Using Community Science to Address Pollution in an Urban Watershed: Lessons about Trash, Diverse Engagement, and the Need for Science Mindsets
Author: Theresa Sinicrope Talley, Roxanne Ruzic, Lindsay Goodwin McKay, Nina Venuti, and Rochelle Mothokakobo,Issue #174
Community science projects offered in urban areas may be particularly effective at addressing environmental problems and engaging people in science, especially individuals whose identities have historically been underrepresented in the field. In this project, we worked with individuals from a racially diverse, low-income community in San Diego, California to conduct community science to: 1) test a conceptual program model aimed at engaging diverse communities in science, and 2) contribute to scientific knowledge about the inputs and accumulations of trash in an urban watershed. While the program model did well at bolstering environmental stewardship, recruitment, and short-term retention of community members as project participants, it was not as effective at building science understanding, interest in science, and awareness of doing science, indicating a need for a mindset approach. Despite this, the data collected by the community between 2014-2018 revealed in-depth information about the spatial and temporal distributions of trash, including the identification of three main debris inputs: encampments, illegal dumping, and storm drain flows, as well as the validation of global trends of a predominance of plastics across waterways and through time. In a few instances, community stewards became community scientists—the quantity and quality of data collected improved, and community members presented results to authorities who responded with concordant management actions (e.g., help with cleanups, outreach to unhoused communities). Based on project outcomes, our revised community science program model includes a focus on strengthening a science mindset, in which even short-term science interventions that improve the recognition of science, a sense of belonging, and access to mentorship may have meaningful long-lasting effects on increased participation in science.