In community and citizen science (CCS)Footnote 1 projects, youth may enact their agency and identity by doing, and importantly, using their scientific work to make meaningful and relevant change in their own lives (Ballard et al., 2017; also, Fusco, 2001; Taylor & Hall, 2013). However, not all CCS projects are created equal, especially with regards to CCS in school contexts. Learning outcomes vary based on how CCS participants of any age are able to engage in and contribute to the scientific work (Bonney et al., 2016; Shirk et al., 2012). While youth-based community and citizen science can increase literacy for doing and using science (Bonney et al., 2016; Kelemen-Finan et al., 2018; Saunders et al., 2018), we also must clarify and integrate what “meaningful and relevant” scientific work means to the youth doing CCS––to understand both how and when youth see their data as actionable (Harris et al., 2020), as well as what their collective interests, goals, and practices are to attain these goals (Lave & Wenger, 1991)? As educators, schools, and communities are increasingly adopting CCS in various forms, this clarity about what truly impacts youth meaning-making is urgent and essential.

Our study focuses on a unique in-school context in which 4th and 5th grade students were allowed to make consequential environmental decisions on their school campus based on their CCS findings. Within this context of doing and using science to create meaningful change, agency and identity are important constructs for understanding how young people shape their science community and use their science in ways they deem significant. Therefore, we use a lens of youth agency and identity, and theory on framing, to understand the goals, interests, and practices of their CCS work, and when possible, the environmental decisions they made. Given the importance of context for outcomes of science learning, environmental and social action (Harris et al., 2020) we then describe in detail how particular CCS instructional design elements might support (but not dictate) youth CCS work, in schools and outside of schools.

Positioning youth as people who do science

Science education reform emphasizes science as a tool to question, to solve problems, design solutions and bring those ideas into being. Educational efforts focus on more expansive forms of doing science––in which scientific knowledge is generated and then applied for problem solving (National Research Council, 2012). Similarly, in California where this study took place, one of the five California “Environmental Principles and Concepts” for student learning emphasizes the complexity of environmental decision-making as a key part in understanding interconnected and inseparable relationships between humans and the natural world (California Department of Education, 2016). This educational trajectory reflects how decision-making with science is defined as part of “science literacy” (National Academies Press, 2016), and part of larger efforts to prepare members of the public in civic engagement through improved science skills (National Research Council, 2007). Furthermore, this trajectory in science education reflects calls by the United Nations for the advancement of scientific research to further the applied knowledge and technologies needed to achieve sustainability goals and climate change mitigation (UNESCO, 2021). Doing science is not only about knowledge generation, it is also about using and applying that knowledge for informed decision-making, problem solving and evaluation. Therefore, while “science offers hope” as we are confronted by a litany of local and global crises (UNESCO, 2021, p. 3), how science “expertise becomes applied” such as through CCS projects “are important sites of reflection and discovery” (Irwin, 2002, p. 11).

A growing movement in science education research takes up this work of how science can be an agent of change for youth; that science is about learning and knowing the natural world, and it can also be about youth authoring choices and taking informed action on social and environmental issues (e.g. Calabrese-Barton & Tan, 2010; Fusco, 2001). But what is not well understood is what youth actually do with that science agency. Agency reflects one’s ability to enact desired change for personal or more public outcomes (e.g. Patterson, 2019). Additionally, whereas agency reflects one’s choice (Basu & Barton, 2010), identity informs an individual’s agency, as individuals act in ways that are meaningful or preferential within a given context (Holland et al., 1998). In this sense, agency and identity are closely linked yet separate constructs, which play formative roles when youth as individuals are contributing to knowledge production and using that knowledge for environmental decision making. For instance, when youth reimagine place and how they want to interact with place through decision-making (their agency), they consider their future selves (their identity) (Taylor & Hall, 2013).

Youth learning and doing science becomes “less about practicing the routines of knowledgeable others”––it is not a rote way of being or replication of fixed practices; instead, “…it is about recreating those practices in socially and culturally situated ways” (Calabrese-Barton & Tan, 2010, pp. 190–191, emphasis added). Positioning youth as people who do science through CCS (Harris & Ballard, 2018), then, means positioning them to express their identity and enact their agency by practicing science and applying their findings in ways that are meaningful to them.

Agency with science through Community and Citizen Science

At the basis of participatory science projects whether citizen science, community science, or both (CCS), is participation. Participants in “contributory” citizen science projects take up roles as data collectors and contribute data to scientists’ research, where protocols and intended purposes of data are typically pre-determined by the professional scientists (Shirk et al., 2012), making science a “collective, if not always cooperative, undertaking” (Carr, 2004, p. 843). In contrast, non-professional participants of “community science” projects tend to have greater decision-making power throughout the scientific process of developing research questions, designing protocols and presenting findings (Shirk et al., 2012), including shaping the knowledge produced and making environmental decisions (Carr, 2004). While these distinctions are not meant to cast citizen science as unfavorable (Wiggins & Crowston, 2011), different means of participation have implications for learning. For instance, the different ways that youth contribute to participatory science projects, including what they perceive they are doing and how they see their data being used, impacts opportunities for learner agency (Harris et al., 2020). Regardless of which typology of participatory science we apply (i.e. Eitzel et al., 2017; Shirk et al., 2012; Wiggins & Crowston, 2011), engaging participants in all or some parts of data production and interpretation is identified as a core characteristic for youth science learning outcomes (National Academies Press, 2018). “Data” here is considered the smallest unit of knowledge––it is used to draw inferences and evaluate explanations (National Academies Press, 2018). Participation in the process and activities of engaging with data is therefore central to how youth may enact agency with science through citizen and/or community science.

This way of doing and learning science is captured by the concept of environmental science agency (ESA), in which youth leverage their environmental science knowledge and practices, along with their self-identified expertise and interests, to make meaningful change in their worlds (Ballard et al., 2017). We therefore use this concept to understand youth enactment of agency and identity within CCS educational contexts focused on youth learning science for environmental and social action. Supporting this concept is a growing body of research which suggests an importance in (1) positioning youth as people who can learn about and take action in their communities, and (2) situating learning and action in local place (Bang & Medin, 2010; Bird et al., 2020; Calabrese-Barton & Tan, 2010; Taylor & Hall, 2013). However, youth in some CCS projects feel that the data they collected and shared with decision-makers (e.g. city council members or local land owners) was not “meaningful” or “believable”; that their scientific work was not valuable and that their findings would not be acted upon (Harris et al., 2020). This calls to question how youth agency is impacted when those youth have responsibility over decision making and action as opposed to encouraging others to take action.

The data lifecycle

When youth monitor their local environments through CCS data collection and then use those findings to take action, they complete the arc of the “data lifecycle” (Fig. 1). As opposed to solely focusing on data throughout the scientific process of asking and answering questions, here the data lifecycle includes what participants do with their collected data to leverage change (Warren & Dosemagen, 2011). Youth experience their agency with science when they “use science to make changes in their lives” (O’Neill, 2010, p. 6). This includes making decisions and taking action with data (Fig. 1), but also includes moments when youth contribute to all other processes of the data lifecycle from developing their own expertise in order to defining research questions and project goals.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Data lifecycle

Therefore, at the core of the data lifecycle is the understanding that knowledge production and knowledge itself is consequential. However, while data can inform decisions, data alone do not contain instructions for which actions to take. These decisions are fundamentally an expression of preference (Smith et al., 1953), such as preference to prioritize some environmental issues or values over others. Therefore, decision-making is subject to and impacted by facets of identity, including the first-hand experiences and personal expertise youth have (Magnussen & Elming, 2017). While the data lifecycle can provide an important instructional design process for centering youth agency and identity in CCS, it does not provide instruction for how to make decisions about scientific practices or environmental decisions.

When students make decisions in science, they decide what is relevant (Fusco, 2001) thereby defining what is significant and what outcomes they value (Holland et al., 1998). Youth choice and preference reflects ways in which their identities are “important bases from which [they] create new activities, new worlds, and new ways of being” (Holland et al., 1998, p. 5). The new worlds youth imagine or create through their decision-making processes are interventions in their relationships with place; they can consider expanded possibilities for new ways of interacting and being in built landscapes (Magnussen & Elming, 2017; Taylor & Hall, 2013). Within the context of environmental decision-making, environmental science agency (ESA) provides a means for investigating how youth enact their identities and the knowledge they value through their imagined worlds and in place. ESA foregrounds what youth identify as relevant, significant and what is of value as they leverage their knowledge, practices and interests to make change (Ballard et al, 2017). However, given the multidimensionality and fluidity of an individual’s identity across contexts (Holland et al., 1998), youth need opportunities to make decisions across a range of environmental issues (Grace & Ratcliffe, 2010), and preferably relevant and local environmental issues.

Place and the challenges of environmental decision-making

The goal of environmental decision-making can be framed broadly as “achieving and/or maintaining a dynamic equilibrium between quality of life and the quality of the environment” (Hungerford et al., 1980, p. 44). This goal underpins the interconnected relations between humans and the natural world as well as the values in defining what “quality” means and to whom (Arvai et al., 2004). The concept of “place” explicates our complex human relationship with the natural world including issues of equity embedded within relationships. “Place” is a multidimensional concept which includes social and ecological facets of a particular region (Heimlich & Ardoin, 2008). Therefore, for CCS to be a means to critically question and take action on socio-ecological inequities built into place (Irwin, 2002), ideologies and systems which influence how decisions are made require consideration (Bang et al., 2014). Environmental decision-making contexts are typically contested spaces, as issues of “whose knowledge” and “whose values” and “for what purposes” evokes long standing issues of power and equity.

Environmental decision making is not a neutral or objective process. Even a person’s interpretations of “what’s going on” (Goffman, 1974) with environmental issues, or the ways in which an issue is framed, influences how they make decisions (Arvai et al., 2004). For instance, “non-native” or “invasive” species are commonly framed as inherently “bad” for an ecosystem’s health, which can impact if and how one chooses to manage these species. Accordingly, framing helps to define the situation––or environmental issue––enabling others to know how to act or what is expected of them (Goffman, 1974). Furthermore, how the issue is presented and conceptualized impacts the degree to which a decision-makers’ values are engaged (Arvai et al., 2004). Just the term “invasive species” has a negative connotation, implying something that should be stopped. The effects of framing by a decision-maker highlights the affective elements at play when identifying and deciding to take action on an environmental issue.

All of these complexities are true for adults making environmental decisions, but become even more nuanced when we consider youth making environmental decisions. Whereas trained environmental scientists attempt to consider the multifaceted angles of an issue and project out all possible socio-ecological facets outcomes, students tend to focus more narrowly on particular aspects of the issue (Hogan, 2002) or related science content knowledge (Grace & Ratcliffe, 2010). Similarly, Hogan and Maglienti (2001) found that whereas scientists valued consistency of evidence and conclusions, eighth graders relied on whether or not claims aligned with their prior experiences and personal inferences––aspects of their identity. These studies warrant further investigation of environmental decision making in place-based contexts where youth are familiar with the local environment, have first-hand experiences there, and in which students’ decisions are actually applied.

Students’ scientific content knowledge, prior experiences and values can interact and influence student decision-making in narrow ways (Grace & Ratcliffe, 2010; Hogan, 2002; Hogan & Maglienti, 2001). To address this issue, teachers can learn what students’ value for their intellectual standards so that students can begin to critically assess the intellectual merit of their own work (Hogan & Maglienti, 2001) and encourage systems thinking strategies to support students in decision-making (Hogan, 2002). However, having knowledge about a system still does not provide clear understanding about what action can be taken.

To better understand knowledge-based requirements for making environmental decisions, Frick et al. (2004) provide a framework categorizing three types of knowledge used in environmental decision-making. Systems knowledge reflects the kinds of systems thinking Hogan (2002) argues students need. Systems knowledge includes an “understanding of the natural states of ecosystems and the processes within them” (Frick et al., 2004, pp. 1598–1599). In addition to this content-focused knowledge, is knowledge about what kind of action can be taken. Action-related knowledge can be thought of as the knowledge needed to address a particular problem, like reducing, reusing or recycling our waste to address limited landfill space. This type of knowledge refers to information that can be applied for either a relevant direct or indirect impact (Frick et al., 2004). The example Frick et al. (2004) provide is that of carbon dioxide emissions and the action-related knowledge individuals need to mitigate these effects; individuals can choose not to drive (a direct impact on emissions), or make purchases based on the amount of energy it took to produce items (an indirect approach). To determine which action would have the greatest benefit requires knowledge about its effectiveness. Effectiveness knowledge is particularly useful when there are different ways to act, however it also requires the ability to evaluate and justify what “effective” means and demonstrates why individuals may want to take different approaches despite having the same goals (Frick et al., 2004).

Research questions

In sum, if we understand that: (1) learning and agency with science for young people comes from participation in authentic science practices, including using data to act on the world in situated, personally consequential ways, and (2) there are myriad complex influences and resources on how people make environmental decisions that include but are not limited to scientific data (e.g. identity, agency), then we could ask broadly how participation in community and citizen science (CCS) might support youth science learning and agency for environmental decision making. For our study, therefore, we asked the overarching research question: What do youth use to inform their environmental decision-making in the context of CCS, specifically asking, (1) How do youth frame what they are trying to accomplish in their CCS work? And (2) How do youth use their science expertise and experiences to inform their environmental decisions? We investigated these questions through a 9-month case study of an elementary science class studying birds in their schoolyard.


Instructional design and participants of the CCS project

This 9-month study took place at a comprehensive public elementary school located in an agricultural town in the California Central Valley, USA. We selected this school based on the opportunity to continue working with Mrs. Harte (co-author). Mrs. Harte was the Science Specialist Teacher at the school and interested in co-designing and implementing the educational program. We had all worked together on YCCS and science literacy programs previously (Bird, 2019) and had formed a close collaborative relationship. Together we created an educational program design, which builds upon the CCS education framework (Harris & Ballard, 2018), and aligns with the data lifecycle (Fig. 1) as follows:

Developing expertise

Elementary Science Teacher, Mrs. Harte had been connecting each grade level’s science content standards to natural phenomena observable in their campus ecosystem, such as seasons, as a way for students to become familiar with their local environment. She then introduced her four classes of 4th and 5th grade students to a series of bird monitoring lessons, teaching students how to identify and document bird species and abundance on their school campus. Specific lessons included matching activities on structure and function of bird beaks and feet, and then identifying food sources for each of the types of birds identified; using animated maps to understand migratory patterns; and ways to identify the top ten most common birds in the area.

Defining research questions and project goals: Once students became familiar with noticing and identifying bird, she invited these classes to join an after-school Ornithology Club, which met once a week for 50 min. They began listing their questions about the birds and the school’s ecosystem; they also determined different ways to answer these questions such as collecting more data or doing online research. From the sixteen students who attended the club with varying frequency, a subset of ten club participants attended regularly and became the focal participants in this study.Footnote 2

Collecting, evaluating and documenting data: Facilitated by Mrs. Harte, students designed a routine field observation protocol and chose which tools they wanted to work with to identify and document the birds: field journals, binoculars, ipads, old iphones to take pictures, and/or field guides. Their school campus route took about 15 min. Students would point silently to what they noticed so their peers could see as well and used their various tools to help document and identify the birds.

Interpreting data including identifying & defining problems: Upon returning to the classroom students shared their questions and observations, including adding additional information about patterns (or “problem-posing spaces”) observed on their campus over time. These observations were recorded on chart paper and evaluated for accuracy. Making decisions & taking action with data: Students also made decisions regarding all aspects of the data lifecycle (Fig. 1) including how data was collected and how to use those data to make decisions and leverage change (consistent with the term “community science”). Additionally, we wrote and were awarded a small school-garden grant, which helped fund the construction of a “Bird Sanctuary.” This provided students with opportunities to enact their decisions about supporting local bird populations, including deciding which plants to include in the Bird Sanctuary.

Sharing data and findings with outside audiences: As part of their CCS project, students submitted their data to Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s citizen science project, eBird (the “citizen science” aspect of the project). This action granted other scientists or community members access to their data. They also shared their findings and school campus improvement recommendations to an English Language Learners Kindergarten class at their school and at a School District Board meeting.

Evaluating outcomes & reassessing project questions & goals: Throughout the project and especially after the planting of the Bird Sanctuary, students evaluated and refined their work. They assessed the quality of their data and how effective the Bird Sanctuary was in meeting their intended goals. They developed new questions and ideas for how they would like to continue their CCS work. Lastly, and in regards to the participants, throughout the paper we call these youth “student-ornithologists” in part because they called themselves “ornithologists”. However, this term does not equate youth nor their knowledge to that of professional experts, instead we use this term to demonstrate that these youth developed their own expertise about birds on their school campus and saw themselves as experts in their own right.

Data sources and collection

We conducted weekly field observations of Mrs. Harte’s Ornithology Club and took ethnographic fieldnotes focused on students’ agency throughout the data lifecycle. We also collected student work and class artifacts, conducted post-program semi-structured interviews with the ten focal students and the teacher, and weekly lesson debriefs with the teacher. Interviews were conducted with students during the school day and lasted approximately 45 min. The interview focused on what students were trying to achieve and how they did so by asking questions such as “Why are you learning about the birds that visit your school?” and “How did you decide what changes to make on your school campus?”.

To reflect cultural perspectives of participants (Spindler, 1992), student semi-structured post-interviews contained stimulated recall questions using photographs that represented salient themes or problem-posing spaces student’s identified on campus and during their bird monitoring observations. Interview questions accompanied photographs, such as a photograph of students’ House Sparrow sighting with the subsequent questions (1) “What is happening in this photograph?”, (2) “Some students are concerned about the House Sparrow. Why do you think that is?” and (3) “Do you think we should do about the House Sparrows?” Stimulated recall questions let students provide their own narrative about what was important to them before we asked more specific questions about their experiences.

Problem-posing spaces

Play on the definition of Freire’s (1970) concept of problem-posing education. They are figurative spaces that stimulate critical questioning and transformation as means for taking “action upon reality” (p. 84). What is important about problem-posing spaces is the way in which youth are curious and motivated by the topics, as something to learn more about and take action on. They are not necessarily bound by a particular environmental issue or physical location (e.g. what to include in the Bird Sanctuary) as they can also span across different environmental contexts such as questioning criteria for which species or how many “belong” (see Table 1: Student Codes).

Table 1 Student codes illustrating alignment between teacher-informed themes, theoretical themes derived from the research literature, & emergent codes

Methods for data analysis

Foregrounding the teacher’s perspective

Using an ethnographic and emic approach, analysis began by focusing on the teacher’s pedagogical philosophies and learning goals for students. This emic approach allowed us to understand and take up her cultural perspectives and interpretations as well as assist in “[conceptualizing and encoding] knowledge” (Watson-Gegeo, 1988, p. 580) authentic and true to this particular context. From this initial and open-ended approach to coding (Saldana, 2015) of the teacher interview, and through analytical memoing in which notes and early definitions were taken, we began grouping codes into categories (Merriam, 2009). Therefore, the final coding scheme for the student interviews was developed by first using verbatim coding of the teacher’s post-interview to identify main themes from her perspective; no external schemes were used (Saldana, 2015; Strauss, 1987). Here we report on three identified themes that align with our theoretical framework of youth framing, decision-making, identity and agency within CCS. These verbatim coding themes consisted of students (1) “making sense of the world” relating the frames they used, (2) “having an impact”, and (3) “expanding their CCS work”, both relating to youth agency and identity within decision making.

Pre-determined and emergent themes

Using these codes from the teacher interview, we began to code a random selection of field observations and student post-interviews to further understand the shared goals of the Ornithology Club and in an attempt to disconfirm our interpretations. We noticed a strong alignment; that these themes from the teacher interview appeared regularly throughout all randomly selected data forms. For instance, in interviews and field observations, students talked about “making an impact” but also provided details about how they could do so and what they envisioned. These patterns and details were elaborated upon in analytical memos, which were used to guide multiple rounds of inductive coding on student post-interviews and observations (Miles et al., 2014; Saldana, 2015). We used Atlas TI analysis software to capture and analyze our codes (ATLAS.ti Scientific Software Development GmbH, 2013). We then iteratively revised and added to the original teacher-informed themes from literature reviewed above, the science education standards (Next Generation Science Standards, 2012), and with feedback from Mrs. Harte (see Summary of code alignment in Table 1). While the majority of coding was conducted by the lead author Dr. Bird, co-authors checked randomly selected coded transcripts throughout the process and we reconciled discrepancies in our collective code interpretations to determine reliability of applied codes. We also added themes as codes that emerged from the data with respect to our research questions (Miles et al., 2014) (see Aligned emergent codes in Table 1).

We iteratively applied both predetermined and emergent codes to all transcribed dialog and memos (see below for description of memoing methods), with frequent checks throughout to corroborate on how codes were being applied, such as how and when analytical frames were applied based on the literature focused on framing codes (see codes in Table 1 and Youth Framing of Project Purpose in Table 3), youth identity codes, and agency codes. We used these codes for analyzing both student interview responses and field notes to better understand how themes were evidenced in student narrative and in their behaviors, and how these interrelated and overlapped. Table 2 provides an example of how codes were applied and interpreted that include themes that the teacher identified as well as themes based on our theoretically-driven analytical frame.

Table 2 Example of codes applied to excerpt of interview

Analytical memos and queries

Each participant was treated as an individual case study (Yin, 2009) and memos for each individual were used to document analytical reflections, key quotes, patterns and variations across participants (Miles et al., 2014). Memos were informed by the queries we ran with the qualitative analysis software (Atlas.ti, 2013). We aggregated and compared individual and collective patterns regarding youth framing, science expertise, use of data etc. (see codes in Table 1) within each problem-posing space to understand the commonalities and variation across all the students. We then looked at individual youth framing of each problem posing space and their decisions or desired actions. This allowed us to see the different approaches students took with their decision making and how framing impacted student decision-making. This process also helped us understand students’ individual experiences with the project as well as the groups’ collective patterns. Similar to our coding process, the lead author Dr. Bird wrote the majority of memos but co-authors randomly selected memos to check, discuss, and revise interpretations to ensure corroboration across the data sets and increase reliability.


Student perceived project purpose

In answering the first research question of how youth frame what they are trying to accomplish in their CCS work, interview and observational data reflected the complex and layered ideas each student-ornithologist had about their collective work and what they were trying to accomplish (Table 3). Their individual understandings reflected both social and ecological dimensions of bird conservation. Each student spoke about and acted on at least a couple of their collective project purposes, which they saw as a means to help birds, attract birds, conduct more research, teach others, and learn more about birds and plants. Despite commonalities and overlapping project purpose or goals (terms we use interchangeably), what students prioritized and how they articulated and framed what they were trying to achieve varied. For example, Veronica, who explains the project’s purpose as to attract birds, expressed selective thinking in which birds she wanted to attract to their campus (Table 3, B). Also, while Macky’s stated CCS project purpose reflects the goal of sharing with others, he frames this purpose around the importance of “being heard” (Table 3, E). Youth had shared ideas as well as differences in what they were trying to accomplish with their CCS work, however all youth expressed interest in and action towards the project purpose of helping the birds.

Table 3 Youth framing of project purpose

Linking project purposes and actions

The project goal of helping the birds seemed to be the main environmental issue youth wanted to address, while additional interconnected project purposes, such as teach others about the birds, learn more about the birds, and attract more birds seemed to provide youth with guidance for what actions to take in order to help the birds. For instance, Garret wanted to help the birds by attracting more birds. Attracting more birds, while a project purpose defined by students, was also a clear concrete action Garret knew how to take. He investigated which plants would attract which birds to the Bird Sanctuary. He explained “it [Cobwebby Thistles] brings in the most…variety of birds”. The desired action of attracting more birds to help the birds was reflected by other student-ornithologists as well, however the specifics of their desired action differed. Parker for example was most interested in taking steps to attract “rare birds”, and Selena wanted to plant California Sage because “…it attracts hummingbirds”. While there was cohesiveness in students’ action-related knowledge that they could help the birds by taking steps to attract them (through providing resources for them), the specific actions they envisioned varied.

Expanding research efforts and leveraging the data lifecycle

To answer the second research question of how youth use their science expertise and experiences to inform their environmental decisions, we found that in addition to taking envisioned environmental action, 7 out of the 10 students explained that they could help the birds by expanding their research efforts on their own campus and beyond.

Expanded research efforts on campus

All students specifically shared additional information they wanted to gather about birds on their school campus, unprompted, in either explicit or implicit ways during interviews or field observations. Macky, in particular, wanted to collect additional information through the use of technology. He explained that they could “put a camera inside [a] bird box, so we get a whole idea of what they’re doing inside there”. He also selected a possible location to install a web camera, which Mrs. Harte had purchased using funds from our school garden grant, and explained how it could help them “see the birds from different angles” and even collect data when it was rainy. Macky used his action-related knowledge about technology and their data collection limitations to imagine how additional data could be collected on their school campus.

Expanded research efforts beyond campus

Another trend expressed by some youth was interest in expanding research efforts beyond their school campus. As represented by Sybil, some students thought expansively about how their research could, as Mrs. Harte shared “ripple out”. Sybil explained that “we want more people to start doing it [bird research] so all the way around California we make it safer for the birds”. Additionally, she connects how expanding research efforts throughout their town could inform their own scientific work. She shares: “schools here are farther away from each other, so they…might see different birds, so we, all of the schools could, all the Ornithology Clubs could come together and tell each other what they’ve been seeing”. Sibyl imagines a scenario where each school location has their own Ornithology Club and they may see different birds, and that they would share these findings with each other for the goal of making it “safer” for the birds (i.e. helping the birds).

Identifying and imaging solutions for problem-posing spaces on campus

In further answering our second research question of how youth use their science expertise and experiences to inform their environmental decisions, we report here in-depth the four main themes or “problem-posing spaces” we identified as key areas that student-ornithologists pursued through discussion and investigations, and which generated ongoing conversations during Ornithology Club meetings included (1) predator–prey relations, (2) “who belongs”, (3) bird diets, and (4) the Bird Sanctuary. These themes were included in post-interview stimulated recall questions (see also “Methods” section).

While project purposes provided guidance for what action to take in some instances (e.g. attract more birds), youth responses to these problem-posing spaces illustrate (1) the varied ways youth understood these problem spaces, and (2) the kinds of action they wanted to take. Despite the variation of youth understanding of each problem space and their desired action, there were some consistent patterns across these four issues. To represent the resources students drew on when thinking about what the problem was and how to act within these problem-posing spaces, select quotes are used in an attempt to recreate youth narratives, to illustrate some of their contrasting ideas and to explore common threads and patterns across problem-posing spaces.

Problem-posing theme: “predator–prey relations”

Many of the youth expressed multiple ideas about “what to do” regarding a predatory bird seen on campus. Mrs. Harte had seen a Cooper’s Hawk sitting under a neighbor’s hummingbird feeder, which bordered the school. She took photographs of this raptor and shared them with student-ornithologists. Together they interpreted this as a hungry hawk waiting for a hummingbird meal; however, Mrs. Harte learned after the school year and, through her own online research, that Cooper’s Hawk likely do not eat hummingbirds. Prior to this observation of the hawk, the fifth graders had learned about predator–prey relationships as part of a healthy ecosystem through an online simulation within different ecosystems during their school-day science class with Mrs. Harte.

Student-ornithologists had varying opinions about what should happen in regard to this predatory bird. All student-ornithologists except Macky, one of the fifth graders, identified the presence of a raptor on campus as a concerning issue. Macky felt that seeing a predatory bird on campus was a “big step up for us”, explaining, “we get small birds over here that really eat garbage and leftover food on the ground. So, I guess cause of all the small, little birds that are coming over here, it attracted a hawk”. Macky contextualizes this observation within his other field observations and uses his knowledge about ecological food chains. He did not express a need to do anything about predator–prey relations on campus saying, “honestly, it feels like another bird”.

Other students expressed emotional discomfort and curiosity about what this meant for their school’s population dynamics of small birds like hummingbirds and House Sparrows, and therefore saw a need for intervention. Selena, a fifth grader expressed fear saying “It [the hawk] may mistake someone’s food for a hummingbird, and a kid might get hurt” and “I don’t think they’re [the predatory birds] necessarily safe”. She felt the Ornithology Club needed to get the hawk away from campus. Selena’s mistrust about the hawk’s behavior stands in contrast to the kind of relational predator–prey knowledge another 5th grader, Isaak draws on. He shared,

I mean, the Cooper’s Hawk has to eat, but the [little] birds shouldn’t die...Like how the Salmon gives a life and then he becomes a saltwater salmon and then it comes back to lay his eggs and then he dies. So, it’s kind of like the circle of life, so I’m kind of on both sides right now.

Isaak expresses a conflict between the science content knowledge he understands and his concerns about death. He is able to identify different sides of the issue and remains uncertain about what to do.

McKenna also expresses uncertainty as to what should happen with the hawk and suggests that maybe the hawk could eat things like “worms, like spiders or bugs that harm the Bird Sanctuary. And hawks do need food, and so do hummingbirds, and so we want all birds to be living”. McKenna expresses her interest in providing for all the birds, however her solution relies on inaccurate action-related knowledge. Garret similarly felt that the raptors could eat something other than hummingbirds. He says in his interview:, like, September we found so many House Sparrows...We identified the most common bird that we had, if it was a House Sparrow or something else...We all did the research and it was a House Sparrow. Well, it’s not really a problem [the House Sparrows] it’s just that there’s a lot of ‘em so we need raptors that can keep ‘em under control...We’ll just use them to attract more predators, or raptors.

Garret drew on his knowledge of predatory birds along with this knowledge of the House Sparrow population to imagine a solution, which would meet his personal identified goal of “balancing the ecosystem”.

For this problem-space, while students had systems knowledge about the campus as informed by their data, and knowledge about food webs and life cycles, they had varying ideas about what decision to make, or what action should be taken, if any, based on their information. One way to interpret this variation across youth decisions are their different values about this particular situation. In this problem-posing space, Macky valued the significance of the predatory bird’s presence because of what it signified about the school’s ecosystem; he did not seem to value this bird any more or less than others. Garret on the other hand valued the presence of the Cooper’s Hawk as a way to control the population of House Sparrows. Isaak valued the presence of predators and prey birds but not the element of death. McKenna also valued the lives of all birds and remained uncertain about what action to take. Selena on the other hand valued safety and felt that this dangerous predatory bird had to go elsewhere. Because student-ornithologists valued different things and therefore perceived the situation’s priorities in different ways, there was no collective and agreed upon definition of what the specific issue was, nor did student-ornithologists seem to have the action-related knowledge to know what to do. Empathy, and in other cases fear, were prevalent in students’ responses, as was uncertainty about what to do.

Problem-posing theme: “who belongs”

Beyond questioning the presence of predatory birds, students grappled with the idea of which bird and plant species “should” be on campus. Student-ornithologists had observed a California native plant called Coyote Bush, an evergreen shrub, that had sprouted and grown voluntarily in a corner of campus (not as part of the landscaping). This was the school’s one native plant. Mrs. Harte used its presence to explain the concepts of “native species” and “invasive species”, which is not a concept typically taught in 4th and 5th grade. Despite the negative implications of the concepts of “native vs. invasive species”, most student-ornithologists did not express concern about identifying species in this way. During post-interviews and in observations, they spoke of native plants as being beneficial to the birds, but they did not speak in exclusionary terms or in negative ways about “invasive” or “non-native” plants.

Garret was the exception and expressed concern about invasive species on campus. He situated this concern within his goal of “balancing the ecosystem”. He was the only student to name “invasive species” in his interview. He explained his perspective: “it was kinda bad to find it [the Coyote Bush] because we only had one native plant”. He justified this value and his desire to plant more native plants by sharing: “So, then there can be native birds around our habitat and not invasive species. Like, maybe Eurasian Collared Dove… that aren’t supposed to be here. It might unbalance the ecosystem”. Garret seems to associate a “balanced ecosystem” in terms of who is and is not “supposed” to be present in their school campus environment. He justifies his stance further by providing the reasoning that “they [invasive species] invade and take up a lot of space and they don’t really help the ecosystem. They just make it bad because there’s nobody to stop it. It’s gonna be invasive”. Garret did not share how to directly address the negative effects of invasive species (e.g. invasive species removal), but he had the action-related knowledge to indirectly mitigate their impacts by planting more native species.

In contrast to Garret’s concern, Candice seemed more concerned about supporting the species that were on campus and how to attract other species that live in the range but were not yet seen on campus. Candice determined which birds they had already seen on campus and which birds were “supposed” to be on the school campus based on studying the range of bird species (not based on their native or non-native status). She did this independently during one of the Ornithology Club days by sorting species cards of common birds; information she was then hoping to share with at the School District Board meeting. Candice did not specify which birds were native or non-native. For instance, the Eurasian-collared Dove was included in her list for who “should” be seen on their school campus as it was listed in the local region.

In another “who belongs” example, student-ornithologists spoke of House Sparrows which lived in buildings’ drainage pipes and were regularly seen as students walked from class to class. Selena shares of them, “I think they [House Sparrows] overpopulate the school birds, cause when we first started, there were a lot of them, seven that we would see a day. And I see one in the morning, and two when we walk home”. Selena contextualizes her quantitative data based on where and when she saw the birds, she also interprets their abundance as an “overpopulation” or imbalance to the ecosystem. While she, like Garret, seems to value a “balanced ecosystem”, she does not provide ideas for how they might do so. In contrast, Candice wonders: “We have so many House Sparrows, and we don’t know what the normal rank is…what attracts them [the House Sparrows] so much to coming here?” Candice interprets their observations in a curious way and identifies what they do not yet know. She also does not provide steps for action in this situation.

Problem-posing theme: “bird diets”

The problem posing space of “bird diets” includes what youth identified as the foods birds were “supposed” to eat or not, and what to do about it. Student-ornithologists’ ideas about bird diets reflect their understanding of food webs and how food availability can influence the health of a species and ecosystem, which they had to reconcile with what they observed the birds actually eating. Club members seemed unanimously clear that there are some foods birds should not eat. Student-ornithologists named “trash”, “Hot Cheetos”, “plastic bottles” and “sugar water” (or artificial nectar) as foods that are “unhealthy” and “unsafe” for the birds. Student-ornithologists regularly made observations of California Seagulls, who migrate inland for the winter, eating trash and food left out on the school campus. In general, these young people seemed to understand that birds were attracted to the trash and leftover food on campus. Additionally, a story began that a Seagull, who students named “Jeff” had been seen eating Hot Cheetos (student-ornithologists seemed to have renamed all California Seagulls as “Jeff”). Without the uncertainty McKenna had expressed with the Cooper’s Hawk’s diet, she explains the observations of Jeff and shares the actions the club is taking as a result of their assessment of the bird’s diet:

Jeff really likes Hot Cheetos, but it’s bad for him...We told them [the Kindergarten students] to stop throwing their trash on the floor and put them in the trash can. And maybe we’re gonna put lids on the trashcans, so Jeff doesn’t fly in there and eat the trash.

Parker, like McKenna, decided that sharing their findings and assessment with other students could address the issue. In his interview, he refers back to the presentation the Club gave during a School District Board meeting, explaining, “right after snack and lunch he [Jeff the Seagull] likes to go eat stuff and there could be plastic bottles laying around and he may think that’s food and if he eats it that’s not good…So maybe the [School] Board will put in recycling bins, maybe in every school in [our area]”. He takes an expansive approach to the solution in considering the ways in which this issue could be addressed beyond their school campus through the School Board. He continues to explain the importance of this action: “We realized there was a lot of recycling around the school. And…that cannot just affect us and birds, that can also affect fish because one day those plastic bottles…can blow into the ocean and it could pollute the water and hurt the fish”. Parker goes beyond bird diets and expresses concern about what plastic can do to an ecosystem, and explicitly explains how the students’ decisions for action were based on observations made on the school campus.

Rather than the preventative approaches shared by McKenna and Parker, Selena focuses her desired action on how to get the birds to eat more healthy food. Selena associates the building of the Bird Sanctuary (a small natural habitat on the school campus) with the solution for bird diets. She frames the purpose of the Bird Sanctuary as: “to make the birds feel welcome instead of having to eat Hot Cheetos and Goldfish [crackers]….cause it’s not what they’re supposed to be eating…because they’re supposed to be eating grass, and sometimes they eat the cherries, and worms”. While Selena identified the same issue as Parker and McKenna, she takes a different approach in her planned solution by considering how the Bird Sanctuary, and the planting of additional plants on campus, might be used to address healthy bird diets.

Parker, McKenna and Selena demonstrate their relevant science content knowledge about food chains as well as their action-related knowledge which could be implemented to address the issue. However, their solutions differ based on how they frame the issue and perhaps the specific kind of action-related knowledge they have.

Problem-posing space: creating and evaluating their bird sanctuary

The problem-posing space of the Bird Sanctuary represents what student-ornithologists decided to do with the almost 100 square-feet of space the school principal allocated for students to plant and build a school-garden or as the students called it, a “Bird Sanctuary”. This was a space where youths’ desired actions for the birds were implemented through their labor of removing the lawn and planting plants as funded through the school-garden grant. In this context, students also shared what they wanted for themselves in relation to the birds. McKenna viewed the Bird Sanctuary as a place for kids to get “unstressed”, saying, “sometimes birds keep people unstressed,… the way they [the birds] sing and chirp to each other”. She suggested a hidden bench to sit without the birds getting scared and flying away. Mrs. Harte worked to implement the students’ decision. Her husband volunteered to build a little bench with a small overhang, and she obtained the native plants the students recommended from a local nursery.

Despite these efforts to implement the students’ decisions about the Bird Sanctuary, 7 of the 10 student-ornithologists pointed out in their interviews that their decision to include a bird bath was unfulfilled. Even though Mrs. Harte explained that this went against school policy regarding standing water on campus, in their interviews Veronica and Garret connected their interest in a bird bath to their concerns about “Bird Diets” and the birds’ need for “freshwater”. Macky lamented about the school policy: “I'm thinking a bird bath, and I know that's a ‘no’ with [the principal], but come on, these birds are thinking of bathing”. Isaak explained how student-ornithologists considered working around this issue: “We’re not allowed to build that in the school and so we’re going to try to––Mrs. Harte is going to try to make a rock that’s kind of like that and ‘accidentally’ fills water into”. Garret explained it as “a rain catcher cause we can’t make a bird bath”. These frustrations illustrate how the CCS project confronted youth with limitations to their agency based on social structures, but also provided an opportunity for them to think creatively and work within the limitations of school policy while still getting what they wanted.

Students were able to use their observations to determine the effectiveness of the Bird Sanctuary, however there was no general consensus about whether their actions had indeed brought more birds to the Bird Sanctuary. Two student-ornithologists shared their insights in their interviews that more time was needed to determine the effectiveness of the project: Sybil explains: “I haven’t really seen any birds there yet, but I think over time—we’re just starting, so the birds might not know the place yet”. She also mentions that it is “still a little bit more cold out” and that the birds may still be migrating back from winter. Selena also considered why she had not yet observed birds in the sanctuary:

it’s a slow process, because there hasn’t really been a lot of birds. Because there isn’t really food there yet, cause the plants are growing, and the wood hasn’t been decaying yet. Mrs. Harte said...when the wood would get moist, and decayed, it would attract bugs, and bugs would attract birds.

These two student-ornithologists rely on their science content knowledge, knowledge about birds, and knowledge about place to evaluate their work. They also recognize the importance of time when making these ecological changes.


In line with the movement of “student agency in and with science” (Ballard et al., 2017; Calabrese-Barton & Tan, 2010; Taylor & Hall, 2013), we investigated how 4th and 5th graders perceived their CCS project purposes and took action across environmental issues they identified. We found multiple interacting factors come into play for how youth actually use their CCS-based scientific experiences and findings. The student-ornithologists had collective and individual CCS project purposes; they also expressed similarities and differences in how they identified and framed environmental issues on their campus as related to problem-posing spaces. To address these environmental issues, they drew on their science content knowledge, the data they collected and observations made on their campus, and their knowledge about what action could be taken. However, what youth identified as relevant and important (Fusco, 2001) differed for each individual, and with each problem-posing space, resulting in different interpretations of similar observations about birds and the environment, different framing of the issue, and different values, which together governed their decisions.

Youth perceptions of environmental issues on their school campus

The student-ornithologists’ agency throughout the data lifecycle, and their values and perceptions of “for whom” and “for what purposes” shaped the course of their work. While we found that all student-ornithologists centered their CCS bird-monitoring project purposes on how to help the birds, this goal was connected to many other ideas about what they were collectively and individually trying to accomplish. The youths’ collective efforts were aimed at taking both environmental and social action, including expanding research efforts, teaching others, learning more and attracting more birds. But, individual youth acted upon these goals in different ways for each distinct problem-posing space, and these are directly linked to their identity. Specifically, the different ways the student-ornithologists defined “for what purposes” and “for whom”, or the preferences of the decision-makers themselves (Arvai et al., 2004; Smith et al., 1953) underlie values reflected by their identity (Holland et al., 1998). This reflects the concept of conceptual frames, that is, how participants organize, prioritize and make sense of information about the issue, including what is of central importance and what is at the periphery (van de Sande & Greeno, 2012). In this case, conceptual frames illustrate how identity intermingles with perception or interpretation of an environmental issue and what action to take. For instance, while all youth identified the problem-posing space of predator–prey relations and “who belongs”, what individual youth appeared to understand, value and prioritize about these issues differed.

These social-emotional facets within environmental decision-making mirror the very nature of “problem posing spaces”––critical spaces in which social and ecological systems interact. Whether the socio-ecological issue of the hawk lingering under the hummingbird feeder, House Sparrows living in building drainage pipes, or the issue of which plant were or were not planted on campus, these “problem-posing spaces” reflect how environmental decisions, and therefore one’s identity, are mapped onto land. To extend this idea into other environmental monitoring CCS contexts, we suggest that CCS could be used to foreground issues of social and environmental justice in communities (e.g. Taylor & Hall, 2013).

Youth use of science content knowledge, values, affect

Like prior studies, we see that in some instances students focused on narrow aspects of the problem (e.g. stopping birds from eating trash by removing the trash as opposed to what other foods are available to them) or basing decisions on values (e.g. not wanting prey birds to die) (Grace & Ratcliffe, 2010; Hogan & Maglienti, 2001). We also see that student-ornithologists referred to their science content knowledge to different degrees and with varying accuracy within each problem-posing space, and as they related to ecological concepts of food webs, adaptation, and population dynamics (NGSS, National Research Council, 2012).

Students studied these ecological concepts in their science classes with Mrs. Harte and were very familiar with the place-based context in which they studied, however, their environmental decisions did not always reflect what they had learned. One way to understand this discrepancy is that the problem-posing spaces reflected science concepts to varying degrees. For example, student-ornithologists identified the non-native House Sparrows as having the greatest population on the school campus but did not directly witness their “invasive” behavior of outcompeting other bird species. Similarly, observing the balance between predator and prey populations was not possible due to the shorter duration of their bird monitoring project. It may have been harder for youth to make connections to science content knowledge when their field observations themselves did not directly illustrate the phenomenon. Also, problem-posing spaces of predator–prey relationships and “who belongs” may have been more abstract, controversial or disconcerting than the issues of what birds should be eating and what to plant in the Bird Sanctuary.

The scientific concept of “invasive species” can be problematic when mistakenly anthropomorphized, and in this case, individual youth perceived the issues of “invasive species” and predator–prey relations in different ways due to having varying understandings of the issue itself as well as different underlying values. Accordingly, youth defined the problem and what action to take in different ways. The scientific concept of “invasive species” within educational spaces is well explored within indigenous scholarship (Bang & Medin, 2010; Bang et al., 2014) and provides a helpful case to explain how framing of an environmental issue is imbued with socio-cultural and historical values. Bang et al. (2014) echoes the concern of the fourth-grade student-ornithologist, Garret, in that invasive species can have serious impacts on the lands, however Bang et al. (2014) argues that the term “invasive species” has “failed to make visible the motivation of settlers that brought flora and fauna from their homelands to make these new lands like home” (p. 11). In other words, the way the scientific concept of “invasive species” is framed does not accurately depict the history of settler migration and conquest of native lands. There are multiple ways in which species spread and populations grow unchecked, however, Bang et al.’s (2014) argument points to how framing of environmental issues influences environmental action. For example, the concept of “invasive species” can be framed as “something that needs to be controlled”, as desired by Garret, or alternatively as “[species] that people lost their relationships with” (Bang et al., 2014, p. 11).

This reframing of the scientific concept of invasive species shifts the conceptual frame or what is valued within this issue (van de Sande & Greeno, 2012). Subsequently, what is considered as relevant action also shifts from dominance and control to gaining relational understanding. Candice reflects this broader relational stance with her wondering of House Sparrows; “what attracts them [the House Sparrows] so much to coming here?”. Her questioning creates entry into further investigation as to the relationship between the school’s built environment and the behaviors of House Sparrows. The critique of “invasive species” (Bang et al., 2014), then, demonstrates the ways in which “values and scientific ideas are closely connected in the human mind” (Grace & Ratcliffe, 2010, p. 1167) and how the presence of values underpins the ways in which decision-making is both an affective and cognitive process (Heimlich & Ardoin, 2008). “Invasive species” can be framed in more inclusive and relational ways or exclusionary and dominating ways, based on facets of identity.

Youth science practices within the data lifecycle

Within a science learning community, science practices are governed by the community’s cultural traditions and values and reflect their intellectual criteria and standards of their epistemic work (Hogan & Maglienti, 2001). Mrs. Harte’s pedagogical goals and approach positioned youth as scientists in their own right (Harris & Ballard, 2018), allowing student-ornithologists to explore different science practices, to make use of them as they liked, and to employ practices for their own purposes throughout the data lifecycle. This student-centered approach (Buxton, 2006) to working with data calls to question how “data” is defined and what the intellectual standards are for leveraging change with data. For instance, what are the dangers of making environmental decisions with inaccurate data or interpretations?

Within their community of practice, student-ornithologists made observations of bird species abundance and diversity and used that information to take and imagine action. They did not typically refer to their bird monitoring observations as “data”. They more readily referred to their qualitative observations as descriptive stories as opposed to quantitative data points, a practice also mirrored by Mrs. Harte. The omission of the word “data” within their scientific community and the different ways they framed these “data-stories” does not diminish their scientific work nor their understanding of the importance or power of data, such as reflected in their desired action to expand their data collection efforts on-and-off campus. It merely reflects their own group’s norms to name the bird as a living thing and the lived-experience they had observing it. Student-ornithologists mainly drew on their interpretations of qualitative field observations when making environmental decisions. However, their interpretations varied, which signaled for them the need for additional scientific work, to evaluate and critique their interpretations of “what’s going on” with these birds.

Regarding intellectual criteria and what constitutes “data”, Hogan and Maglienti (2001) note the ways in which providing intellectual criteria for youth, such as “what constitutes sufficient backings for a knowledge claim, could affect students’ engagement in science investigations” (p. 682). They suggest that if youth believe they have adequate information to “answer their scientific questions based on intuitive beliefs or experience, they will not be motivated to test their ideas empirically” (p. 682). It is not necessarily an intrinsic characteristic or design component of CCS projects to support participants in using scientific practices and skills for determining what action to take and how to evaluate outcomes. However, we suggest that additional instruction is needed to address these skills and to find balance between youth-centered and canonical approaches to doing science (Buxton, 2006) or, like code-switching, support youth in using different epistemological practices when appropriate (Bang & Medin, 2010).

Youth social and environmental action

Our findings regarding student environmental decision-making reflects how making decisions with science is not neutral, but a process inseparable from socio-cultural values. Similarly, Grace and Ratcliffe (2010) note the nature of professional conservation management decision-making in which “scientifically objective criteria are compromised by the multiple demands placed on land” (p. 1168) and the values that are then used to evaluate and prioritize those demands. In considering environmental science agency as a learning trajectory in which youth employ their identity and agency in ways which “contribute to conservation through CCS”, we must also consider how youth make decisions “in personally consequential and environmentally sustainable ways” now and into the future (Ballard et al., 2017, p. 3). Youth identity and agency within environmental decisions may not in-and-of-itself lead to sustainable outcomes without support in making transparent their underlying values of “for whom” and “for what purposes”.

While the Ornithology Club highly valued the action of “helping the birds”, their ability to do so was somewhat limited due to their action-related knowledge (Frick et al., 2004), their intellectual standards to evaluate their science content knowledge and values (Hogan & Maglienti, 2001) and broader socio-cultural structures and values of the school system, as reflective of the inactivity of the School District Board to follow up with youth requests for more trash cans and native plants on their school campus.

Implications for instructional design

Parallel to this investigation of youth decision-making with their CCS research is the question of how CCS design elements might support youth-centered CCS communities of practice for outcomes of science learning, environmental and social action. Based on our findings, we suggest the following for CCS instructors and CCS project and program developers more broadly:

  • Create CCS projects in which the data collected is intended to be used and applied to place-based problem solving at the local level. Engage youth participants in the entire data lifecycle (Fig. 1), including collecting and interpreting data, identifying local issues and using their research experiences and data to address those issues, as well as self-evaluation throughout these processes to establish rigorous intellectual criteria. This particularly has implications for the broader CCS field in which youth are increasingly involved in contributing to real on the ground conservation and environmental decision-making (Ballard et al., 2017) and CCS is a part of conservation science more broadly (Groom et al., 2019; Newman et al., 2017).

  • Consider the way in which CCS projects are framed to youth participants in regard to what they are trying to achieve with their data collection and decision-making. As framing defines what is of value within a situation, it is important for teachers and students to co-create project goals and reflect on their own values.

  • Use youths’ field observations to identify and define problem-posing spaces—spaces of critical inquiry and desired change. These should be themes youth bring up regularly and express interest in (e.g. the large population of House Sparrows or the lack of native plant species). Support them to consider (a) how their data can help inform action, as well as (b) additional resources youth may need to understand and contextualize the issue. Furthermore, challenge youth to evaluate different interpretations of their field observations and data, including different ways to frame environmental issues (e.g. “invasive species” or “species we have lost our relationship with”?).

  • Select a range of socio-ecological issues for youth to discuss and critique possible solutions. Section criteria should consider a range of youths’ action-related knowledge (e.g. picking up trash, planting plants), youth values within science content knowledge (e.g. death as part of predator–prey relations) and the visibility of science content knowledge within observations made (e.g. food chains, population dynamics).

  • Consider social and environmental action on different scales including teaching others (e.g. family, younger students, city or school decision-makers) and expanding research efforts by involving others in addition to the direct impacts of local environmental stewardship (e.g. planting diverse habitats or obtaining animal-proof trash cans). Other research on environmental science agency describes that actions youth take may include small enactments of agency like teaching siblings how to document biodiversity using iNaturalist or longer-term actions like initiating a new project in an afterschool club (Ballard et al., 2017; Benevides-Lahnstein et al., in review)

  • Have youth participants make ongoing observations. Identify places of uncertainty, including data limitation and support youth in answering their own questions such as by conducting additional research online. This also includes evaluating ecological or policy changes made to determine the effectiveness of the approaches taken.

  • From the lens of environmental science agency, we suggest that providing youth with repeated experiences with data collection, decision-making and evaluation are important factors for youth in gaining confidence with doing science, such as seeing themselves as both part of their scientific work and their local place (i.e. identity) and feeling that they can make an impact (i.e. agency).

Educational research demonstrates the potential for community and citizen science to lead to important outcomes across multiple learning domains, and for the environment and community (Ballard et al., 2017). At the bases of these processes is the transformative potential within how “expertise becomes applied” (Irwin, 2002, p. 11). What is exemplified by these young students is their readiness to think about and take action on complex socio-ecological systems based on how they framed environmental issues and how they framed their own positionality as change makers (e.g. van de Sande & Greeno, 2012).


Investigating youth science content knowledge, values, and action-related knowledge within each environmental issue illustrates that there was no linear or procedural way in which youth made their environmental decisions. Decisions youth made were particular to (1) the specific environmental issue; (2) how individuals framed the issue; (3) the ways in which their field observations and data exhibited scientific content knowledge; and (4) youths’ underlying values and feelings about the issue. Some of the environmental issues they identified appeared straightforward as youth framing and values aligned with relevant science content and action-related knowledge, in other situations students were left wondering what to do. However, in all situations, and in order to establish rigorous intellectual criteria within CCS communities of practice, participants must evaluate their values and associated aspects of identity embedded in their decisions and preferences—ideally with the same non-judgmental curiosity of scientists.

Interplay of identity and agency within environmental decisions and the way in which these decisions get mapped onto land, demonstrates how “the boundary between person and the environment becomes less definite” when identity is acted upon place (Holland et al., 1998, p. 39). As knowledge systems are written on land, creating opportunities for youth to practice their decision-making power at school and on their school campus might support youth in seeing the land through more critical and curious lenses––to begin to question built landscapes, to wonder about the values of the identities who created them, and to decide how they wish to intervene.