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Research: Community Science

News Story

Assistant Professor Anne Toomey, PhD, and her research assistants are engaging teachers and community scientists to understand the relationship among city-dwellers, environmental engagement, and education in New York City.

Despite boasting 28,000 acres of municipal parkland, 1,700 parks, playgrounds, and recreational facilities, and over 600 community gardens, New York City is often referred to as the “concrete jungle”—a reference in part to its looming skyscrapers and knack for making use of every possible open space.

Yet, between the glittering glass, marvelous bridges, and horde of oft-congested roadways exists one of the most fascinating ecological environs in the entire world.

Understanding this juxtaposition, Dyson Assistant Professor for Environmental Studies and Science Anne Toomey, PhD, seeks to investigate how community scientists—ordinary individuals in the world, oftentimes with no scientific research pedigree—can better understand their local environments, which in turn can help increase awareness for big picture environmental issues.

For her research, Toomey is working with the Billion Oyster Project (BOP), a nonprofit working to restore one billion oysters to New York Harbor (enough to kickstart a self-sustaining oyster population) by the year 2035. Billion Oyster Project works with the New York Harbor School, dozens of middle schools throughout the region, local community scientists, and volunteers from across New York Citybeleiving that restoration through education helps New Yorkers shape their great city. 

“Middle school students, teachers, academicians, and scientists are working together to create inquiry-based field science curriculum that will provide students with necessary skills and tools to enter into STEM fields while restoring New York City’s watershedwhat an inimitable experience!” said Lauren Birney, Principal Investigator, Assistant Professor of STEM Education, Pace University. A major resotration initiative, the Billion Oyster Project has also received assistance from the National Science Foundation (NSF DRL 1440869) to fund specific Billion Oyster Project work. 

In conjunction with the volunteers, Billion Oyster Project has about 120 Oyster Research Stations all around the city, where teachers and community scientists collect data on oyster growth and water quality, among other metrics.

“Staff from the Billion Oyster Project got in touch with me in June 2016 through an interested party at The Nature Conservancy to help evaluate the experiences of people involved in their project—teachers and community scientists,” said Toomey. “I started working with the staff at Billion Oyster Project to develop a research agenda—where they saw the vision of what they were trying to do, and how research could help them better target their programs.”

Toomey then began to formulate her research around a few basic questions. Namely, what is the basic experience of participants? What are their motivations and challenges? How can the process be adjusted for maximum value, for both the Billion Oyster Project and the community scientists and teachers who were given oyster cages to study? How can involvement with the Billion Oyster Project lead these individuals to be confident, informed participants in their communities?

“At first we just started with survey instruments, but starting in summer and over the course of the fall, I’ve been working with research assistants Christina Thomas ’19, (recent graduate) Brielle Manzolillo, and Lindsey Stehlau, previously a Billion Oyster Project Ambassador—talking to people who have the cages,” said Toomey.

Thomas, an environmental studies and economics double major who had developed a relationship with Toomey though previous classes, was excited about the prospect of this particular research.

“Professor Toomey knew I had an interest in public policy and environmental policy and legislation, looking at how environmental conservation programs interact with city policies,” said Thomas. “She asked me to come onboard as an undergraduate research assistant.”

At the moment, Toomey’s project is in the data collection phase. The research assistants have spent the last several months conducting interviews of teachers and community scientists, which consists of going on field visits where their oyster cages are located. Toomey estimates that the team has thus far conducted approximately 15 field visits, and is additionally starting to organize focus groups with some of the most active participants.

Both Toomey and Thomas note that the next step is to run the results through a qualitative data software program, so they can better understand and analyze the results.

“I take the interviews, I transcribe them, when they’re transcribed we upload them onto a computer platform where we do extended coding—we find themes, patterns from interviews, to see what the majority of people are saying,” says Thomas. 

While the jury is still out on the research analysis component—Toomey hopes to have some preliminary findings available in mid-March—the goal of the research for both Toomey and Thomas is clear. If ordinary people could be better engaged with their environmental surroundings, particularly in an environmental ecosystem as diverse and unorthodox as New York City, the awareness has the potential to do wonders in regards to environmental policy and planning, and in the immediate sense, can help reconnect the people to their waterway.

“A lot of people, when they talk about New York City, they don’t see it as a place for nature; they see it as a way people escape nature or control nature. On the other hand, New York City is also a great place for initiating a change because it is its own enclosed environment. New York City can pass its own laws on the city level aimed toward conservation and sustainability that a state might not be able to do, let alone a country,” says Thomas.

“People don’t tend to think of New York City as a place where you can easily connect to natural resources and feel close to nature,” said Toomey. “But by getting out and touching the water, and seeing organisms that live in the water, is that helping to develop a culture of stewardship and environmental connection? These are the questions that I’m asking.”