Seed Grant Summer 2023 Report

Kara Haas

Project Description

At the Kellogg Biological Station (KBS), MSU’s largest off-campus research and education complex, in-person field trips have been a mainstay of outreach efforts since the 1920s. Field trips are memorable learning experiences that connect students physically and emotionally with the local environment. Unfortunately, these in-person events are becoming less common in K-12 American schools, due to budget constraints, focus on standardized test performance and the COVID-19 pandemic (Behrendt & Franklin, 2014; Greene et al., 2014). In light of these constraints, teachers have been using schoolyards and near-school natural areas as field trip destinations. These near-school nature and community experiences should be encouraged. These local experiences could be paired with digital humanities (DH) tools and pedagogy (May, 2000) to provide the opportunity to deepen the context globally. When used together, local and digital experiences can support students in connecting their lived experience and local places with global issues such as climate change and agroecological systems. Digital experiences make possible travel to new places by removing barriers of cost and geographical distance to create more equitable opportunities for marginalized communities.

With the DH Seed Grant, allowed the opportunity to think more creatively and expansively about how K-12 students engage with the landscapes, people and stories of KBS.

We are working to create a digital learning space for teachers and students that will bring KBS to life through story, art, photography, and collaborative learning. The centerpiece of the digital learning space will be Squareland Mysteries, a graphic novel for middle school readers, written by Dr. Catalina Bartlett, DH Core Faculty member, during her Writer in Residence experience at KBS in summers 2019 & 2020. Squareland Mysteries tells stories related to the science and research of KBS, through the adventures of 5th graders Cora and Jackson. The primary setting for Squareland Mysteries is the KBS Long-Term Ecological Research experiment (KBS LTER). KBS LTER is a research site which aims to understand the ecology of Midwest cropping systems and agricultural landscapes. Funded by the NSF, it is one of 28 such sites across the country, each set in its own environment and with its own set of research questions. At the KBS LTER, hundreds of scientists work together to study interactions among plants, microbes, insects, management, and the environment to learn how agriculture can provide both high yields and environmental outcomes that benefit society. KBS LTER is also home to the K-12 Partnership, which brings together scientists and K-12 educators to share current science, develop curriculum and improve pedagogies. The inspiration to create Squareland Mysteries came from K-12 Partnership teachers requests for interdisciplinary ways to explore science concepts with students. In Squareland Mysteries, Cora and Jackson learn about biodiversity, ecosystems, nutrient cycling, soil health and its connections to growing food. They engage in scientific practices including observation, conducting background research, developing questions,communicating results, collecting evidence and analyzing data. Through storytelling readers will connect with place and the practices of science. 

Project Outcomes

With the DH Seed Grant, we were able to complete the Squareland Mysteries manuscript, compensate a professional artist to create illustrations, share a draft with teachers and receive constructive feedback.  

Catalina Bartlett was able to complete the writing of Squareland Mysteries in June 2023. By a twist of fate and a very generous offer, Catalina hosted Kara in her home for 5 days (Kara needed a place to stay while working with Lansing teachers for the Teaching Science Outdoors – Urban Partnerships program). Catalina’s generosity offered us the opportunity to live communally and work closely for 5 days.  During the day Catalina would work on the story and in the evening we’d cook and eat while reading and editing the manuscript collaboratively.

During our week together, we also interviewed Erica Bradshaw, who we would choose to be the project’s illustrator. Erica’s skills, knowledge of KBS and the surrounding community and collaborative spirit made her the perfect fit. By August 2023, Erica produced an amazing set of 10 illustrations that can now be incorporated into the final edition of the book.

Sharing Squareland Mysteries with teachers: During the fall 2023 K-12 Partnership Workshop, Kara Haas and Erica Bradshaw led a session for teachers that involved reading an excerpt of the book, discussing how the story could be used in instruction and doing some guided sketching with Erica. Teachers shared great interest in sharing the book with students! They also shared that one of the things they like most about the story was the character development – because the book is written in Cora’s voice students can clearly read her thoughts about being the new girl, making friends and making a new community home. These are human emotions that teachers were excited to have modeled through a fictional character. 

Reflection on the Project

While working on this project, I was reminded of the importance of relationships. It is through our relationships that we connect, collaborate, and strengthen each other. It is through sharing time, space, comforts and concerns of the small and big things in life that we help each other get through. My work is humanized by centering relationships. I find immense joy in long term collaborations which are melded by time, opportunity and our relationships. There is joy in sharing the journey. 

Looking Forward

Squareland Mysteries is still waiting for its digital home to be completed. I’m working to format the text and illustrations together to complete the book. When complete Squareland will be put into Google’s Book Creator and shared widely. 

Erica Bradshaw has accepted an invitation to be the 2024 KBS LTER Artist in Residence. In this role, she’ll be able to explore the lands and build relationships with folks at KBS. She will be able to take her own direction with interpreting and connecting to the landscapes of KBS. I cannot wait to see what she creates!

My work with teachers continues and deepens every day, I’m working toward my dissertation year while moving several different projects forward. This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the KBS K-12 Partnership which involves a celebration and a reflective project to collect and share stories from teachers, faculty, former graduate students and staff involved with the project since 1999. I appreciate the opportunity that the Digital Humanities Seed grant allowed to explore different formats for sharing stories and the capacity to develop new collaborations and deepen relationships.