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Drop Your Anchors in Community Waters: Tips for Place-based Science

by Eve Tulbert and April Luehmann

Sodus, NY students investigate water quality, 2017

Great science teaching can unfold like a mystery. That’s why the ambitious science teaching strategy starts with an “anchor,” or an interesting, evidence-based event that compels further investigation.

An “anchor” might come from history --Darwin’s finches or Mendel’s peas, for example. But we can also anchor science in the current mysteries of our town or neighborhood.

In Sodus, NY, for example, an agricultural community, students and teachers in a summer program chose to anchor their investigations of biology and food webs in the economic life of the community. They centered their study on a question posed by a teen, “Why do some strawberries from a store taste chemically?” They researched soil quality, the water table, and invasive species. As they conducted research, they thought through system-level impacts on the farms that surrounded the school. One team collected soil samples from a local farm, and conducted a blind taste test of different local and shipped in strawberries. They discovered that levels of micronutrients in the soil had a clear and direct impact on the taste and sweetness of the fruit. And the results of their study landed in the local news, creating positive press for local farmers.

Students learn soil science from local experts at Burnap Farms, Sodus NY 2018

In Chicago, a program led by teacher-researcher Daniel Morales-Doyle supported chemistry students to take up a pressing question. How did a local coal-burning power plant impact water and soil quality? The plant, the target of years of political action and investigative journalism, was the known cause of community health problems, such as high rates of asthma among local children. The high school research team found that, despite interventions, local land and water still showed signs of heavy metal contamination. Communicating about the research became an important next step in community advocacy for clean up.

Justice-centered science pedagogy means creating investigations that become a part of ongoing dialogues and action plans, showing students that their scientific research can be an act of community service.

Tips for Anchoring Scientific Phenomena in Community Places

  1. Read the news, and talk about it. Ask students to bring in local news items that connect with science.

  2. Convene a community advisory panel. Meet to discuss issues that might lead to student scientific research. Find people and organizations that might serve as mentors to student researchers--and benefit from their research.

  3. Talk about justice. Are there health or environmental issues that can be studied in the neighborhood? Where do we see evidence?

Read the next strategy: Stage a Meaningful Debate


Morales-Doyle, D. (2017). Justice-Centered Science Pedagogy: A Catalyst for Academic Achievement and Social Transformation. Science Education, 101(6), 1034–1060.


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