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Leshner Fellow Co-Organizes First Field School for Community Participatory Modeling

Renée V. Wallace speaking to participants at the Oakland Avenue urban farm.
Renée V. Wallace, director of FoodPlus Detroit, speaking to participants at the Oakland Avenue urban farm.
Photo credit: Jennifer Hodbod

For communities that are seeking to make decisions that integrate community knowledge and scientific evidence, community participatory modeling can be a way forward. This method entails gathering information from people involved in an issue and using computer models to build understanding of the situation and play out a variety of scenarios. In August, Laura Schmitt Olabisi from Michigan State University, Renée Wallace of FoodPlus Detroit, and others led a three-day field school for community participatory modeling in Detroit. Schmitt Olabisi is a 2018-19 AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow, and used the Leshner seed funding as “a cushion of money to test this out and see if it’s a viable model, and give support to community members who are going to be participating and don’t have the means,” said Schmitt Olabisi.

Their field school was open to both community members from around the country involved in participatory modeling who want to know more about how the modeling works, and to modelers who want to know more about how to use their tools in a community setting. Schmitt Olabisi and her colleagues also wanted to better understand how to find and address problems that both community members and researchers are interested in resolving. They held the field school at Wayne State University in Detroit, the home institution of Julie Lesnik, another 2018-19 AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow. Field school participants visited Detroit’s largest urban farm and a community-led green infrastructure project for stormwater management to see various issues of concern to community members, and discuss how these could be addressed through this type of modeling.

Schmitt Olabisi was very pleased with the positive response to the field school from participants. She has been talking to her chair, of the MSU Department of Community Sustainability, about how the department might be involved in future iterations of the field school, how to institutionalize it, and how she may be able to get teaching or other types of credit for her time. She began developing the field school because she had heard demand for it from the community. To her knowledge, this field school was the first of its kind, as this type of modeling is usually done just in individual university labs. She hopes it helped the community members who participated to take advantage of some of these tools and analyses so they can learn to do pieces of this work themselves, such as facilitating conversations and doing mental modeling/diagramming.

An example of Schmitt Olabisi and Wallace’s work in action, which won a community-engaged teaching award, involved modeling urban livestock production in Detroit. Detroit’s Planning and Development Department was considering passing an urban livestock ordinance to allow residents to keep certain types of animals, such as chickens, but they wanted to understand the pros and cons of this decision. Schmitt Olabisi and her colleagues participated in listening sessions and then modeled the potential impacts and benefits, finding that the city was unlikely to be able to properly manage the number of chickens without relying on the use of livestock guilds to teach people to use best practices.

This type of work is very important to Schmitt Olabisi – it is in fact the core of what she does as a researcher, and allows her to do both public engagement and research at the same time. She says the trick to doing public engagement is “finding the sweet spot so that what you do contributes to your core work” (see her talk about this on the panel “Strategies for Sustaining Public Engagement in a Research Career” at the 2019 AAAS Communicating Science Seminar). She also says she often works on public engagement when she has “corners of time,” a few hours here and there. Schmitt Olabisi advocates for collaborating with others, too, so that work can be divvied up.  

While at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting, Schmitt Olabisi attended an event hosted by SciLine (a service connecting journalists to scientific experts) and met an editor at Nexus Media, who then wrote up a story, “Helping Flint Cope with Lead Pollution” about her work there related to food and nutrition. She has been pushing herself more in the past year to publish a blog post or essay for public consumption whenever she has a major publication. Schmitt Olabisi says the AAAS Leshner Fellowship was a great experience, one she would recommend to anyone. “It helped me see the breadth of ways you can engage, and even just making a little bit of effort in some of these areas is really rewarding.”

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.