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Vital Signs Progress Report 2015-2016

We are pleased to report a year of incredible growth for Vital Signs. This citizen science education program engages students in authentic science experiences, connecting them with practicing scientists and managers to investigate invasive species and the natives that they may impact in upland, freshwater, and coastal systems in Maine.

Our fall field season produced our highest ever number of species observations! The Vital Signs team developed new curriculum resources and Field Missions, inspiring teachers and students to dig into the data they collect and connect with their communities. These activities were well grounded in national STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning standards.

Participation is Strong

The Vital Signs community of practice engages students and teachers from across Maine, with our expert community extending into New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Illinois, and California. To date, over 7,000 observations have been posted in the database. This school year, we have had 1,583 active accounts, including 1,139 student teams (typically three students per team), 103 teachers, 292 citizen scientists (includes adults and additional students), and 49 expert reviewers. These members of the community worked together to contribute and evaluate 1,106 new species observations.

Meaningful Research Motivates Students

In addition to the field missions and investigations conducted statewide, seven schools assisted the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the Maine Marine Invasive Species Collaborative in identifying an invasive red algae, Dasysiphonia japonica. Substrate samples were collected during the annual juvenile lobster survey at 17 sites across the Maine coast. Students examined these samples, and identified via microscopy whether D. japonica was present. Students were thrilled to be participating in lab work that will contribute to better understanding of the potential subtidal impacts that this new invader may be having in Maine. Teachers were excited to integrate this work into their curriculum in a number of creative ways. 

A Broader Community is Engaging
A successful extending component of the program, Vital Communities, empowers students to design their own initiatives to educate the public and catalyze community efforts to monitor for invasive species. From forums to carnivals, flyer campaigns to collaborations with local elementary schools, students at our pilot schools enthusiastically took charge as community leaders.

Our team has shared the Vital Communities curriculum through local education conferences, introducing teachers to the curriculum supports and sharing models of the curriculum in action. We have also planned professional development institutes to dive deeper into this kind of project based learning with teachers. We are excited to see this student-leadership model spread around the state, giving more young people the opportunity and support to step up as environmental leaders and engage their communities in environmental stewardship and management efforts.

Teachers Benefit from Professional Development

The Vital Signs team engaged 95 teachers in professional development trainings and workshops from communities across the state. To reach more teachers from more distant areas, we hosted our first interactive online institute over three weeks in August. That experience was recorded for other teachers to use as a self-directed learning experience, bringing us closer to the day when great professional development can be an anytime, anywhere opportunity for our teachers.  

Building on the strong impact of a recent workshop around scientific argumentation, we developed a series of “Next Steps” trainings to improve teacher skill and confidence in key content areas, including data analysis, biodiversity, and hands-on investigations. One of the most exciting outcomes of this work is how it supported teachers in working in teams across disciplines like math and science.

Evidence Supports Program Impact & Student Learning

We completed work with research partners at University of Maine to investigate Vital Signs’ impact on student reasoning skills. This research suggests that when students contrast similar species, they are more likely to discern key characteristics, make their reasoning explicit, and construct better-reasoned arguments.

With these partners, we also created a new formative assessment tool that teachers can use to evaluate their students’ ability to make their reasoning explicit and rule out alternative claims. One teacher shared that “I cannot speak highly enough of how this helped my students develop their understanding of argumentation in science… I plan on doing this with every class I teach!” We have seen immediate impacts on student use of evidence and reasoning in their species observations, with detailed descriptions of their observations and careful attention to reasoned argument.

Vital Signs is having powerful impact on student learning and teacher confidence across Maine. With growing momentum and valuable new activities integrated into the program, we anticipate that next year will be even more successful.