Citizen Science in Formal Education

Citizen science is a powerful and emerging discipline focused on improving research outcomes and engaging the public in scientific inquiry. Projects like BudBurst have allowed us to better observe and compare weather variations surrounding the ‘sprung’ in Spring, Journey North has improved our understanding of the Monarch butterfly’s great migration, and WhaleFM has allowed citizens of all ages to experience the sounds just beneath the ocean waves. Participants in citizen science have the opportunity to add to truly cutting-edge research and help bring forth findings that will help solve some of our greatest environmental issues.

© Scientific American
© Scientific American

Citizen science is inherently engaging, reaching out to the curious nature we all share as humans and inspiring us to explore the natural world around us. Most importantly though, citizen science is beginning to democratize the practice of science – tearing down ivory towers and replacing them with public centers where everyone has the opportunity to contribute to science research.

This ‘opening’ of the science world brings both transparency and increased accessibility to science research. It allows for better management and implementation of policies by allowing a more diverse set of stakeholders to be involved in not only the design of research, but also in collection of data and assessment of findings. Citizen science can in then allow for more robust research outcomes while also meeting essential educational objectives. As we in the scientific community work to improve science literacy and public engagement in science research, citizen science should be more fully incorporated into our research & daily activities.

This is particularly true for research that can involve student participants. Integrating relevant and authentic science research into K-12 education can improve science education and inspire the next generation of science researchers.

School of Ants is citizen-science driven project that works with schools in formal education to help students gain a better understanding local biodiversity. My research in collaboration with this project focuses on ways to improve student engagement in science and conservation. In this case, the science research goals and learning objectives are not mutually exclusive – students are adding directly to valuable ecological research while also developing fundamental science skills.

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In order to design and successfully implement other citizen science projects that focus on formal classroom education, effective learning resources must be developed. The main argument by teachers for not including science research in their classroom is that it does not align with required standards. Scientists can work to meet these by promoting inquiry and place-based learning objectives within their research methods.

The future of citizen science will be positively affected by encouraging the participation of younger members of the public. In order to achieve this, scientists must work with educators to align their goals in collaboration. Despite traditional attitudes and understandings, there is an enormous potential for citizen science in formal education.

SONYC Social Media Slant

Last Thursday I traveled up to Rockefeller University to speak at SpotOn NYC’s 2nd birthday. The other presenters and I were there to explain how we use social media for our science outreach projects. These case studies would help share how scientists and educators can use tools like Twitter, Facebook, blogs, podcasts or even Instagram to communicate science.

I had 10 minutes to tell my story to the audience and all those watching on the livestream…

I first touched on the basics.
1) Using my Twitter to connect with other teachers and scientists to share ideas on how to improve science education and engage students in research.
2) Running a Facebook Page called “Your Wild Earth” that I use to post pictures and videos of engaging science facts, current events and conservation issues.
3) This blog NYC Ecology to write posts and discuss Urban Ecology & Science Education.

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Yet the main social media tool I was there to speak about was my “Graduates at Work” sections on this blog. I use this page to profile graduate students in the E3B Department at Columbia University with the goal of highlighting effective conservation research. I also spoke about the need for students to read stories about young scientists – to see where they work in the field, what questions they are investigating and most importantly, what their results mean for conservation efforts.

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You can read more about the event – with a summary & Storify here. Look forward to sharing the video of my talk once it’s up!

Your Wild Life Q & A

A few weeks ago I met with the Your Wild Life  team to help with one of their new New York City based research projects. They’ve been working with urban ant species in the big apple for awhile, but just recently started a new project assessing the responses of arthropods to the disturbances caused by Hurricane Sandy. You can read more about this, pretty amazing, research study in a write up on NC State’s site here.

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Placing an ‘iButton’ sensor in a median street tree.

For a few days during their 2 week NYC field session in March, I met with researchers Elsa Youngsteadt and Lea Shell to set-up the primary data collecting tools and survey Broadway medians that would be used in the study. I’m working closely with Lea on my thesis – which involves designing & piloting curriculum for their School of Ants project – and was able to use this field time to discuss science & education as well.

You can find a link to the interview that came from our discussion here http://www.yourwildlife.org/2013/03/science-education-q-a-with-andrew-collins/

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Sifting out ants during a median collection.