Wildlife Neighbors: Facilitated Ecological Research with Minority Youth via Camera Surveys in Urban Parks

July 1st, 2020 - November 30th, 2021 | PROJECT

Urban environments are remarkable natural laboratories to study ecology and speciation. These learning ecosystems are ecologically diverse and potentially more accessible for urban youth and their families. Unfortunately, disparities in STEM access continue to persist. Transportation, social and financial barriers, and a lack of awareness of STEM opportunities are a few of the inequities that significantly limit participation in STEM programs among urban youth, especially from underrepresented groups. Perceptions of who can meaningfully engage in scientific research remain demographically skewed to affluent, aged, and non-minoritized individuals. In an effort to address these challenges, this pilot study will investigate the feasibility of using remote cameras to survey local, urban wildlife to promote inclusive practices and youth engagement in STEM. A co-created curriculum will be employed, bringing urban ecologists and Detroit youth (6th-8th grade) together to participate in wildlife field experiences to garner and analyze data collected from cameras deployed through the city. It is the unique coupling of the camera surveys with authentic place-based, culturally relevant ecological research that will facilitate the innovative, experiential learning experiences. This pilot study will advance the understanding of the extent to which various facilitation methods and participation in out-of-school time programs like the Wildlife Neighbors program impact youth. From a broader impacts perspective, this work may yield positive environmental literacy outcomes and prove applicable for other urban youth in the country. The research findings would lay the foundation for future research and add novel approaches to the NSF portfolio on urban, out-of-school time environmental education programs for middle school youth using camera surveys to promote inclusivity, engagement in scientific field research, and increase youths' interest in STEM.

Through a strategic partnership between the Applied Wildlife Ecology Lab at the University of Michigan and the Detroit Zoological Society, this pilot will examine the effects of experiential learning through wildlife monitoring in twenty-four Detroit parks on strengthening four aspects of youth's environmental literacy: knowledge of ecology, competencies as researchers, empathy for wildlife, and sense of place. Youth will self-select into one of four facilitation models, each varying in intensity (summer experience, afterschool club) and mode (in-person, remote). Using camera surveys deployed in Detroit parks, youth will be immersed in ecological research, engaging them in the entire scientific process: observation, inquiry, data collection, fieldwork, data analysis and storytelling. Youth pre- and post-surveys, daily reflections on program activities, and parent/guardian questionnaires will assess impacts and experiences of the Wildlife Neighbors facilitation models and program more broadly. The research questions will explore the extent to which participation in Wildlife Neighbors: (a) differs across facilitation intensity and mode, and (b) strengthens environmental literacy among middle school urban youth when engaged in a co-created out-of-school time experiential program using remote cameras to survey local wildlife. Over the two-year pilot duration, approximately 100 youth and their families will participate in the program.

This pilot study is funded by the NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning program, which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments. This includes providing multiple pathways for broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences, advancing innovative research on and assessment of STEM learning in informal environments, and developing understandings of deeper learning by participants.

This Pilots and Feasibility Studies award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products

2023 AISL Awardee Mini-Poster: 2005812

Team Members

Nyeema Harris, Principal Investigator, Yale University
Stephen Vrla, Co-Principal Investigator


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 2005812
Funding Amount: $299,613


Access and Inclusion: Ethnic | Racial | Urban
Audience: Middle School Children (11-13) | Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: Ecology | forestry | agriculture
Resource Type: Project Descriptions
Environment Type: Afterschool Programs | Citizen Science Programs | Park | Outdoor | Garden Programs | Public Programs | Summer and Extended Camps