Civic Matters

A Catalyst for Community Dialogue

Issue 1, October 2007

Becoming a Civic Scientist at Bryn Mawr

Kaitlin Friedman

There is a great disconnect between citizens’ demand for scientific knowledge and scientists’ supply of it. In the past two years, I have had the opportunity to work with members of the Bryn Mawr community and beyond to narrow this gap and to cultivate a greater understanding of what it means to be a civic scientist. My first civic engagement experience at Bryn Mawr began in the fall of 2005, when I took “Changing Pedagogies in Math and Science Education,” a Praxis II course taught by Professor Victor Donnay in the math department. I have a long-standing interest in environmental education, and Nell Anderson, director of Praxis and Community Partnerships, placed me in a setting that matched my interests perfectly. For my field placement, I spent four hours per week assisting and observing in a seventh-grade class that integrates the study of science, social studies and language arts into an interdisciplinary curriculum in which students learn about their local watershed.

This educational approach has a number of merits; the teachers in this classroom had chosen it because they thought it engaged students in the material better than traditional methods. I chaperoned field trips to test the water quality of local streams, supervised students in rehearsing their “rock songs” for their geology projects, and observed as students worked to resolve conflicts that arose during group project periods. My supervisor was a particularly wise and supportive mentor who provided me with numerous insights into the successes and challenges of being a science educator. This service-learning experience provided me with the ideal opportunity to share my expertise in my field while learning more about pedagogical approaches and my local environment.

Near the end of the semester, I began to wonder if Bryn Mawr College could play a larger role in sustaining watershed education efforts in local schools. In the months that followed, I discussed some possibilities with my field-study supervisor at the school and with my professors at Bryn Mawr. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute funded a summer internship for me to work under the supervision of two geology professors, Blythe Hoyle and Don Barber, to investigate these possibilities further and to develop a watershed education program of some sort for local schools. My summer activities varied: I worked with another geology major, Evan Pugh (a senior at Haverford College), to test water quality in Bryn Mawr’s stormwater retention pond; I co-facilitated a day-long workshop on watershed education for local teachers with another geology professor, Catherine Riihimaki; and I collaborated with a local citizens group from Haverford Township and Professors Barber, Donnay and Hoyle to apply for $45,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Service for environmental planning, stewardship and education at the former site of the Haverford State Hospital (HSH), which is in the Darby Creek watershed. As the summer progressed, I began to develop my senior thesis project, a set of watershed lesson plans geared towards middle school students in southeastern Pennsylvania. These would eventually be used by teachers in Haverford Township in conjunction with other educational materials for the HSH site.

The HSH project has been particularly exciting for a number of reasons. The grant was approved in December 2006, and we are now working with the citizens group to determine our next step. The professors involved in this project planned a workshop to  help Haverford Township teachers brainstorm educational uses for the site. Ten teachers will also have an opportunity to participate in a week-long institute at the College to develop more in-depth lesson plans and to work with the lessons I developed for my thesis. Professors Barber and Donnay are also working with other instructors at Bryn Mawr to integrate studies of the HSH site into the College’s curriculum. This semester, several students in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) course will develop projects to answer important questions about the environmental and social components of the site. As plans for the site become finalized, Bryn Mawr College students and faculty will continue to collaborate with local teachers and citizens to maximize the site’s potential.

In the sciences, it is often easy to lose sight of public interests. We tend to work in the isolated, controlled conditions of the laboratory with few, if any, other people. My experience in my Praxis placement helped me in defining my identity as someone working to bridge the gap between scientists and the public, as a civic scientist. In turn, I have been able to work to strengthen collaborations between scientists at Bryn Mawr and teachers and citizens in our greater community. The Haverford State Hospital project in particular has allowed scientists at Bryn Mawr to expand the sphere of our influence. Although civic engagement opportunities are often less visible in the sciences, my experience with this project shows that Bryn Mawr’s scientists have the capacity to effect change in the greater community.

Kaitlin Friedman ’07 earned her A.B. in geology with a concentration in environmental studies. After graduation she returned to North Carolina to work as a wilderness camp counselor before joining the State Environment Groups as a member of their campaign action team.