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Engaging citizens in science

From time to time, we can all use an extra hand. When it comes to data collection, scientists sometimes wish for 20, 200, even 2000 extra hands. Cary Institute staff members have developed a range of citizen-science initiatives in which benefits flow equally between researchers and volunteers.

Eyes on the Hudson River

Citizen scientist gathering samples on the Hudson River. Photo by Emerich Amrheim.

Since 2003, aquatic ecologist Stuart Findlay has solicited volunteers to monitor submerged aquatic vegetation in the Hudson River, as part of his research to understand the ecological functions of these plants. "We obtain aerial photographs of the Hudson every five years, but annual data gathered by citizens provide critical information on year-to-year changes that we otherwise would not have," Findlay notes.

Working independently in teams of two, Findlay's volunteers strike out in kayaks and canoes to monitor the coverage and water depth of plants at more than 200 points in the river. Findlay plans three yearly meetings—a spring orientation to brief newcomers and review the past year's findings, a July training to teach GPS use and data entry, and an October appreciation dinner to summarize the year's work.

Training volunteers, Findlay notes, is a critical part of ensuring the quality of data gathered by amateurs, but it also provides an opportunity for scientists to translate their research to the public and for the volunteers to gain scientific knowledge and build camaraderie.

Submersed Aquatic Vegetation Project >

Students as Stream Monitors

This spring, the Cary Institute education team will debut a long-term stream ecology initiative that involves students in data collection. The Young Environmental Scientist Network (YES-Net) will enlist middle-school teachers and their students to investigate how environmental conditions affect when stream insects, such as mayflies and stoneflies, change from their larval stage to adult stage and leave the stream.

"Hands-on activities generate excitement for young students," says educator Jennifer Rubbo, "but studies show that lack of familiarity or comfort with data is a barrier to science literacy in older students." YES-Net includes a summer training program for teachers in data collection and analysis. And the project will also host a database that will let students compare data from their stream site with others in the network.

Participatory research gives kids a chance to do real scientific work. By observing changes in emergence patterns, and thinking about how stream insects provide food for other species like birds, students also learn big-picture concepts like biodiversity. "Citizen-science gives students a chance to engage meaningfully with science at an early age, but we get something too—we learn more about what teaching methods work well with kids," Rubbo comments.

Tackling Urban Mosquitoes

By engaging residents of urban Baltimore in her mosquito research, community ecologist Shannon LaDeau will test a similar feedback loop in her studies of West Nile virus. LaDeau and colleagues will train citizens to rate features of city blocks that affect mosquito habitat. They will also seek citizen participation via questionnaires, journals, and photography to assess resident's knowledge of and attitudes toward urban pests.

"Passive public-health campaigns haven't always been effective in educating or motivating citizens," says LaDeau. "With this citizen-science segment, we're not only obtaining data on factors that contribute to mosquito-borne disease risk, we're also testing the theory that participation itself may improve residents' sense of empowerment and follow-through action."

To learn more about citizen science, including benefits gained by scientists and volunteers, consider attending our May 3 public lecture by Akiko Busch. She will discuss her new book, The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science.