This post is based on the latest episode of our podcast, Citizen Science: Stories of Science We Can Do Together! In it, host Bob Hirshon chatted with four citizen scientists about how they got their start in the community and how they share citizen science with others.
Citizen science enables people from all walks of life to contribute to scientific research. Volunteers from around the world collect data, analyze images and make observations in their communities in collaboration with real scientists.
But citizen science is also a community. People come together in pursuit of a common purpose, and share their interests with others. For many citizen scientists, the community they find is as important as the work they do. And many take joy in spreading their passion to others. We heard from four citizen scientists about how their participation in projects has led to lasting impacts for them and others.
Citizen Science High
Allysa Reese is a 9th grade biology teacher at New Tech High in Coppel, Texas. She says she was drawn to citizen science during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she felt the urgent need to keep her students engaged during the challenging lockdown. Before then, she said, she had heard of citizen science but had never tried it before.
“When COVID hit, that’s when I was like, OK, citizen science is how we’re going to do some science work at home,” Reese says. “So that’s when I jumped in.”
Reese invented what she calls a Biodex — named after a Pokédex in the game Pokémon. She encouraged her students to “catch” all the living things they could find by taking photos and submitting their observations using apps like Seek, Plant Snap and iNaturalist.
“The main thing was I wanted to get them outside, taking care of their mental health and taking breaks from the devices and all the stress of this pandemic hitting,” Reese says. “A lot of them found it to be pretty great.”
Reese continued her Biodex program throughout the last year, even as her students came back to the classroom. She encouraged students to log a certain number of species each week, and log their thoughts in a journal. She says students complained about it at the time — “they tend to complain about anything that’s frequent,” she says — but have since said they miss doing it.
“One of the kids said they’re still adding to this journal they were doing every day, and using Seek every day,” says Reese. “Another kid said that every time they see something new, they go, ‘Oh, my goodness! Biodex!’ and they pull out their app, even though they don’t have to do it anymore. So it’s been nice to see that they’re actually looking at the world around them.”
Some of Reese’s students have even expanded their efforts to additional citizen science projects. She’s started meeting with these students as a group on Fridays. Some students are measuring light pollution where they live, some are identifying wildlife in camera trap photos while others are working to increase disability accessibility awareness in cities.
The popularity of her Friday meetings, and the flexibility of Friday schedules at her school, have even allowed students from other grade levels to join in.
“I just love that there is a community out there where citizen science projects are collected,” Reese says. “It is fantastic. I’m super excited about it and I feel like there are too many cool things I want to do.”
Her next goal, she says, is to get her family into citizen science, too. “I see us, you know, sitting around on couches during a holiday, and just like going at it, and showing each other the cool stuff we’re finding,” she says. “I’ll let you know if that good nerdy moment ever happens.”
Citizen Science, India
Future astronomer Sumit Banerjee is a graduate student in India who used citizen science to launch his career. But Banerjee had very few opportunities to participate like this when he was in high school. He wasn’t introduced to citizen science until the age of 25.
“I believe citizen science has the capability of shaping and tuning our young minds,” Banerjee says. “I wish that when I was in school, trying to get things done and trying to do something in science, I had had something of this sort.”
Banerjee was particularly interested in astrophysics and astronomy, but the opportunities just weren’t there when he was young, he says. Things like internships and undergraduate research experiences, which are important for budding astronomers, were hard to come by.
“But then citizen science came to my rescue,” Banerjee says. He started classifying images on Disk Detective, a citizen science project that asks volunteers to scan telescope images for things like our Asteroid Belt in other solar systems. And seven or eight months ago, he says, he received an email from one of the researchers asking him to join the team.
“I started attending calls,” he explains — in the middle of the night for him in India. “I attend these each week without fail. Now I do data analysis with the scientific team.”
Now Banerjee is now a master’s student in astronomy. His dream is to go on to get a Ph.D. from Stanford, and then, someday, to get a Nobel Prize for his country.
“Let’s see what happens,” Banerjee says. “This is just the starting point.”
Follow Banerjee on Twitter @CTzenScientist.
Girl Scout Troop 1484 in Palmyra, Virginia got involved in citizen science as they worked to obtain the “Thinking Like a Citizen Scientist” merit badge.
To earn the badge, scouts have to help out a community doing a science project. Their leader, Gail Cook, found the project Ant Picnic, which she and the girls thought was perfect for them. For the project, participants put out different food items on index cards to see which ones attract the most ants.
“The girls actually loved it,” Cook says.
The ants’ favorite food? Amino acid powder. “Like you can buy in the pharmacy, that you could use for body building,” Cook says. The girls looked it up on the internet, and learned the amino acids were one of the best sources for the energy and nutrition the ants would need for a healthy life.
Thanks to Ant Picnic, the girls earned their badge, and are interested in trying out more STEM projects.
“I put my girls out there to do anything and everything that I can possibly get them to,” Cook says. “Anything science or technology, they definitely are up to doing it.”
Citizen Science 101
Thad Yorks uses citizen science to introduce his undergraduate students to authentic scientific research — he has them collect water quality data for the Clean Water Hub project. He’s a biology professor at Cazenovia College in Upstate New York.
Yorks says he likes that the data his students collect in class will be uploaded to databases and made available to researchers doing real science, rather than just staying on a datasheet in the classroom.
“It makes it that much more valuable, that much more real,” Yorks says. “We’re doing real work, not just checking off a box in a course assignment.”
Right now, his students are assessing stream water quality, measuring basic water chemistry like phosphorus and dissolved oxygen as well as sampling the macroinvertebrates — like insects and crayfish — that live in the streams.
He says they use a macroinvertebrate sampling method that the nationwide program Save Our Streams has fine-tuned over decades. “They just celebrated their 50th anniversary here in the last year or two,” he says. It helps the students feel a part of something bigger, something not really possible with a curriculum designed by a teacher on their own. “This is a really cool story that you can relate to students; they can understand it,” he says.
Yorks has also brought citizen science to his community, including a local scout troop. There’s a lake and a trout stream each within about three blocks from campus, he says, and the community has maintained efforts to monitor the water quality there. “We’re fortunate that we’ve got a really tight-knit community that’s passionate about it,” Yorks says.
For him, the draw of citizen science is that it’s real science with real applications. “Students can get enthusiastic about it,” Yorks says.
He’s also seen his students find career-building benefits from participating in citizen science, too — landing jobs as entry-level laboratory technicians, or in other places where an attention to detail or understanding the value of data collection is appreciated. He says the skills built while participating in citizen science projects are practical and useful for a wide range of careers and activities that students might pursue after they graduate.
This podcast is brought to you each month by SciStarter, where you’ll find thousands of citizen science projects, events and tools! It’s all at SciStarter.org. If you have any ideas that you want to share with us, and any things you want to hear on this podcast, get in touch with us at [email protected]
Bob Hirshon heads up Springtail Media, LLC, specializing in science media and digital entertainment. He is the co-Principle Investigator for the NSF-supported National Park Science Challenge, an augmented reality adventure that takes place in National Parks. Hirshon headed up the Kinetic City family of science projects, including the Peabody Award winning children’s radio drama Kinetic City Super Crew, McGraw-Hill book series and Codie Award winning website and education program. Hirshon can be heard on XM/Sirius Radio’s Kids Place Live as “Bob the Science Slob,” sharing science news and answering children’s questions.