Citizen Science On The Rez – Kids, Science And North Dakota’s Oil Boom

Several years ago when anthropologist Jen Shannon of the University of Colorado in Boulder first visited the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota it was to return religious artifacts. The reservation is home to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

Over time, the relationship between Shannon and the tribes grew. Next came an oral history project, then a film. Even though she didn’t come to talk about oil, the topic was unavoidable on the reservation. Rapid oil development brought lots questions with it, like what are the impacts on air, water and soil?

Prairie Rose Seminole, an instructor at the local Boys and Girls Club, points out where Lake Sakakawea flooded Indian lands.

Prairie Rose Seminole, an instructor at the Boys and Girls Club on the Fort Berthold Reservation, points out where Lake Sakakawea flooded Indian lands. Jordan Wirfs-Brock/Inside Energy

The tribe had been searching for ways to answer these questions, and many others. Local researchers from the Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College were conducting their own air quality monitoring experiments, but it was just a start. So, when science teachers from the tribal college brought up the topic with Shannon, they collaborated on a way to deepen and extend the research by developing hands-on science kits for teachers and students to explore the impacts of the oil boom in their community. This idea came from the community, so they wanted to make sure that the community was involved all along the process.

How? It developed into a four step project: First, the teams from Colorado and North Dakota holds listening workshops on the Fort Berthold Reservation to gather concerns and questions from teachers.  In step two, Colorado team members return home, compile what they’ve learned, and share it back with the teachers in North Dakota, who vote on their favorite ideas.

In step three, Shannon and the Colorado team – which includes an environmental engineer, a citizen science specialist, and several students – will develop prototype teaching kits. Next May, they return to North Dakota so teachers can try them out. Finally, in step four, the Colorado team will modify the kits based on feedback from the teachers and make them ready for use in schools for the fall of 2016.

In mid-October, everything was all set for step one. Shannon and her team had booked plane tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars. Then, days before that first trip to North Dakota, Shannon’s research assistant got a message from their contacts at the tribal college. They’d changed the time, date and place of the North Dakota workshop. Instead of being upset about the change of plans, Shannon was, “through the roof excited. Because it meant that our community partners were taking ownership and control of the process.”

One of the listening workshops was held at Parshall High School, right as classes let out for the weekend.

One of the listening workshops was held at Parshall High School, right as classes let out for the weekend. Jordan Wirfs-Brock/Inside Energy

Two of the listening workshops were held on a Friday at Parshall and White Shield High Schools on the reservation, right as school was getting out. And two were at Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College on Saturday, in a sunny second-floor room, with homemade chicken stew cooked by an instructor at the local Boys and Girls Club. Shannon and her team from Colorado weren’t sure anyone would show up, so when more than 30 local community members gathered, she was thrilled.

Shannon wrote a question in magic marker on a flip-chart: What questions would you like your students to investigate about potential human and environmental impacts of oil development here on the reservation?

The teachers and community members asked questions about the psychological effects of light pollution, and the impacts of spills on the water and soil. They asked about natural gas flaring, and whether construction was driving away deer populations. They also talked about whether the portrayals of the Bakken in popular media are inaccurate, and what will happen when everyone leaves.

And they had observations: Many students are below grade-level in reading and math. Teachers said they need ways to teach basic concepts that explain what’s happening with oil development, like how hydraulic fracturing works, and where the oil goes.

The biggest surprise for Shannon and the team from Colorado was the wide range of teachers who attended the workshops. They taught subjects ranging from health to English to math, from first grade through college. “And we never would have known that if we didn’t go and listen first,” said Shannon.

What might the science kits that come out of this process look like? They could have tools to take and analyze soil chemistry. Or activities to map the migration of animal populations. And they might be used in language arts classes instead of science classes, or be designed so younger kids can team up with older kids.

Jen Shannon of the University of Colorado at Boulder demonstrates what a teaching kit might look like. This one happens to be on fossils.

Jen Shannon of the University of Colorado at Boulder demonstrates what a teaching kit might look like. This one happens to be on fossils. Jordan Wirfs-Brock/Inside Energy

This project is evolving to meet the community’s needs. And that makes it radically different from other citizen science efforts. Conventional citizen science invites regular people to search for alien life or map the brain. Often, it starts with scientists working on a research project, and is driven by scientists who bring citizens along for the ride. But on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, this is “really citizen science for citizens,” said Shannon. “The teaching kits are a tangible product of our work together, but it’s the process that’s really important.”

After the listening sessions, Prairie Rose Seminole, the Boys and Girls Club instructor who cooked the chicken stew, took the group from Colorado to see some spots where she forages for plants. As a pump jack plugged away a few hundred meters off, she pointed out sumpweed and buffalo berries, and explained how with the oil development and the spills that come with it, they’ve had the soil tested to make sure it’s contaminant free.

She also took the group to a bluff overlooking Lake Sakakawea, which was formed when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri River.

“We’re just now starting to talk about how to we heal ourselves from the flooding of our bottom lands. How do we deal with that loss and grief that came with it. Because we’re passing that down,” Seminole said.

The University of Colorado Team stands with Prairie Rose Seminole on a bluff overlooking Lake Sakakawea, observing native plants and the changing landscape.

The University of Colorado Team stands with Prairie Rose Seminole on a bluff overlooking Lake Sakakawea, observing native plants and the changing landscape. From left: Atty Phleger, Jen Shannon, Prairie Rose Seminole, Bailey Duhe, Nick Burnaugh, Joe Ryan. Jordan Wirfs-Brock/Inside Energy

For some, the oil boom evokes similar feelings as the dam. That emotional connection to the land here is why a project that encourages the community to take charge of its own information, its own research, its own learning, goes beyond the results of any single science experiment. It’s part of a bigger process.

“We have to start healing that so our future generations can have that hope, that ownership of these lands,” Seminole said. “And how we can have that sense of ownership that we didn’t have before.”

That means ownership of the science as well, in order to monitor what’s happening around them, but also to encourage kids here to become teachers, engineers, nurses – jobs that are often imported. Citizen science kits are a cool outcome of this process, but the real goal is helping kids learn to ask questions and investigate the answers themselves.

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