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Students learn their vital role at Citizen Science Symposium


Entire worlds live right in our backyards. For the past several months, middle school students have been learning about the different worlds outside of their windows through the Dunes Learning Center’s new Citizen Science program. May 17 saw the culmination of their studies, as the students gathered at the Genesis Center in Gary for the Citizen Science Symposium.

With the help of partners like ArcerlorMittal, NIPSCO, and the Legacy Foundation, these area students were able to spend the day learning about the importance of our environment from highly educated professionals. Eight different talks took place, ranging from the importance of insects with Jim Louderman from the Field Museum, to role-playing how our actions affect Lake Michigan with Dena Ristau from the Dunes Learning Center.

Teachers and students were able to attend three sessions throughout the morning, followed by a yummy lunch and a keynote speech from Interpretive Park Ranger Jamal Sheriff. The students were then allowed the freedom to meander and view the posters from each school’s project.

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This event has been a long-time dream for the Dunes Learning Center. It was important for them to bring together students from the individual schools to see how they were a part of something larger.

“All of the students do a Citizen Science project in their individual class, but the whole point Citizen Science is the group effort,” said Heather Hahn Sullivan, Development and Marketing Director at Dunes Learning Center. “We wanted them to see that, even though everyone is working on similar projects and that two different classes in two different communities can collect data for the same project, when the data is fed into the Citizen Science database, it has an impact.”

For teachers, this event was just what they needed to expose their students to the world of science and encourage them in their studies. Plus, it offered an opportunity for their students to have hands-on learning.

“A lot of kids think science and math classes are just for geeks. By introducing STEM and projects like Citizen Science to our area, kids get to get in, get their hands dirty, get their feet wet. It opens a new door for them,” said Chantel Hunter, 7th and 8th Grade STEM teacher at Joseph Block Junior High School.

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“As an educator, I think that one of the things our students really need to do is experience things firsthand,” said Vincent Gonzalez, 7th Grade teacher at Harrison Elementary School. “When they get a chance to actually see something or touch something versus reading it in a textbook, it brings it to life. It makes it real to them.”

“Science is very important. It allows you to see the world through a different perspective,” said Elvira Mendez, 6th Grade teacher at McKinley Elementary School. Events like today’s can often help a student discover something new that they can become passionate about. It’s a chance for them to look outside of their world and see what is happening around them.

“I learned about birds, and I thought it was really interesting to hear the backstories of the screech owl and turtle. I also learned you can help animals by the slightest actions, by just a phone call,” said Rose Deep Deol, 8th grader at Discovery Charter School.

“My favorite thing was the bugs. It’s so cool how we think of these as pests, but in reality, they’re our primary decomposer. If the bugs went extinct, we wouldn’t be here,” said Andrew Salazar, 8th grader at Joseph Block Elementary School.

The speakers who attended the symposium were excited for an opportunity to share their passions with the next generation.

“I enjoy interacting with the kids and showing them insects are not to be scared of. Insects are beneficial. Insects are important. They need to understand that insects are the decomposers. They’re also the pollinators of all our plants, including most of our food,” said Jim Louderman Collections Assistant at the Field Museum.

“Getting this exposure at a younger age is important,” Sheriff said. “One of the greatest things about science is that you’re never going to run out of things to learn or study or invent, or make better. There’s a lot you can do.” The most important lesson from today is that we all have an impact on our environment. Even little things can have a larger effect. Raising up a generation that is more aware and engaged is important, and the Dunes Learning Center is seeking to do just that.

“I hope they understand how their small efforts have a larger impact and by working together, even on what they might think is a small class project, when they put it all together into one of our national Citizen Science databases, it has a huge impact,” Sullivan said.

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