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watershed map
Map of the Barnegat Bay Watershed.  Photo credit:  K. Nicosia et al.
student presentation
Four of the student authors presented their work in June 2011 at the Barnegat Bay Partnership Scientific Technical Advisory Committee meeting. From left to right: Eric He, Brian Chan, Ben Edelman, and Vishan Nigam. Photo credit: Kristina Nicosia.

April 1, 2014
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

High School Biology Class Authors Publish Peer-Reviewed Scientific Paper with a Little Help from Established Researchers

What started as a ninth grade biology class project has now – four years later – become a published scientific paper for students at New Jersey’s West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North.  Along the way students learned about the scientific research process, technical collaboration, publishing results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and the value of conducting relevant real-world research.  

In 2010, the 31 student authors, with guidance from their ninth grade teacher and co-author Kristina Nicosia, began a study to determine the willingness of coastal residents to pay for ecosystem service restoration in the degraded Barnegat Bay Watershed.  The work was conducted in collaboration with the local watershed management organization, Barnegat Bay Partnership.

Barnegat Bay, a highly urbanized watershed located in New Jersey’s Ocean County, comprises three bays: Barnegat Bay, Manahawkin Bay, and Little Egg Harbor. The watershed also includes wetlands, barrier islands, coastal dune shrubs, submerged aquatic vegetation, and upland forests. The watershed has undergone significant changes over the past 40 years.

Although the students and their teacher had full control of the study, they consulted with coastal managers and environmental scientists during the project to ensure that their research methods and analyses were scientifically sound. NOAA’s John Manderson from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory at Sandy Hook, NJ, and several other scientists are co-authors of the paper, published online March 13 in Ecological Economics

“Getting students involved in understanding the ecosystem, how it works, and human dependencies on ecosystem services is part of the educational process required for sustainable use of our common ocean resources,” said Manderson, who suggested the Barnegat Bay student project to colleagues Steven Gray and Joshua Kohut at Rutgers University. Gray, then a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers University, helped turn the idea into reality with his advisor, Rebecca Jordan at Rutgers’ School for Environmental and Biological Sciences. 

The classroom teacher, Kristina Nicosia, and subsequent classes have continued the collaboration with state and local environmental officials and university researchers to identify research questions that might generate useful information. Nicosia indicated that moving away from the ‘science fair’ model-- where students work individually to answer a research question-- to a more collaborative model based on the scientific information needs in the local community, has improved student engagement and exposure to how real-world science is conducted.

“Students are routinely exposed to scientific content in my classroom, but often do not realize how messy research can be or how exactly science contributes to society,” Nicosia said. “This approach gives them an opportunity to engage in a project that is more meaningful locally, and this has proved highly motivating for students.”

The students designed a mail survey to evaluate how much respondents valued four ecosystem services: water quality, soil retention, habitat provisioning, and recreation. They also collected information on respondent’s household characteristics, such as age, marital status, gender, political affiliation, and income to link these characteristics with watershed residents’ willingness to pay money to support future restoration.

The survey was sent to 1,000 coastal residents asking each to place a dollar value on how much they were willing to pay to restore ecosystem services in the Barnegat Bay Watershed. The hypothetical monetary payments added to a monthly water bill were then compared to the cost of restoration currently estimated by the Barnegat Bay Partnership, a National Estuary Program.

The survey recipients were willing to pay an average of $11.06 per month, or $132.72 per year per household. If all households in Ocean County paid that amount, enough funds would be generated to cover restoration expenses for the four ecosystem services, estimated at $7.96 million in 2011 dollars.

The students also found that women and households headed by younger individuals were more likely to pay for restoration than men and households headed by older individuals. Other factors, such as education level, distance from the coast, political affiliation, and how often coastal resources were used had no impact on the willingness of respondents to pay for restoration.

“The opportunity to participate in a scientific study so early in my academic experience really opened my eyes to the various ways in which science can be done,” said Rashika Verma, one of the student co-authors on the study who plans to major in science in college next year. “Before starting this project, I believed that scientific research was about working inside a lab and analyzing samples. But I was glad to learn that there is more to it. Research is also about creativity and the collaborative effort of many people towards a common goal.”

“What is so interesting about the students’ study is that it makes us re-think who has the ability to contribute meaningfully to science and how we engage students in science education,” said Gray, now an assistant professor of human ecology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, School for the Environment. Gray met monthly with the class to help the students conduct the study, and to prepare their work for journal submission.

The goals of the collaboration, as stated in the published paper, were “to integrate quantitative social science into the K-12 science curriculum to foster learning about the nature of social science investigation in a real world context; create a community-based science partnership; and generate social science data useful for decision-making that could withstand scientific peer review.”  

Manderson, who has worked on other science curriculum efforts, said he hopes more projects like this will emerge. “Students help educate their parents, and that often helps break down barriers,” said Manderson, who spent many hours on Barnegat Bay as a youngster. “How we behave as individuals is key. If we can change our behavior, this would go a long way toward solving many of the environmental problems we face. These students learned a lot about the scientific process and how science can be applied to the real world.”

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