30 SES 08 B, Environmental Citizenship
This transdisciplinary project brought together researchers from three different disciplines in the University of Hull (Education, Politics and Geography), along with external stakeholders such as NGOs, youth projects, schools and community groups to engage in Citizen Inquiry activity. The project was supported through internal pump-priming funds distributed as part of a recent Evolving a Circular Plastics Economy grant awarded to the University of Hull through the ESPRC. The paper outlines and critically compares the way in which young people, through both formal and informal education settings, engage with Citizen Inquiry research activities at different levels which suggest differing degrees of environmental agency. It investigates the feasibility of utilising a Citizen Inquiry methodology to determine varying levels of environmental efficacy in which young people collaborate with experts to co-design and carry out public research projects based on environmental concerns. Levels of participation are measured using Shier’s pathway to participation (1990).
There is a notable lack of literature investigating how, or whether young people’s environmental agency can be fostered and developed in relation to current problems such as plastics waste. While such issues may be touched upon in schools, especially at the secondary school level (age 11-16 in the UK), there is a paucity of research concerning how environmental agency is engendered within informal learning contexts. Voluntarism, or the law of two feet, prevalent in out-of-school contexts represents an important element in our investigations as we are interested in what motivates young people to develop a willingness to become involved in voluntary activities related to climate concern, specifically the plastics circular economy. This paper reports on a project that explores potential connections between informal and formal education and young people’s propensity to be involved in meaningful social action related to current environmental concerns. More specifically, the paper scrutinises and compares the levels of curiosity and interest in the plastics circular economy amongst young people aged from 8-18, participating in Citizen Inquiry activities across a range of informal and formal educational settings. Furthermore, it investigates the feasibility of utilising Citizen Inquiry methodology to purposefully engage young people in research activities which aim to engender their environmental agency as they address those issues relating to the environment that they deem most pertinent.
This paper describes a series of case studies which explored the use of Citizen Inquiry methodologies to identify what young people really understand and think about the circular plastics economy and also the feasibility of using Citizen Inquiry methodology to engage and amplify the voice and actions of young people to give them genuine environmental agency. The paper also exemplifies an innovative methodological online tool developed by the Open University called ‘nQuire’ that involves utilising digital technology to augment young people’s active participation and facilitate the targeting of other young people in the circular plastics economy. Specifically, drawing on specialists internal and external to the university community, the research team supported the young people’s co-creation of digital media platforms (e.g. an animated film and rap; ebooks; a digital ‘app’ and digital platform games) that were integral to their research activities. Through regular involvement with the various groups of young people in the city of Hull region, the research team were able to gain insights into their orientation towards this environmental issue, including their understandings of recycling, repurposing, reusing and reducing which are central to the ‘plastics circular economy’. Subsequently, we were able to explore and develop strategies which best facilitated their prolonged engagement and genuine agency.
The methodology adopted is inspired by ‘Citizen Inquiry’, itself a recent modification of the ‘Citizen Science’ approach. Unlike Citizen Science, ‘Citizen Inquiry’ describes how members of the public can learn by initiating or joining their own inquiry-led scientific investigations (1.Sharples et al. 2013) and provides opportunities for members of the public, in this case, young people, to be involved in every stage of a research investigation including the framing of questions, the collection and analysis of data, the formulation of claims and the dissemination and sharing of findings (Herodotou et al., 2018). Citizen Inquiry is central to our research as it enables members of the public, notably young people, to create collaborative research projects to address real world issues that require the generation of large data sets. However, this methodology is also combined with a participatory approach underpinned by the principles of democratic education and the amplification of the voice and actions of young people. Digital technologies, such as mobile phones, played a significant part in the process of carrying out Citizen Inquiry investigations in collecting data for this project. These are common methods employed by Citizen Science researchers, as they enable large-scale studies that would otherwise be prohibitively costly or impossible to undertake by the research community alone (Scanlon et al., 2011). However, Citizen Science has been criticised as an asymmetrical methodology because of it’s top-down approach, initiated and led by the academic community which at its most extreme may be inclined to exploit the public as ‘data collection slaves’ (Mueller et al., 2012). This paper, therefore explores the effectiveness of utilising contemporary online Citizen Inquiry tools such as the ‘nQuire’ programme to buck this trend, through encouraging groups that are seen as hard to reach and traditionally reluctant to engage in citizen science, such as young people, to engage with them as a research tool. Defra, 2015 found that citizen science initiatives typically elicit small participation rates which are biased towards white, middle aged and higher income people. Our findings showed that through using online applications, such as ‘nQuire’, this trend could be overturned.
Findings have shown that the level of investment and involvement by young people in informal, rather than formal education settings appears to be higher. This may be due to the aspect of voluntary and therefore self-directed participation that young people in informal education settings such as youth projects and youth councils demonstrate in these settings. This paper identifies that young people participating (on a voluntary basis) in meaningful social action through informal education groups are more likely to display and enact heightened awareness and demonstrate palpable action in effecting change in the environment. Their level of curiosity and interest in social and environmental issues is self-diagnosed to be higher and they also demonstrate an increased interest in collaboration with their local community manifested in a heightened sense of social belonging than their counterparts in formal education. The impact of the project so far has indicated that through being involved in the planning, design and implementation of their own Citizen Inquiry research projects, the level of environmental agency experienced by the young participants has increased along with their willingness to be involved in social action activity. The paper also outlines and presents examples of an especially notable aspect of this project whereby, several of the case study groups based in informal education settings designed and co-created digital media platforms (i.e. animated film and rap; digital games and apps) in their creation of research activities which, they intended, would have the capacity to target and engage other young people in the circular plastics economy. The project has enhanced understanding and awareness about the efficacy of Citizen Inquiry initiatives and the use of mobile technologies, this knowledge will be used to explore the applicability of the Citizen Inquiry methodology in other disciplines/academic areas beyond science/plastics, such as heritage, geography and other social science initiatives.
Defra (2015) Evidence Project Final Report: Data submission in citizen science projects, University of York Herodotou, C., Aristeidou, M., Sharples, M., & Scanlon, E. (2018). Designing citizen science tools for learning: lessons learnt from the iterative development of nQuire. Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning, 13(1), 4. Mueller, M. P., Tippins, D., & Bryan, L.A. (2012). The future of citizen science. Democracy & Education, 20(1). Sharples, M., Scanlon, E., Ainsworth, S., Anastopoulou, S., Collins, T., Crook, C., Jones, A., Kerawalla, L., Littleton, K., Mulholland, P., & O’Malley, C. (2015). Personal inquiry: Orchestrating science investigations within and beyond the classroom. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2(2), 308-341
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