Bodies pack the San Jose McEnery Convention Center, representing a perfect petri dish of humanity. A rainbow of races, nationalities, and ages are sharing their vision for science in the new century, creating a lively buzz of sound, as well as a much clearer definition of exactly who they are.
The Citizen Science Association Convention (#CitSci2015) is the first of its kind in the world, attracting over 600 participants from 25 countries. As citizen scientists, defining themselves is one of the main goals of this 2-day conference. They have come together as biologists, teachers, students, and everyday science enthusiasts to better understand their role in the gathering and sharing of scientific data.
What is Citizen Science? Giving Science Back the The People
Observational science is nothing new. Long before Sir Isaac Newton’s apple fell, both scientists and non-scientists gained insights about the universe by observing it. In an interview with The Guardian Grrl Scientist (“Citizen Science is Making Scientists of Everyone”), University of Oxford astrophysicist Chris Lintott (@chrislintott) explains, “Science doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes it involves making simple observations of simple phenomena, [so] you can do science without being an expert.”
Citizen scientists work with the scientific community to do just that: provide observational and interactive data points that can be used to increase a worldwide scientific knowledge base. These proto-scientists observe local biology in projects like the Big Butterfly Count and the Lost Ladybug Project, or look to the stars to help forecast potentially damaging solar activity and assist SETI in finding signs of potential on other planets. Not only do citizen scientists provide professional biologists, astrophysicists, and medical professionals with vast amounts of data, but they represent a growing number of educators who see the STEM potential of the “democratization” of science. It’s tough to argue any downside to ordinary people embracing and and taking the time to contribute to science in a constructive way.
The democratization of science, as well as the opportunity to provide data that leads to new scientific insights and research, is one of the driving forces behind the citizen scientists attending the Citizen Science Association Convention in February. Out of the 132 tweets on the #WhyICitSci hashtag during the event, 50% were devoted to the love of sharing and expanding scientific data. (Johanna Varner, “#WhyICitSci at #CitSci2015: Sharing What We Love Most About Citizen Science,” Storify)
#CitSci2015 Storify Recap
Where Real-Life Science and Education Meet
One beneficial areas of citizen science that can’t be overlooked is the educational component. The Citizen Science Movement is being driven by parents and teachers looking for ways to get students involved in professional scientific research. These educational facilitators want more than just passive scientific learning. They see the Citizen Science Movement as a way to inspire passion for science and motivate a new generation of critical thinkers. And the potential for citizen science in the classroom is so great, that many teachers are taking the #CitizenScience convention as an opportunity to clarify the goals of citizen science education. (Ryan Colley, et. al, “Building a Framework for Citizen Science & STEM Learning,” Citizen Science Association)
Jean Pennycook (Education and Public Outreach Specialist) is a perfect example of an educator who is taking advantage of the STEM-potential in citizen science work. For the past 20 years, she has been at the forefront of Antarctic biological research and education. Not only has she engaged students as a guest speaker and curriculum developer, but she has helped engage them as citizen scientists through various data-collection projects in STEM classrooms around the world.
In an interview with us, Pennycook explains:
“There’s a ton of these citizen science teams, but one that we’re working on is having people count the seals around the edge of Antarctica, using satellite pictures. Kids are counting the seals, using satellite pictures, and counting the penguins, using the photographs that we take. We give them real-world problems to solve and the tools to solve them. I think kids get a real sense of being part of science when they get to do projects like that.”
The projects that citizen scientists are working on have an impact in the real-world and shows first-hand how anyone can help to make a big difference in our understanding of the world around us. Another great example can be found in the Ecuadorian mountains where communities and scientists working together to reduce the risk of one of South America’s most active volcanoes (Citizen Science: In the Shadows of Volcán Tungurahua, Soapbox Science).
Citizen Science as a STEM Education Support
And, Pennycook isn’t alone in this perspective. Many teachers are seeing the value of citizen science as a tool for getting students to interact with scientific ideas and processes. At SXSWedu this week, one of the most talked-about panels is one from Therese Laux (Fulbright Award winner, National Center for Women & Information Technology Educator of the Year, and Omaha North Magnet High School teacher, @thereselaux). Her panel, entitled, “Tweetle Beetle: Student-Driven Citizen Science,” demonstrated to STEM educators how citizen science can be incorporated into the classroom in a way that meets NGSS standards and get kids excited about inquiry-based science.
Although citizen science is a relatively new construct, educators around the globe see its value as a tool to engage students and their parents. Increasing numbers of student scientists have meant more labor that needs to be met up with scientific need. This has prompted organizations like SciStarter.com (@SciStarter) to come up with simpler solutions for teachers and parents to help students find organizations and projects to be a part of. Darlene Cavalier (@scicheer), shared this amazing slide show that provides research and resources for those interested in including citizen science into their curriculum.
Another key benefit of citizen science, highlighted in a conference recap by Stephanie Schuttler (@FancyScience), is the natural storytelling element (something that science teachers are especially in need of in today’s project-based learning classrooms). Notes Schuttler:
“Citizen science embraces stories. Given that scientists has been under scrutiny for their poor communication skills, I think this is a good thing. Many presenters included stories in their presentations, or presented stories completely. There were even complete sessions that were presented in a story format. While I did like the inclusion of stories and I think stories are an effective component of communication, I think it’s important to remember that science can be turned into a story. You don’t have to choose between presenting science or a story. Science has all of the parts: characters, plots, and action. You simply need to transform your intro, method, results, and discussion into that format. While it’s important to recognize the importance of citizens in citizen science, it’s also important to recognize the science!“
A Democracy of Information: Inspiring the Future
Whether it’s measuring craters on the moon or mapping the migratory paths of local bird life, or counting penguins in Antarctica, the Citizen Science Movement is becoming an active and integral part of the professional and educational scientific communities. And, teachers, students and parents are recognizing the powerful impact one person can have on our understanding of the world. Not only does the citizen science movement have huge potential in the STEM classroom, but it could be the key to capturing the imaginations of the next generation of teachers, leaders, and scientists. Just scroll through the numerous tweets from teachers on citizen science hashtags #CitSci2015, #WhyICitSci and #citizenscience to see how teachers are using citizen science.
Are you incorporating citizen science into your classrooms and lessons? If so, please share your experience in the comments below. We’d love to hear how teachers are pushing boundaries to create 21st century learners and to #makeSTEMstick!
Citizen Science Resources
Citizen science definition on Wikipedia
Searchable list of 500+ citizen science projects
Cornell Citizen Science Toolkit
Citizen Science | Scientific American
Citizen Scientists League
Famous Citizen Scientists
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