What is the Science & Seniors project?
Senior citizens represent an increasingly large part of our population, and are more heathy and mentally active than they have been in the past. Many seek intellectual stimulation, social connections, and a sense of being useful in society, and many are connected to active social networks and visit or live in accessible centers. This segment of society thus makes an excellent group for collaboration with ecologists to share scientific questions and help generate answers to them.
In November 2010, the Research Ambassador Program partnered with Senior Services of South Sound. The first event was a lecture and workshop by Dr. Lalita Calabria, a resource faculty member at The Evergreen State College. In this workshop, Lalita introduced the basic characteristics and biology of mosses, their roles in ecosystems, and the negative impacts of the horticulture industry on mosses in old-growth forests, which uses mosses taken from forests. Seniors also viewed the hidden features of the mosses using microscopes and moss samples.
A subset of seniors at the workshop developed a research experiment to be conducted at the Center with Dr. Calabria, several seniors, and six Evergreen student volunteers. The goal was to help scientists develop methods of growing moss to offset the demands of wild-harvesting mosses for the floral industry. Dr. Calabria identified two moss species that are commonly used by horticulturalists and developed an experimental plan to learn which species grows faster. In this experiment our team ‘planted’ moss fragments in pots that were placed in the Senior Center in a place readily visible to the public. Once a week, the team collected data, measuring and documenting the growth rates of each species.
This project involved building an active and collaborative partnership with Senior Services of South Sound, drawing upon their pool of seniors, communication network, classroom space for the workshop, staff assistance, and planter space in the window for a three month duration.
Six undergraduate students from Dr. Calabria’s Evergreen class also got involved, providing both additional data collection and logistica help, and to foster additional scientific and inter-generational dialogue.
Outcomes & Lessons Learned
In developing the experimental design, a project engaging the public must consider not only the biology of the plants and ideal experimental conditions, but also the realities of working with a less scientifically-minded group of citizen scientists, in non-laboratory conditions, and without total control over the venue. We needed to maximize the probability that measurable moss growth would happen so that participants could see results, but also wanted to have ‘new’ findings to contribute to science and the literature. Most challenging was establishing methods for measuring growth, as we sought to balance the ease of senior participation with the desire for scientific rigor and future project replication.
It took time to establish methodology, and in doing so, we encouraged the participation and input of the seniors. Although science may be perceived as neat, clean, and organized, the ‘practice’ of science represents iterations of trials, errors, and often accidental discoveries. By encouraging seniors’ input as we developed the experimental design and methodology, we allowed this lay audience to witness the evolution of a real scientific project.
Having our mosses located in a public space generated significant attention. We created signage to explain the experiment and basic ecology of mosses inside and outside the Senior Center. We also conducted our weekly measurement sessions at a table in a public room, which allowed passers-by to stop and ask questions. This generated significant dialogue with both those participating, and those not participating in the project.
Approximately a dozen seniors participated in the project, as well as six undergraduate students. The project was directed by the Research Ambassador Program Manager, Dr. Calabria, and the Activities Coordinator at Senior Services for South Sound.
Several other Research Ambassador Fellows visited the project during their visits, to witness the history, development, and evolution of the project.