Spring is the perfect time to be thinking about citizen science. All over North America plants are budding, birds are arriving after long migrations, streams and rivers are swelling as snow melts, and spring rainstorms occur. Participating in citizen science projects is a great way for people - and children in particular - to learn about the nature of science, as they practice careful observation, measurement, and documentation of the changes they see around them.
I have to admit I love what citizen science represents. It involves people working together, sometimes spread across the entire planet, collecting vital information and supporting science projects at a massive scale that would be impossible without the passion and curiosity of volunteers.
What is citizen science exactly? According to Lawrence Handley of the US Geological Survey, it's "… the application of the scientific method for developing, collecting, accumulating, analyzing, and sharing scientific data by all and any citizen…"
And then there is crowdsourcing. Because it's enabled by our new global IT infrastructure, crowdsourcing is particularly appropriate for studying the impacts of rapid, human-caused atmospheric and ecosystem changes at a large scale. Citizen science often uses crowdsourcing to get the scientific “big picture.”
I was thrilled in the 1990s when my children were enrolled in their elementary school program to exchange weather data with a school in Russia. Although the children never spoke with each other (technology was not that advanced), the children from different countries were connected by the work they did together, and their common sense of purpose. Today the GLOBE Program connects schools around the world to collect and analyze data about the environment.
It wasn’t until quite recently that I discovered citizen science for myself through the USA National Phenology Network (NPN). Sponsored by several organizations including the US Geological Survey (USGS), the NPN encourages citizen scientists to monitor lifecycle changes for plants, animals and insects through the seasons. Because greeting the first robins in the spring has always been one of my favorite activities, I chose to track robins. I’m also tracking a cottonwood tree. The data collected by thousands of people will tell scientists how climate change is impacting important seasonal events.
In short, citizen science is important, fun, it often gets you outdoors, and it sharpens up your observational skills. In case you want to get involved, here are some resources:
- USA National Phenology Network: Count birds, butterflies and bees, monitor plants. USGS can recommend species for you to track based on your location. The NPN web site has a plethora of activities to suggest, including specific recommendations for school children sorted by age and grade level.
- Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS): Started at Colorado State University in Fort Collins after a devastating flash flood, CoCoRaHS harnesses citizen scientists of all ages to measure and map precipitation. They have excellent training videos on how to measure accurately and hope to improve the prediction of extreme weather events.
Looking for a citizen science project? The websites below provide information about a variety of different citizen science projects.