By Caitlin Burgdorf, PhD
Featured Panelists (left to right):
Peter Leipig, MS, Education Program Coordinator at Sciencenter (Ithaca, NY)
Lucy Madden, MS, Founding CEO of Letters to a Pre-Scientist (Cambridge, MA)
Lisa Larson, BA, Lead Programmer of Citizen Science at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (Ithaca, NY)
Despite not receiving professional training in specific fields of science, much of the general public is eager to participate and collaborate in scientific research with the goal to increase scientific knowledge. The growing enthusiasm for science from the general public has created an emerging field called citizen science. Citizen science refers to collaborative partnerships between scientists and the public in an effort to both expand opportunities for scientific data collection and provide community members with access to scientific information. Citizen scientists can have a broad range of roles including data collection, public engagement, and education of the scientific process, and networking between students and scientists.
In this panel, three leaders in the field of citizen science discussed their experiences in creating a partnership between scientists and the public. Peter Leipzig currently leads and mentors middle school students at a hands-on science museum based in Ithaca, New York called Sciencenter in which they design and implement scientific experiments. Lucy Madden spent years as a teacher in low-income communities before she founded a pen pal program called Letters to a Pre-Scientist which pairs middle school students in low-income communities with STEM professionals. Lisa Larson is a software developer for several web and mobile ornithology projects associated with The Cornell Lab of Ornithology which relies on the data monitoring of citizen scientists out in the field.
Citizen science creates diverse public engagement opportunities for scientists
Often, the most difficult part of a scientist’s role is communicating science to interested non-scientists. All three panelists agreed that their responsibility to engage with the public, including citizen scientists, has allowed them to develop their own careers. After sifting through hundreds of letters from scientists, Lucy has learned new, creative ways to explain complex scientific concepts to children. Lisa, on the other hand, first participated as a volunteer citizen scientist before she began contributing her software development skills to the projects. Now, she spends most of her time thinking of how she can structure data presentation in the most accessible way. Peter, who works daily with middle schoolers, has gained expertise in framing messages for different audiences and passes this same message on to his students.
‘One thing that we always talk about is how it doesn’t matter how cool your project is or what your results are. If you can’t tell someone about it, that’s the biggest thing.’
As citizen science projects evolve, the audience can also evolve. For example, although Lucy’s program initially focused on interactions with pre-scientist students, she now has implemented professional development training for teachers who want to get involved with the program. Peter has learned to also design his curriculum around the interests of individual students as this allows them to stay most engaged. For Lisa, as the programs have gained authoritative content that can now be used as a resource, her audiences have widened. As a result, she must optimize how people can choose to interact with the programs based on their interests and abilities.
‘We end up building different interfaces for different audiences depending on how people like to enter the data. To be able to modularize it that way is important.’
The success of a citizen science project can vastly depend on the goals for public participation. For example, Peter evaluates his program’s success by measuring the rate by which students return to subsequent lessons and later, as a volunteer at the museum. Lucy has started to evaluate the students’ perception of scientists before and after the year of communicating with a scientist pen pal as a measure of success. Meanwhile, Lisa is able to use Google analytics and website monitoring to evaluate the spread, usage, and impact of the software programs.
Joys and struggles of citizen science organizers
Leading a citizen science project can be extremely rewarding. Peter has found while working with middle schoolers that he is able to introduce to students what it means to be a scientist. Often, both the duties and preconceived notions of a scientist are not what students expect, and Peter is proud to be able to expose them to these new ideas. Similarly, Lucy is thrilled to see how differently students perceive scientists by the end of the pen-pal experience. Lisa also shared an appreciation for the changed attitude towards the community of scientists after people realized that they could also contribute to a scientific project as citizen scientists.
As citizen science requires collaboration and partnerships, there are inherent challenges in this field of work. Peter has found during his work with middle schoolers that it can be hard for them to balance the fun aspects of the experiment with the lessons of scientific rigor. Lucy has found it difficult to build large-scale partnerships and has depended on the participation of individuals which can be tricky when trying to expand a program. Lisa, on the other hand, sometimes feels overwhelmed with observational data from citizen scientists that are often not useful nor rigorously accurate.
Getting involved with citizen science projects
For those interested in leading projects involving citizen scientists, all panelists stressed the importance of being intentional about your goals and your audience. Data collection is often the easiest way to get the public involved as citizen scientists. Peter suggested volunteering as a citizen scientist in a field outside your specialty in order to learn what works during project planning. Lisa also confirmed that citizen science projects that incorporate data collection from the public often have more data than what they can analyze. These projects are always looking for other scientists to collaborate with, and this is a great way to gain experience before leading your own project. Lucy emphasized that children in elementary and middle schools are the best to connect with as they are the most vulnerable to perceptions of scientists. By building relationships with children and the rest of the educational system, this young population can connect with scientists on a personal level.
‘Opportunities, where you can have a sustained relationship with students, can be really beneficial to keep you grounded in the work that you are doing. For middle school students, when they see that their pen-pal shares similar hobbies… those things seem small, but those are the details that make the connections for students that scientists are just like them.’
All the panelists agreed that citizen science is an emerging field that relies on partnerships and engagement with the public. Through citizen science, the public is able to gain a better understanding of the scientific process and can provide key data to propel scientific projects forward. Either as a participant or a scientist, engaging with citizen science projects can help expand the accessibility of science to everyone.
About the author: Caitlin is a recent PhD graduate with a research background in addiction neurobiology and an interest in health policy.