NOVEMBER 5, 2020 — A multidisciplinary team of UTSA researchers is collaborating on a project to transform San Antonio’s urban backyards and public spaces into living laboratories for community science education.
Their project aims to increase knowledge of the ecological effects of backyard feeding on birds, build capacity for community science in San Antonio and promote pathways to nature engagement in historically underserved, majority Latinx urban communities.
Jennifer Smith, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology; Kenneth Walker and Annette Portillo, professors in the Department of English; and Amelia King-Kostelac, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, have been awarded a $265,000 grant through the Hispanic-Serving Institutions Education Grants Program hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to conduct their project.
The USDA-NIFA provides leadership and funding for programs that advance agriculture-related sciences. The HSI Education Grants Program is designed to strengthen HSI programs that attract outstanding students who, upon graduation, enhance America’s food and agricultural scientific and professional workforce.
The team’s project, “Seeding Success for Underrepresented Students: Informal STEM Learning through Community Science, Avian Ecology and Ethnic Studies,” is a collaborative community- and place-based effort in science, culture and education.
“Our model for ‘Seeding Success’ integrates avian ecology through backyard bird feeding and neighborhood-level community science, and culturally responsive schooling through engagement with Indigenous and Mexican American studies,” said Smith. “By emphasizing the importance of local cultural knowledge, we aim to address prevalent misconceptions about how science, Indigenous and Mexican American studies intersect through place-based practices of nature engagement and conservation.”
“This project,” Portillo said, “seeks to bridge cultural literacies by collaborating with and actively engaging with Indigenous and Mexican American communities in San Antonio. Similar to Tucson Unified School District’s highly successful MAS program in urban school districts, this project, that is grounded in culturally relevant educational programming, will also center the importance of ethnic studies as it relates to history, literature and environmentalism.”
The project will offer experiential workshops and neighborhood activities that encourage critical discussion about scientific and cultural practices within San Antonio and the surrounding region. It aims to develop leadership skills, promote scientific and cultural literacies and conservation behaviors, and build educational bridges for students from K–12 schools to HSIs, including UTSA.
As a project that foregrounds culturally relevant pedagogy to motivate learning, it seeks to cultivate in all participants the ability to contemplate, trouble, and provide critical feedback on the ways in which scientific practices, nature engagements and conservation behavior overlap or diverge from participants’ cultural contexts.
“By evaluating the effects of living laboratories for community science engagements in underserved neighborhoods in San Antonio, we anticipate we will see an increase in participant understanding of scientific research and placed-based knowledge and thus an appreciation for science and culture in urban neighborhood settings,” explained Walker.
“By increasing familiarity and comfort with scientific and cultural practices broadly, and with ornithological skills in particular, we anticipate an increased interest in pursuing ecological, educational and ethnic studies as an intersectional way to address contemporary social and environmental crises,” added King-Kostelac.
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