Public Lab Research note

This is part of a series on student-community-science.

How do communities respond to environmental problems? (Lesson Plan)

by mimiss , purl | May 07, 2019 15:41 07 May 15:41 | #19265 | #19265

This lesson is part of a series of lessons designed for educators to facilitate student-led inquiry around environmental topics. If there are time constraints, this lesson can be split into two at the Elaborate portion of the lesson. During Phase I of this series, students work towards identifying and learning about environmental topics.

You can learn more about this series here.

You can access this lesson plan as a Google Doc here.


Time: 90-100 minutes

Materials: Chart paper, post-its, markers

Video: Even Big Data Starts Small: Public Lab

Articles for Students

Guiding Question: How do communities respond to natural disasters or environmental problems?

Objective: Define community science and identify a local environmental issue for further study. Introduce students to problem-based learning.


Time: 20 minutes

Review the Guiding Question & objective for today's lesson with students. Have students share their opinions on where scientific inquiry starts. Student should focus on answering questions like:

  • Who participates in scientific research?
  • What are the benefits to society of scientific research?
  • What has the student's scientific experience looked like to-date?

Introduce & loosely define community science. Have students watch the video segment on Public Lab, and ask them to come up with a working definition of what citizen or community science is.


Time: 25-40 minutes

Group Brainstorm

Teachers will pass out slips of paper that each have a real-world scenario from an environmental justice community (taken from articles above). Students will form groups of 3-4 based on their scenario. In groups, students should read their scenarios, define the environmental problem, and brainstorm ways that they would study/address the problem. Students should be encouraged to focus on creating a strong definition of what the problem is. This can be guided by the following questions:

  • How would you define this issue?
    • In what ways could you sort/classify/categorize this problem?
  • What do you know?
    • List keywords from the scenario description.
    • What do you know about these topics and what more would you need to research?
  • Can this problem be broken down into smaller, more concrete pieces? -Example: "The town has experienced an increase in rainfall in the last ten years, and the sewer system can't keep up. There are huge puddles on the ground that last days, cause potholes, and make roads impassable."
    • This can be broken down into smaller problems like:
      • Increase in rainfall
      • inadequate sewer system
      • Standing water
      • Sewer system is slow to empty, leaving water on roads for days
      • Roads are damaged
  • Can we identify possible solutions or ways to monitor the problems presented above?


Each group should be given the Public Lab Community Story that addresses their group's scenario. Students should be given time to read and annotate the stories.

Each group will be provided with a marker and a poster. On this poster, they should list answers the following questions:

  • Where did this community science project take place?
  • What natural phenomena/weather event/natural hazard was the community group responding to?
  • What was the driving research question (or questions) for the community group?
  • What tools & methods did the group use to answer their questions?
  • What kind of data did those tools & methods produce?
  • How is that form of data (photos, numbers, graphs) useful?
  • What was the result of this project?


Time: 15 minutes


Each group should hang their poster somewhere in the classroom. Each group will appoint one person to share the group's findings with the classroom.


Time: 20 Minutes

Gallery Walk: Connecting to the Local Environment

Handout several post its to each group. You may use different colored post its or have groups use different colored markers so that you can easily see which groups are providing feedback. Groups should get 2-3 minutes at each poster to discuss connections between the environmental problem addressed by each community science project & environmental problems in their own community. Students are welcome to repeat or elaborate on the similarities proposed by another group. The purpose is to begin to identify environmental issues that resonate with the students and their personal experiences of their local environment.


Once students have returned to their original original posters, have them read the connections that students have added. Make note of connections that repeat on the same poster, or across multiple posters.

Selecting an Environmental Topic

With the help of a teacher, students should identify a local problem that they are interested in and able to design a study around. Ideally, this topic is one that sparked a lot of interest in the previous discussion.


Time: 5-7 minutes


Students should individually complete the reflection as an exit ticket or lesson assessment.

  • How would you define community science?
  • Describe one of the data collecting tools or methods used by the community groups? What kind of data did it produce and how is that data used?
  • How do you think that engaging with your environment as community scientists will change the way you interact with your world?

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