Citizen Science: What, Why, and How

This is a post I’ve been intending to write for a long, long time.  It’s a lot easier to write about my day to day life as an ecologist and PhD student.  In fact, any time I turn my computer on to write something that isn’t about me or about my personal research, I get this super intense surge of imposter syndrome.  I’ll stop the unnecessary preamble there for now.  It’s just my attempt to keep my writing in this space authentic, as I think it’s important to be honest about the struggles we face, even if they are mundane (Ermahgerd, writing a blog?  What if someone *gasp* reads it?!)

Training citizen scientists out at Stebbins Cold Canyon UC NRS

 The term citizen science has been buzzing around in scientific circles for a number of years now.  When I first drafted this last week, the first annual conference of the Citizen Science Association was just wrapping up in San Jose, CA.  This conference showcased the amazing body of scholarly research concerning citizen science, which is telling us a larger and more coherent story about the practice every day.  I have had the pleasure of working with professional scientists and educators whose whole course of study revolves around the design and training of participants for these endeavors.  I will offer here the briefest of introductions based on my own reading and experience and a little anecdote about a citizen science group I help facilitate in my area.  For a peer-reviewed take on the matter, look to the fabulous overview by Bonney and colleagues’ from 2014 in Science (so it’s short and sweet) entitled, Next Steps for Citizen Science1.

What is Citizen Science anyway?

First things first, what is citizen science anyway?  Well, first of all, it is science.  That’s a major point to emphasize.  Data collected by these projects should answer scientific questions or test specific hypotheses.  Second, this is science being performed by individuals who are (in most cases) not formally trained as research scientists.  There is a huge variety within the citizen science genre, but, in my experience, most projects fall into three main categories:  atlas/survey, monitoring, and manipulative/experimental.  

Atlas or survey projects use the increased person power provided by citizen scientists to attempt to catalog all of something.  Whether it’s ants in your backyard, critters in a park, or bees in your garden, these sorts of projects tap into our collective observation skills to gather useful data about when and where things occur.  For me, personally, online games that help map things (proteins, neurons!!) fall into this same category.  Others might disagree.  These sorts of projects don’t generally ask you to make observations at any set interval, they just want to know what you saw.  Monitoring based citizen science projects are also observation based, but time and place are more important.  Most monitoring projects are hoping to capture any changes that are occurring over time.  These changes could be in timing of events, composition of plant and animal communities, or an indicator of environmental health.  Actual manipulative citizen science projects are more rare, and tend to occur in conjunction with specific researchers.  If anyone has cool examples of projects like these, put them in the comments below!  And, because things rarely fit into three neat little categories, feel free to share other examples.     

Wait, is Rachel out of a job now?

Expanding leaves. Photo Cred: Allie Weill,
hand model Rachel Wigginton
Some might ask the point of such a practice, as scientists, myself included, spend years training to do what we do.  I wanted to point out here at the get-go that there are many studies looking at the accuracy of data collected by citizen science projects (see 2, 3, and 4 for examples), and with proper training, data collected by these projects can absolutely be used to answer scientific questions1.  So, formally trained scientists are still needed to design the protocols, set-up sites, and perform proper training for volunteers.  I can tell you from personal experience, doing this is a lot of effort up front.  There are also the back end costs of coordinating volunteers, keeping citizens engaged in the project, and curating the data that is gathered.  That said, I’m clearly not out of job thanks to these projects, but why would I even bother?

There are a few really great incentives for scientists to make citizen science work.  First, and non-research related, you are doing some amazing outreach.  We all remember that moment during our scientific training when things started to click, and I can almost 100% guarantee you that “click” didn’t come in the classroom.  It came when you were taking your first baby steps into actually doing science.  By working with citizen scientists, you are allowing people who might never get to have a hands on experience with science to get up close and personal with a study system.  You will be amazed how quickly these citizens start thinking like scientists.  I can imagine few things more gratifying than having a volunteer tell you a project has changed how they look at the world.   

The second, and totally research related, reason to get involved in citizen science is the increase in data resolution these sorts of projects afford to us.  Certainly, myself and a few intrepid undergraduates will know a lot about native Spartina restoration in the SF Bay by the end of my PhD research (at least I hope!).  But when we attempt to scale up, both in time and space, it’s hard to get a handle one some questions without a bigger team.  Think about one of the oldest citizen science project, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.  Obviously, no single researcher or even a team of researchers, could have maintained that many survey points each year or kept observations going all the way back to 1900!  And before you start poo-pooing all this data, return to my above comment.  With the proper training, citizen science data can be used for papers that get published in peer reviewed journals.  Take, for example, the 90 or so publications based on data from eBird1.  We need to stop seeing citizen science as just a way to pad a broader impacts statement and start treating it as a scientific opportunity.   

The inspiring folks of the CPP Stebbins
Case Study: California Phenology Project at Stebbins Cold Canyon

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that not every research question, or even every research program, has an appropriate place for citizen science to fit.  Like every tool, there is no need to make a round peg fit a square hole.  For example, I work in a very sensitive habitat type on plants and invertebrates living in the soil.  There are several endangered plants and animals in my system.  Getting citizens involved in a meaningful way isn’t in the cards for me, at least not yet.  So, here is my pitch for why, even if you can’t address your own research, you should still stick a toe in the citizen science pool.  

During the spring of the first year of my PhD program, I was working on a Conservation Management degree certificate.  This certificate entails taking some course work, which I was going to take anyway, and doing a group project.  Our group was approached by some staff from the UC Natural Reserve System, who had a bit of extra funding for a community outreach project.  We decided a citizen science project would fit that bill.  So, in the fall of 2013, a group of students and two faculty advisers (one ecology, one education) started meeting to discuss what sort of project would fit well at our nearby UC NRS site, Stebbins Cold Canyon.  Stebbins is unique for several reasons.  First, it’s one of the few UC NRS sites that is open to the public, with some pretty stellar hiking trails.  Second, one of the said hiking trails recently got listed on some online hiking forum, and the rate of visitation has gotten pretty high in the last few years.  Last, most of those visitors have no idea that this is a research site where science is actively happening.

We went through a large list of existing citizen science projects and also emailed all the researchers doing work out at Stebbins.  We really wanted to make sure any data we gathered ended up with a scientists at the other end.  There is already a complete species list for the site, so we nixed any atlas style citizen science projects.  In the end, we settled on starting a new site for the California Phenology Project, which is a subset of the National Phenology Network.  This project is part of a nation wide effort to capture changes in the timing of life events for plants and animals (ie: phenology) as they relate to climate change.  I think this is a prime example of the type of question that can really only be addressed with a literal army of data points.  

Water in the creek at Stebbins Cold Canyon UC NRS
If you foolishly think, like I did, that simply starting a new site for an existing project wouldn’t be that much work, you’re very wrong.  Because this is such a well thought out project, with some pretty specific scientific questions, the requirements for establishing a phenology trail are fairly in depth.  Then you have recruiting and training volunteers, making sure they are entering data, coordinating all the monitoring sessions, etc., etc., ect.    

And if you’ll recall, this isn’t even the system I study.  I don’t even really study climate change.  But you know what, being involved with this project has been one of the most rewarding parts of my graduate career to date.  First, I feel like I’m really addressing the needs of a land manager (UC NRS) by educating visitors about the scientific use of Stebbins.  Not only do our volunteers now know tons more about the site, but they are always telling us about conversations they have had with others on the trail.  More importantly, I absolutely feel like our team has helped to change the world views of all our volunteers.  I feel as though I have seen these people start to think and interact with the world like scientists.  They have told us they notice the differences in flowering times between locations.  They think about what our recent rain storm will mean for the phenology of the plants up at the canyon.  They note the differing amounts of pollinators on plants at different phenological stages.  I could go on.  It’s magnificent.  And very, very humbling.  Because sometimes, I forget to be awed by the first Toyon berries of the year, then we get an email from a volunteer, who is so excited to be the first one with a “yes” data point in the ripe fruit column.  

We have started to see conference presentations utilizing the NPN and CPP data sets.  This is real science ya’ll.  

Sold.  How can I get involved?

As a scientist, you can start your own citizen science project to assist you with your research!  Look for the standards and best practices explained by the Citizen Science Association.  Or, you can do like we did, and expand an existing project.  If you are an interested citizen, look for a project going on in your area.  Zooniverse is a great online repository of the many, many projects going on right now.  There are all levels of involvement, from coding video from the comfort of your own home, to hitting the trail with a data sheet after a weekend of rather intense training.  

And hey, if you are a scientists or a citizen who wants to get involved with the CPP at Stebbins Cold Canyon, check out our website and shoot us a line!  We’d love to have you on our team.

1. Bonney, R., Shirk, J. L., Phillips, T. B., Wiggins, A., Ballard, H. L., Miller-rushing, A. J., & Parrish, J. K. (2014). Next Steps for Citizen Science. Science, 343(March), 1436–1437.
2. Crall, A. W., Newman, G. J., Stohlgren, T. J., Holfelder, K. A., Graham, J., & Waller, D. M. (2011). Assessing citizen science data quality: an invasive species case study. Conservation Letters, 4(6), 433-442.
3. Delaney, D. G., Sperling, C. D., Adams, C. S., & Leung, B. (2008). Marine invasive species: validation of citizen science and implications for national monitoring networks. Biological Invasions, 10(1), 117-128.
4. Galloway, A. W., Tudor, M. T., & HAEGEN, W. M. V. (2006). The reliability of citizen science: a case study of Oregon white oak stand surveys. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 34(5), 1425-1429.
5. Gardiner, M. M., Allee, L. L., Brown, P. M., Losey, J. E., Roy, H. E., & Smyth, R. R. (2012). Lessons from lady beetles: accuracy of monitoring data from US and UK citizen-science programs. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment,10(9), 471-476.


A RefreshED Look Back at STS’s First Year

Sweet Tea, Science, the idea, was proposed by Rachel in November of 2013. However, it was during our annual get together with our wildly amazing group of friends for New Years 2013/2014 that the ball really got rolling over on our Tumblr. Recently, we’ve brought in the New Year once more with some of our favorite, most inspirational people in the world. Among these friends is the creative whirlwind that is J.D. VanSlyke, one half of the voices behind our favorite podcast: RefreshED! He was kind enough to lead this interview so that we may share some of what we’ve done over the past year, and a lot of what we’re thinking for the future!

HUGE thanks to JD for his completely fantastic interview questions. Be sure to tune into RefreshED this year. We are very much looking forward to the times ahead and the opportunities that may present themselves. Please let us know if you have any ideas for potential guest posts or if you’d like to collaborate with us in some way! 

Science Book Club: Ice Whale

It’s time again for an installment of the STS Book Club! This time, it’s a novel of the young adult variety. Perhaps a perfect stocking stuffer for the 11-year-old, nature-lover in your life? Or, you know, your story-loving 20-something PhD student.

My co-conspirators, then and now.  Notice that I have grown in my
appreciation of pants-wearing. 
I grew up on a farm in south central Kentucky with a small expanse of second growth forest rimming the yard and cultivated fields.  My siblings, cousins, and I would spend hours in those woods, building treehouses, turning over rocks, and chasing imagined creatures through the understory.  Mostly, we would pretend that we were surviving.  We would play like we were 100 instead of, maybe, one mile from home.  We had our dogs and we had our “tools” (usually a pocket knife or a hammer), but mostly we had our bravery and our brains.  It’s that same feeling of playing at survival that thrills me about backpacking or long canoe trips to this day.  No doubt this persistent desire to prove myself against some sort of untamed wilderness was inspired, in part, to my childhood reading list:  White Fang, Hatchet, “To Build a Fire,” Julie of the Wolves, and My Side of the Mountain, to name a few.  I rediscovered my love of young adult and children’s novels when I was writing my Master’s thesis.  I found I had less dreams about amphipods if I read before bed, and usually, by the end of the day, I had the reading comprehension of a 14-year-old.  I rediscovered my well worn copy of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, and the rest is history.  

“Not hope that he would be rescued–that was gone. But hope in his knowledge. Hope in the fact that he could learn and survive and take care of himself. Tough hope, he thought that night. I am full of though hope.” ― Gary Paulsen, Hatchet

Over the past 3 years, I’ve re-read many of my childhood favorites and also discovered a few new novels in the genera that I truly love.  I’d like to share one of those with you now.  Ice Whale, by Jean Craighead George is a book I read over the summer when I was traveling.  George has a great track record with her writing, as she is also the author of My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves, a novel which won her a Newbery Medal.  Plus, I read on her website she has a memoir for children called The Tarantula in my Purse.  If I write a memoir, I hope the title is half as impressive!   

On with the review!

What is Ice Whale about?

This is an epic tale, spanning families, generations, and two centuries.  The real story begins in 1848, when young Eskimo boy, Toozak, witnesses a bowhead whale being born.  He feels connected to the whale, which has a distinctive marking that looks like a dancing Eskimo.  Some years later, the boy, now a young hunter, accidentally betrays the location of a group of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) to a whaling ship.  To atone for this mistake, the young man and his future offspring are bound to the fate of the whale whose birth he witnessed, and they must protect him till he dies.  Bowheads can live over 100 years, so this initial plot point propels the story through time.  Characters and families come, go, and weave together in unexpected ways.  There are numerous themes: ocean exploitation, changing culture of native peoples, survival, and science!  All the action of the novel is set against the raw beauty of the arctic, an area close to George’s heart and a location she often visited during her life. I really think everyone can find something to love in this novel.   

Why I liked it?

So many reasons.  First, this novel was published after Mrs. George’s death by her two children, Twig (a writer of children’s literature) and Craig (a biologist who wrote his PhD dissertation about bowhead whales!!).  You can hear Ira interview the two about working on the novel on Science Friday.  I love the idea that the author’s interest in her son’s research inspired such a creative endeavor.  Also, as Craig edited the novel with his sister, you know the biology is spot on in the book.  

Second, the whales are characters with personalities, but I’m not certain I’d call George’s approach ananthropomorphism.  Whales have names, but they are represented by squiggly lines intended to represent whale calls.  Whales do not converse so much as share their intentions through the author. The whales live, fear, love, and are aware of other beings. I love this passage about a meeting between Toozak and the whale, which the Eskimo has named Siku. Below, Siku’s name is written from the whale point of view, as a line representing a series of sounds.         

 surfaced to breathe again, saw the boy, and rolled on his side to bring his eye to the surface.  He looked at Toozak and Toozak looked at him, and saw his human-like eyes, with pupils, irises, and eyelids much like his own.
stared long into Toozak’s kind eyes. And something happened between them.”

Finally, I love the science this book sneaks into its pages.  I learned a lot about bowhead behavior, range, and general biology while reading this book.  I also learned some new facts about the arctic.  The conservation message is clear, though I cannot say I 100% agree with it (if you read it, let me know your take!).  On the whole, I think this work stands as a vision of a hopeful future with a strong warning about the follies of the past.  

What could have been better?

The novel spans 200 years, and, honestly, the characters and connections can be a little dizzying.  And for a book with such a complex plot, the writing was very simplistic, stark almost.  Obviously, the intended audience is somewhere between 10 and 13 years of age, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the actual plot would be too confusing for a child of that age.  You could take the same approach my mother always took and read the same books as your kids.  That way, you can discuss it together (fun!) and help with any potential confusion.    

Bowhead photo courtesy of NatGeo
Who should read this novel?

As I said before, this is a novel for middle school kids, but I really enjoyed it.  Once I accepted the sparse writing style, I was really taken with the world George created.  So, I think everyone should read this book!  Maybe you’ve got a child, a case of childhood nostalgia, or you have an overworked brain and just want to be transported.  In any case, this is a book for you!

Want to learn more?

Start by checking out Jean Craighead George’s official website.  For a particularly adorbale side-note, look a the section “On Writing.”

Check out some other reviews of the book here, here, and here

Here is a great NY Times tribute to the author upon her death.  

Check out this NOAA page with some fun facts about bowheads!

If you read the book or plan to, comment on this post!  I would love to discuss it with others!