(See Part I: From winter into spring here). Citizen science is a fast-growing field, and some practitioners would like to see it become a recognized scientific method. A panel at last month’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual conference in Chicago considered how to move toward “a science of citizen science.” Panelists agreed that citizen science is producing valuable information on a wide range of issues, and that it is time to start analyzing CS projects and comparing what works across different scientific disciplines.
‘Who makes knowledge? Where and how does it happen? As citizen science matures and becomes more prevalent and professionalized, researchers want to understand these questions,” said Caren Cooper, a research associate at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, which manages multiple citizen science projects.
In Cooper’s view, scientists value and trust data from citizen science projects. CS data is appearing with growing frequency in studies, and authors typically do not qualify it or treat it as inferior to other data sources. By the same token, though, they often do not identify it as coming from citizen science projects. That makes it hard to quantify how many researchers are using citizen science data or what impact it has made.
The Citizen Science Association, founded in 2012, hopes to make CS more visible and professional by launching a journal and spotlighting best practices in citizen science. Those steps should make citizen science more visible and help new projects attract funding.
Several speakers at AAAS discussed the challenges of managing citizen science projects, such as encouraging participants — especially in online projects — and keeping them engaged. Typically, most participants in large-scale CS projects do relatively little work and make small contributions, while much of the input comes from a small group of more engaged players – a pattern that probably is familiar to many teachers.
Like classroom teachers, CS project managers are trying to create learning communities. But their relationships with participants are much more distant and temporary than classroom teachers’ interactions with students. Even so, panelists said, some players in citizen science projects have called their experience transformative and said that participating helped them realize they were good at science. In some cases, participating in a citizen science project had steered people toward studying specific science topics in school. Practitioners would like to know how to make that happen for more participants.
The White House honors a dozen scientists as “Champions of Change” for creating citizen science initiatives in fields ranging from neuroscience to paleontology. As scientists grapple with challenging research problems, teachers can expect that there will be even more opportunities for students to help them.
For ways to get your students involved in citizen science projects, see our previous post Citizen Science I: From winter into spring.