Mapping the landscape of citizen science

Science has moved beyond the lab. Researchers are using non-scientists more and more to help conduct their research and expand their reach. Everyday people are contributing their data, helping researchers learn more about a topic and get comprehensive results.

But what does “citizen science” mean and how can it support science learning and education?

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has found that citizen science is reshaping research. It can greatly facilitate large-scale research by providing opportunities to study more topics while teaching people more about science and enhancing science education.

The report is one of the first of its kind to examine the available information on citizen science projects and, through peer-reviewed evidence, clearly identify trends, weaknesses and opportunities for growth. 

Darlene Cavalier and Lekelia “Kiki” Jenkins, professors at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, were members of the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Designing Citizen Science to Support Science Learning, which authored the report. Cavalier and Jenkins, will share their expertise on citizen science and the findings from this new study at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) during the session “Learning Through Citizen Science: Enhancing Opportunities by Design.”

“This session specifically highlights the potential of citizen science to support science learning,” said Cavalier. “We’d like to share best practices to intentionally design citizen science programs with science learning as one goal. Personally, I enjoy the Q&A sessions where I learn about developments and hear from people shaping the field.”

“We need to understand where we are before we can start thinking about where we need to go,” offers Jenkins, who is organizing the AAAS session as well as giving a presentation.  “That’s the reason why this study was done, because people were doing citizen science and assuming that, you’re doing science, you’re going to learn something.  But without being directed in what are the learning objectives and how we are building in support structures to make sure people are learning these things, actually what we find is that people don’t learn as much as they could.”

Cavalier, a professor of practice, is a founding board member of the Citizen Science Association. She’s also the founder of SciStarter, a platform that connects people to citizen science projects they can participate in. She says she wanted to learn more about how people without formal degrees could participate in science.

“Opportunities were out there, but they were difficult to discover and little was known about the projects or participants,” said Cavalier. “I wanted to make it make it easy for anyone to find and engage in projects they are curious or concerned about and catalyze research across the landscape of projects, people and perspectives.”

Citizen science has been used to study a wide variety of topics. Cavalier and a team from SFIS and ASU Libraries recently developed citizen science kits that can be checked out of local libraries. The kits include all the instruments and resources needed for people to research things like light pollution, air quality and biodiversity. Associate Professor Jenkins focuses much of her research on marine conservation, including studying fisheries learning exchanges, where fishing communities learn from each other how to mitigate common problems involving habitat damage and decreasing fish populations. Fisheries learning exchanges and citizen science share similar approaches to collective problem-solving.

Citizen science not only benefits researchers, but it also provides teaching opportunities outside a typical classroom setting.“Not only do scientists get data, but the people who are participating in citizen science are learning something as well,” said Jenkins.

When done right, citizen science can be an opportunity to support and extend learning and welcome different skills and beliefs. But according to the report, those opportunities can only be reached if diversity, equity and inclusion are included as goals in a project’s original design. Jenkins said people have to intentionally design citizen science projects around those three things; otherwise, it can lead to bias in the project.

“It’s a mission that everyone needs to take up if they care about those issues,” said Jenkins.  “We all have a role to play around diversity, equity and inclusion in the sciences.”

Jenkins is also part of the AAAS IF/THEN ambassador program, which highlights women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) who contribute to those fields and inspire young girls to pursue careers in STEM. She’s also won awards for science dance, a performance art form where people use dance and body movement to communicate research. 

Jenkins will give her presentation “Mapping the Landscape of Citizen Science” on February 14 at 8:00 a.m. PST, and Cavalier will give her presentation “Citizen Science as a Context and Opportunity for Learning” the same day at 8:30 a.m. PST.

Jenkins will also be a part of the AAAS Family Science Day as a featured Meet-a-Scientist on February 16 at 1:00 p.m. PST.  She will lead participants in a movement activity titled “Saving Sea Turtles Through Technology and Dance.”