Thriving Earth Exchange: Connecting Scientists and Communities

By: Rosie Dutt
October 25, 2020
Posted in:
Est. Reading Time: 5 minutes
Chollas Creek, San Diego, CA Project. Photo courtesy of Kristen Hurst.
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The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is a global nonprofit that supports 130,000 enthusiasts and experts worldwide in Earth and space science. ESAL spoke with Kelly McCarthy, the education and communications manager who works for the Thriving Earth Exchange – a program of AGU – to find out more about their work with local communities and scientists.

RD: Can you tell us a bit about the program?

McCarthy: AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange connects communities with scientists and supports them as they work together to tackle local challenges related to natural hazards, natural resources, and climate change. We have over 150 community science projects that are active or complete. They are usually 6-18 months long – that enables a short-term target to be met and supports the development of a long-term relationship. The program is built on the philosophy that all communities – including municipal groups, grassroots organizations, tribal governance, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and any group of people with shared values – should have access to science. The work is truly about partnership and collaboration where science is an essential tool, but not the sole driving force of a project.

RD: How are these collaborations put together?

McCarthy: In our approach communities and scientists do science together – that includes defining questions, designing protocols, and collecting or analyzing data – and it is always guided by community knowledge and potential for local impact. We regularly put announcements out for community applicants through a variety of channels to join an upcoming initiative. We launch projects together as a cohort, often around a particular theme or focus and sometimes with collaborating parties. For example, we’re currently accepting applications from community leaders to start projects with us as part of a collaboration with the American Meteorological Society and Association for Science and Technology Centers that will launch in 2021. Community leaders who join any given cohort are matched with a project manager (an extension of Thriving Earth Exchange staff and member of our Community Science Fellows program) and that person will help scope out a project plan and recruit volunteer scientists from our network to join the team. This enables an exchange of knowledge between the community, scientists, and our broader network.

RD: What is the community science fellows’ program?

McCarthy: As a companion to the cohort model for community leaders, for each upcoming initiative we launch a new cohort of community science fellows. A community science fellow is a volunteer from any background, from any career stage, who serves as a connector and a project manager, working in companionship with the community leaders. Along with participating in regular professional development from Thriving Earth Exchange, each fellow is partnered with a community leader and serves as that community’s project manager, guiding the team through the Thriving Earth Exchange process. Together the community leader and fellow scope a project plan. Then, the fellow will help match the project to a scientist from our network. Once the scientist is on board, the team moves into the “solve phase” of their project – at this phase, the community leader and scientist work in tandem to implement their plan.

RD: Could you provide an example of how the program has facilitated projects between the scientists and communities?

McCarthy: One of our community leaders was an educator in Chollas Creek, which is a neighborhood in San Diego. She was interested in getting local decision-makers to recognize how polluted and dangerous a local creek bed was that her students and their families walked by every day on their way to school. They partnered with us and we matched them with scientists in the California region. They were then able to work together and include the students in designing a way to safely track the trash in the creek bed over time. Over the course of a year they collected data and created visuals that they could present to local decision makers and set up a mechanism for long term monitoring of the creekbed that will continue long after the community’s participation with Thriving Earth Exchange. They shared their methodology to help other educators and communities who are facing similar challenges.

RD: What are the challenges faced by your program?

McCarthy: As this is a volunteer-based organization, on some occasions a project team will need to rescope their original plan, either due to costs, or the broad nature of their original scope. The team might recognize that they need to segment their project into multiple phases to achieve the intended impact, which might require bringing additional scientific partners on board at different points. The silver lining of that is we have a growing network of scientists who are willing to partner with the local communities! We have also seen some challenges and creative solutions to partnerships between communities and scientists in the wake of the global pandemic, when a lot of work had to shift to a remote set-up.

RD: What has the impact of the work been?

McCarthy: To date, we have supported projects in communities where over 17 million people live, and the impacts are still being revealed. Local impacts range by project: that might look like improved stormwater infrastructure resulting from a community science partnership, a grassroots group being able to better explain the potential risks of a nearby mining operation to public officials, or completion of an independent air or water quality study that contributed to a larger public health assessment. Often projects involve local efforts to mitigate climate change such as informing solutions to address extreme temperatures or new innovations for flood mitigation. The impact on a local level varies, but as the network of projects grows, and with the addition of our community science fellows, we have been able to support over 150 projects. One of the biggest impacts echoed in feedback from our participants is the network that allows community leaders to not feel alone.

RD: What have you learned about how local governments leveraged expertise?

McCarthy: Our projects range in terms of the level of policy engagement – we’ve got some projects that are really involved at the grassroots level, and their work with scientists is helping guide some of the conversations those people are having with city or county officials. For example, one of our communities recently partnered with several scientists through the Thriving Earth Exchange to put together recommendations for county officials deliberating over the expansion of an industrial facility. In other cases, the city is more deeply involved in the partnership with Thriving Earth Exchange scientists – in one case our community leader is also a city official working on a project to support her city’s climate goals in Utah. One community was recognized by the state of Virginia for their work on flood mitigation with a Virginia House Resolution! While those are some good examples of cities welcoming the expertise of scientists from the beginning, in some cases, partnership with institutions via the scientists can help to expedite some of the efforts from the community, especially when it comes to grassroots efforts.

RD: How can scientists engage as experts more effectively with the local communities?

McCarthy: I think just being open and getting to know the community leaders in their areas! It often comes down to building relationships and listening. After hearing what your community’s priorities are, ask what in your expertise might you contribute? Scientists can consider how their expertise might align with those community priorities, rather than figuring out how to include the community leaders in the research that they are doing.

RD: How can scientists get involved?

McCarthy: We are always looking for new scientists! Scientists can join our community science network and subscribe to our newsletter to receive regular updates on new projects seeking a scientific partner. Interested scientists can also look directly at our list of projects actively searching for a scientific partner and reach out if they are interested in working with us. Folks can connect with us at or on Twitter @thrivingearth.

Are you involved with an organization or effort that you think might be of interest to the ESAL community? Or have heard about an organization or initiative that you’d like to learn more about? Let us know here, and we may feature it in a future post.

Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 10/25/20
Updated: 09/14/22
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