Citizen science: What is it? Why do people do it? And why you should, too!

Janet Smith sorting macroinvertebrate stream animals
August, 2010
Deep Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Credit: Gary Peeples/USFWS

You are all scientists!”

Jordan McRae, citizen scientist, ecology activist, and TED Talk speaker

How would you like to help our planet and expand our knowledge of the natural world?

What is Citizen Science?

Jordan McRae speaks to a rapt TED audience. He’s right, of course, we are all scientists, or can be citizen scientists if we choose and act.

Citizen science according to National Geographic is everyday people participating and collaborating in scientific research to increase our knowledge about the world. Citizen scientists are members of the public who help collect and analyze scientific data.

Today, there are many ways for people with an interest in science and the natural world to take part in research and the search for knowledge. Many scientists are eager to collaborate with members of the public with a passion for science.

Kate Foral’s TED Talk describes her early involvement with citizen science. She tells how her family volunteered to monitor water quality in her neighborhood through a state-sponsored program. She confesses she was not very enthusiastic about wading around in water with snapping turtles and snakes at first. Catching critters with a plastic spoon, documenting her finds, and discussing what they learned became fun for her and a time to share with her family. Kate is now finishing up her undergraduate degree in the natural sciences.

Kate and her family were using a technique called macroinvertebrate monitoring. They looked at the abundance and diversity of organisms like bugs and larvae to indicate the overall health of a creek. Macroinvertebrates are organisms without a spine and big enough to see with the unaided eye. Many types of macroinvertebrates live in creeks like the one the Forals monitored, including mayflies, dragonflies, crayfish, snails, beetles, and many others. They sent the data they collected from their backyard stream to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Their data, along with that of other citizen scientists and professional naturalists, became part of the database the state uses to help create environmental policy.

I wish I had known about citizen science and the vast array of possibilities much earlier. I would have involved my science classes in these projects. For example, every year, one of my classes did this same type of macroinvertebrate monitoring as part of our science field trip. We would spend the morning wading in streams collecting samples, then identifying our catches. Finding many species of macroinvertebrates was a good sign. Finding some species like stoneflies, mayflies, dragonflies, and crayfish was an excellent sign, as these species have a low tolerance for pollution. On the other hand, if it was hard to locate any macroinvertebrates and if there were only a few types, that meant that the water quality was less good. When we only dredged up species which tolerated contamination, such as leeches, midges, or blackflies, we could infer that the creek was polluted.

The only difference between my classes and Kate’s family is that we didn’t send our data to a government database. It would have been easy to do if I had known of this possibility. The ecology lessons would have been so much richer with this added dimension. I just lacked the information, like that listed below.

Why do people do citizen science?

People get involved in citizen science for many reasons. First, many volunteers just want to learn more science. Some people want to increase our knowledge of the world; citizen scientists have made many important discoveries, including new comets and asteroids, new species of bugs and insects, and previously unknown plants. Other people are interested in volunteering for a STEM project to explore a career. Citizen science is a great way to work with friends on something important. As Jordan McRae describes in his TED Talk, combining citizen science with citizen action can be a powerful force for the good of our planet.

Next Steps

Below I have listed some databases of projects you might consider if this sounds interesting to you. There is a vast range of projects, not only in wildlife preservation, natural resource monitoring, but also in astronomy, geology, archaeology, and other sciences.

How would you like to help our planet and expand our knowledge of the natural world?

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