Marcellus Matters educates citizens about science

For the CDTFebruary 15, 2014 

As natural gas development stretched across Pennsylvania, a group of Penn State researchers began looking for ways to educate the public not just on drilling in the Marcellus Shale, but on the science behind it.

From that came Marcellus Matters: Engaging Adults in Science and Energy, a project started in 2012 with a $1.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

“We thought Marcellus was a great vehicle to do STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, only we call it STEAM (‘A’ for arts) because of the addition of theater to the mix of programs,” said Mike Arthur, geosciences professor, co-director of the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research at Penn State, and project principal investigator.

One part of that, the Marcellus Community Science Volunteer Program, brought together residents of rural communities with Penn State scientists from fields including the geosciences, landscape architecture, education and sociology. After a pilot program in Clearfield County, there were four sessions in different counties, each lasting eight to 10 weeks, with participants meeting once a week.

“The mission of the project is to educate adults in rural communities about science and energy,” said Terry Noll, project coordinator. “We use Marcellus Shale as the context.

“We teach them about the scientific process and how science is validated to assist citizens to be better able to determine what is fact and fiction,” Noll said.

The programs included discussions, lessons, field trips and theater. While the focus was on Marcellus Shale and the natural gas that comes from it, the larger goal was to teach participants skills they can apply to understanding almost any complex scientific question.

That included learning the science behind natural gas from shale, including the geology of where it comes from and how companies use seismic testing to decide where to drill.

Participants, who received a stipend for completing the program, received history lessons on the boom and bust associated with natural gas and the impacts of gas development on local communities’ roads, schools, housing and economies. They learned about how hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — is done, including what goes on above and below ground and where the waste water used in the drilling process goes. The potential impacts on waterways, forests and wildlife were part of the lessons.

Part of the focus of the lessons was getting people to think critically about what they see and read and encouraging discussion.

Kathy Brasier, associate professor of rural sociology, and Eliza Richardson, assistant professor of geosciences, talked with participants about how scientifically valid studies are done, and explained the difference between correlation — when two things appear to be related — and causation — when one is shown to cause the other.

“The main idea is to show how science is done, how to critically evaluate information,” Brasier said.

So, for example, they looked at whether there is any connection in a place where natural gas wells are being drilled and crime is on the rise. Brasier said that while both might be happening, the question becomes finding out whether they’re connected.

Participants looked at the idea of “boomtowns” and the challenges communities experiencing those might see, including strained social services, changes in how the community feels and an increase in social problems, such as crime and drug abuse. Sorting through news coverage of the issue was also part of that class. Participants worked in small groups to analyze news stories, claims made in them and the evidence to back up those claims.

Another focus of all the classes was to encourage participants — whose opinions often varied — to talk with each other about those different outlooks. One avenue for encouraging that was a play about the topic that faculty from Penn State’s School of Theater performed.

“We want to really hear what people’s views are,” Noll said. “We’re not trying to persuade them one way or the other. We want them to develop decision-making skills based on science.”

Cindi McCarty, an Albany Township resident who participated in the Sullivan County program last summer, said she took the class to educate herself and her family and friends.

“I was uneducated. I never knew about the fracking process,” McCarty said.

She said she hadn’t realized that landowners whose property is the site of drilling activity often can have a say as to where roads and pipes will go when negotiating a lease with gas companies.

That was one of the points that Brian Orland, distinguished professor of landscape architecture, hoped the participants would walk away with.

“We’ve helped people realize that individual citizens hold most of the cards for wise planning — in the land they choose to lease to the industry and the lease conditions they establish,” he said.

For one exercise, participants worked in small groups to come up with plans for gas development on a hypothetical farm. They looked for the best ways to manage competing elements — trying to preserve the property while allowing for the development.

Marcellus Matters is in its final year, which includes evaluating its effectiveness. There is a possibility of extending the study for another year. In the meantime, McCarty and others in Sullivan County are exploring the idea of having a club to continue sharing factual information and ideas.

Anne Danahy is a writer in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

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