Friday, February 15, 2019

The Hidden Gems of Student Surveys

What are the things a student does, or will do, to protect the Salish Sea? 

With the weather outside being what it is (hello, record-breaking snow!), the Port Townsend Marine Science Center has been a little sluggish over the past few days. What better time than now for me to pull out some hidden gems from our Free Science Class surveys? And to quiz you... (How many ways can YOU spell “recycle?”)

Like Marley Loomis mentioned in her last blog post, we set out to harness each group’s critical thinking skills when designing this year’s FSC curricula. This emphasis is especially apparent in comparing the students’ pre- and post-class surveys. The last question in both surveys asks about the student’s level of engagement in Salish Sea conservation: What are the things – if any – that the student does, or will do, to protect the Salish Sea?

That last question is one of the ways we track where we’ve made a meaningful difference with our students. Frequently, their first answer is hesitant or vague: “I recycle” or “I try not to litter” or sometimes even “nothing.” By the time they fill out their post-class surveys – after a full day of FSC programming – their answers are clear, specific, and more often than not reflect some of the concepts they’ve been wrestling with during their classes.

Hesitant pre-class answers often sound more confident after a day of PTMSC programming! 

A common pre-class survey answer is that our students protect the Salish Sea by not throwing trash directly into our waters:
  • “What I do is I never throw trash in the ocean, only in the trash.” 
  • “I don’t throw stuff in the ocean.” 
  • “I do not throw garbage in the Salish Sea.” 
One of the big focuses for our TownQuest class, then, is to show students that trash can enter our waterways from any point within our Salish Sea watershed. Reducing marine debris in the Salish Sea means changing our behavior everywhere, not just on beaches and shorelines.

And, so, in the post-class surveys, we get a slightly different spin:

  • “[I won’t] litter on roads, at beaches, and at places where it might get in the ocean.” 
  • “I will always search for trash cans.” 
  • “I will make sure that [I] pick up any garbage that [I] see.” 

One of my favorite responses. #2 ("stop spilling trash when I take it out") and #3 ("take trash out when it is not windy") show great understanding of the pathways that trash can use to get from our homes to our waterways. 

Another big point we make sure to emphasize is that recycling is not the be-all, end-all solution for preventing marine debris. The phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” is in order of importance and overall impact. So, in our pre-class surveys, we see a lot of students saying:
  • “I try and keep the ocean clean by recycling.” 
  • “I recycle trash.” 
  • “I put things in the trash or recycle when I use it so it doesn’t get wasted.” 
And afterwards, the emphasis skews strongly to the reducing/reusing side of the three Rs:
  • “[I] will reuse all of the stuff that [I] can. [I won’t] use plastic bags when [I’m at] the check-out of a store.” 
  • “I will reuse my trash and reduce.” 
  • “I will try not to use plastic as much.” 
The last big point we emphasize is that conservation actions do not happen in a vacuum. The easiest way to magnify one’s impact is take action with other people.

For the most part, this isn’t something our students are thinking about when they walk through our doors. Many of the “green” actions that get drilled into us are framed as individual actions: You should recycle. You should pick up trash, and limit your consumption of single-use plastics.

But research shows us that people are much more likely to stick to a new behavior if they have a group of people holding them accountable to it.

This concept is frequently echoed in their post-class surveys:

  • “[I will] gather a group to pick up trash.” 
  • “I will help people and let them know to not litter.” 
  • “I will try not to litter and if I see someone drop something, I’ll tell them.” 

This response is worth it just for the drawings. But also worth noting is the call to group actions: through education (signs), and talking about these issues with your friends. 

As an educator, it’s incredibly rewarding to see these points hit home with our students!

At the end of each program, the AmeriCorps staff will gather together and “grade” the day’s surveys. (I use the term “grading” loosely here: right and wrong means less to this process than demonstrated improvement.) It’s one of my favorite parts of the program: A chance to self-reflect as a teacher coupled with the opportunity to see the evolution in each student’s thinking.

With just about a month left for this program, I’m looking forward to seeing where the next round of surveys take us. And - because you have to take some joy in interpreting elementary school handwriting - I’m looking forward to seeing how many more ways our students can spell “recycle” before time runs out!

Right now, my very unscientific list is at 35... (Current favorite: Reslacool.)

Written by AmeriCorps Natural History Educator Ellie Kravets.

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