Project TRUE – Teens Researching Urban Ecology: invertebrate biodiversity of the Prospect Park Zoo, NYC
Engaging urban teenagers in place-based environmental research improves long-term academic performance, understanding of the scientific process, and helps to create life-long environmental stewardship. Urban ecological research provides a unique opportunity to engage this demographic in place-paced research. Through a partnership between Fordham University and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Project TRUE (Teens Researching Urban Ecology) was developed, which utilizes urban teenagers as research assistants to conduct long-term studies of urban arthropods. During the first year, three cohorts of teenagers, including 66% from underrepresented groups in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM fields), took part in a 15 week, 50 hour field-based curriculum, in and around the WCS’s Prospect Park Zoo, Brooklyn, NY. Participants were taught standard entomological sampling techniques, non-biased sampling methodologies, species identification, and data management/analysis. The research question that teens sought to answer was (1) does arthropod richness and abundance differ among sites with varying levels of human management. Simultaneously we asked (2) do participants gain increased ecological literacy, and sense of place. To answer question (1), students collected arthropods using pit-fall traps on a weekly basis over a 2-month period and identified each to family level. Richness and abundance were recorded and Shannon-Wiener diversity was calculated.
Students determined that arthropod richness was greatest in sites that had the greatest plant structural diversity and the the least managed area. Students also determined that arthropod abundance was highest in more managed areas, which had the highest plant richness (ornamentals). In these sites, a few dominant species were very common (e.g. isopoda), resulting in low measures of evenness. Place attachment and place meaning are components of sense of place, which has been shown to positively correlated pro-environmental behavior. We found that after participation in Project TRUE, students had greater place attachment and sense of place indicating that their participation in the Project TRUE strengthened students’ connection to local nature. We also determined that there was an increase in ecological literacy and interest in pursuing a STEM careers (determined with pre and post assessment instruments). Although our sample size was very small (N=14), the lessons learned during this pilot study will be used to improve Project TRUE and expand the size of the program to best aid underserved urban populations and expose them to the natural sciences.