Two birds, one stone: Using local ecological knowledge (LEK) to elucidate ecological processes and increase engagement of students in science
As ecologists, we face multiple challenges in our field. We work to understand ecological phenomena in the face of inadequate data, while simultaneously struggling to engage young people – especially those from underrepresented minority groups – in our work. Local ecological knowledge (LEK) can address both of these challenges. LEK can be a valuable tool for revealing ecological processes at play, especially when studying memorable species that are noticeable, charismatic, rare or invasive. The collection of LEK data can also be used to engage students in science. When high school or college students collect LEK data, the process serves multiple purposes: (1) collecting data to answer an ecological question of interest, (2) engaging students with a real ecological issue in their community, and (3) building relationships between students and local resource users in the region.
We present two case studies of using LEK for scientific discovery and engagement simultaneously: high school students were trained and then conducted interviews of long-time resource users in order to elucidate the ecology of two noticeable species: an estuarine jellyfish (the sea nettle, (Chrysaora quinquecirrha)) in Barnegat Bay, NJ, and an invasive fish (snakehead, Channa argus) in Philadelphia, PA. Both student groups presented their work at regional conferences. The data on jellyfish were subsequently used to structure a published historical hindcasted model of jellyfish abundance. These projects created new scientific knowledge, engaged high school students in ecological issues in their region, increased student interest in science as a career, and promoted intergenerational relationships between students and older resource users in their community.