feedback before setting out to try to and answer them.

The project included a forest ecosystem hike led by Elaine Hendrickson and a fellow science center volunteer Sue Beaudet. Youth participated in a scavenger hunt where they identified and answered questions on biotic and abiotic factors, trophic levels and ecosystem roles. Students were also engaged in taking core samples and making frost tubes. This experiential learning day culminated in a presentation on forest health with Aroostook County Maine State Forester, Randy Lagasse.

Students transformed all that they learned into presentations using ThingLink, creating virtual 3d landscapes that showcased their hypotheses, collected data and findings.

This is an ongoing project with new youth collecting data each year. To date, 40 students have engaged in one or more learning experiences associated with this project.

Aroostook County Maine State Forester, Randy Lagasse, showing students how to use tools to measure forest health in the woods.

How we developed this experience

This experience developed out of an in person CLE meeting held at the Francis Malcolm Science Center in June of 2022. The group came together to workshop ideas for collaborative projects on the impacts of climate change in Aroostook County forest ecosystems. The hope was that by immersing students in real-life investigations as scientists in their own backyards, they will become engaged learners with a new vision and concern for caring about the world around them. The key element of this collection of rich science experience was having students research how climate change impacts their own community.

The team invested a lot of time up front to make the process of data collection and interpretation concrete and understandable. They held both virtually and in-person meetings at a local coffee shop to support one another in brainstorming and resource development, drawing on their unique contexts and expertise.

An educator guide is currently in progress and will be shared with the network once completed.

Seven educators sitting around 4 tables in a square facing each other with their laptops collaborating with one another

What we learned

As with any new scientific endeavor, this one too had its learning moments. Some of them were logistical in nature. For example, with all the factors that go into picking dates to visit various locations, the ground ended up being frozen and the youth were unable to get their frost tubes in the ground. Other learning moments were more process related. As time went on, they collectively came to the conclusion that in order to truly answer their questions using youth collected data, they would need to collect it over a much longer period of time. A good lesson for youth in that understanding the intricacies of our world requires patience, perseverance and a long term commitment to ongoing research.

The educators are hopeful that this is just the beginning and that students through the years will be able to look at previous student data in order to gain greater and more accurate insights into how climate change is impacting the woods of Northern Maine.