he sat quietly for several moments, watching and waiting. Suddenly, a streak of yellow flew by and then another. She quickly snapped a few photos on her phone as they flew off. Excitedly, she uploaded her photographs to iNaturalist, the first goldfinches that had been added to the biodiversity project she joined. She loved to see as all the new species being added by her and other citizen scientists like herself.
Across the United States, large institutions such as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum of Natural History have developed spaces where visitors can watch scientists in action and ask questions about the work being done (Smithsonian Institution, 2013; The Field Museum, 2008). At the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, an entire wing dedicated to the pursuit of science recently opened, which includes opportunities to engage visitors in citizen science (North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 2012).
If your institution is anything like mine, creating a space for science and engaging visitors in citizen science programs may seem to be a greater project than time or financial resources can support. However, the resources put into a successful program can pay dividends over time for both the institution and its visitors. Knowing this, we dedicated a small space in our nature center to science and chose existing citizen science programs that could be tailored to meet the needs of our institution. The following is the evidence-based framework we created for doing so, based on extensive research that has been done in free-choice learning environments, including nature centers and museums.
The Case for Citizen Science
Citizen science is not a new idea, as participation in citizen science programs dates back to the 1700s in Europe where amateur bird enthusiasts recorded bird sightings (Dickinson, Zuckerberg & Bonter, 2010). Utilizing the Internet, today’s citizen science programs rely on crowdsourcing, or having large groups of people who each make a contribution, to collect data or classify previously-collected data. With many people sharing the work in this way, large data sets can be compiled that otherwise would not have been possible (Dickinson et al., 2010). These large data sets can not only be used to monitor a population or phenomenon, but also serve as a starting point for new questions to be researched (Bonter & Hochachka, 2009). For example, there is a project that asks participants to help transcribe old maritime records that can then be used to study climate change (www.zooniverse.org/project/oldweather) and several that ask people to help identify animals caught on camera traps. Both tasks require enormous amounts of man-hours and would be not feasible without the help of citizen scientists.
Besides the research benefits, participating in citizen science projects also have potential to increase scientific literacy. It can be difficult to assess, but research has shown that content knowledge can be gained through participation (Brossard, Lewenstein & Bonney, 2005). When participants are specifically instructed in science inquiry and the significance of the research being done, it may be possible to affect participants’ understanding and attitudes towards science in a positive way (Trumbull, Bonney & Grudens-Schuck, 2005; Jordan, Gray, Howe, Brooks & Ehrenfeld, 2011). Though more research is needed (Jordan et al., 2011), using citizen science to engage visitors over the long-term may also be a way to increase appreciation for nature and a caring attitude toward nature and biodiversity (Brewer, 2006), something we all strive for in environmental education.
Creating a Space for Science
Although your institution may not have a wing to dedicate to science, there may be an area that can be used to introduce visitors to science, provide reference materials and perhaps even offer scientific equipment for visitors to use. For us, we needed a space that allowed visitors to overlook not only our site, but also our planned bird feeder installation and this guided our selection. As research in free-choice learning environments has shown, the physical attributes of a learning environment can affect visitor learning in both positive and negative ways. Visitors often feel more comfortable in smaller exhibit areas (Maxwell & Evans, 2002), so do not be discouraged by limited space. Although it is tempting to create an immersive environment where visitors can feel they have been transported to someplace else, this may actually overshadow any educational messaging (Pedretti & Soren, 2006). Instead, working to minimize distractions can increase visitor attention and potentially visitor learning (Maxwell & Evans, 2002). For us, that meant separating the area from the high-traffic by the entrance and shielding noise from the adjacent area for young children. Simply rearranging and strategically placing furniture created the ideal space for us. We also included a comfortable seating area to provide visitors a place to rest and that may encourage longer stay-times.
Choosing a Citizen Science Project
Choosing the citizen science project that fits the needs of your institution is important to the future success and support of the program. We chose projects with a local focus that visitors could participate in at our site in order to fit our institution’s mission. There are a wide variety of citizen science projects to consider. SciStarter (http://www.scistarter.com) provides a searchable database of citizen science projects around the world that may assist you in finding a suitable project.
Institutional resources should be considered when choosing a project. The time investment for some projects will be greater than others. Some projects require frequent reports, sometimes even daily. Still others have fees associated with participation, require specialized training, or use equipment that must be specially purchased.
It is also crucial to consider the target audience when choosing a project. Many projects will not easily lend themselves to being used with visitors. Some data collection may be too intensive for the visitor experience while others may have strict restrictions on reporting. In these instances, you may choose to participate as an institution and then share your contributions to the project with visitors. This could be expanded by offering visitors a similar activity to participate in, as we did with Project FeederWatch, a bird monitoring program through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Also, some projects may have data collection periods that may not coincide with times of highest attendance. For example, Project FeederWatch only runs from mid-November through early April each year (Bonter & Hochachka, 2009), when many nature centers in northern climates have a decline in attendance.
When developing site-specific materials for your chosen citizen science project, you should consider including an explanation of scientific inquiry and the role visitors are taking by participating. This may help them develop a better understanding of how science research is conducted and the importance of citizen science (Trumbull et al., 2005). Research at science museums has shown that visitors often come away with a changed view of science, but it is one that sees science as a set of facts, not a collection of knowledge that is always evolving (Rennie & Williams, 2006). We can help science literacy by showing visitors that though some scientific knowledge has been rigorously validated, there is still much that is not fully understood, even after years of study. Without addressing these misconceptions directly, we may unknowingly undermine science literacy goals.
Our institution does not have naturalists or docents who are available to facilitate the citizen science area, a major hurdle for a project like this. To support self-directed learning and participation in citizen science projects, easy-to-follow materials are recommended (Banz, 2008), such as signage, brochures and worksheets. These self-guided activities can also provide visitors with a framework designed to help them conduct their own inquiries, allowing them to see firsthand the nature of science (Allen & Gutwill, 2009). Hopefully, this will also promote repeat visits to the area and enhance learning (Banz, 2008).
While developing a citizen science program, program assessment should be discussed. Simply having visitors participate was our initial goal, and multiple iterations of materials and methods are still being used to reach that goal. However, research on the impact of citizen science is limited and contributions are needed in both data and research methods (Brossard et al., 2005). If resources allow, assessment of content knowledge, scientific inquiry, impact on stewardship and changes in conservation values are highly encouraged, and are in the planning stages for our project.
The Framework in Action
At Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens (LKNCBG) in suburban Chicago, Illinois, the first implementation of a citizen science program following this framework is underway. With only three full-time staff members, resources are limited and minimal funds were used for the project. However, as our mission seeks to “promote environmentally sustainable choices through education, outdoor experiences and scientific research,” it has been important goal for 2013 to begin to introduce citizen science to the 26,000 visitors that come through the nature center annually (LKNCBG, 2013).
The physical space for our citizen science center was formed using a 130 ft2 area inside our nature center. The area provides a small reference library, comfortable seating and views of our bird feeders. There is literature for each citizen science project located in the citizen science center, along with worksheets and identification guides. There is also a chalkboard for visitors to record and share their data.
Three citizen science projects were selected to help us reach our goal. As an institution, we are participating in Project FeederWatch (www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/), a program that collects bird counts at feeders. For visitors, we are offering a paper-based activity similar to the actual data collection for the project. We have also started a project online at iNaturalist (www.inaturalist.org) that allows visitors to record observations of wildlife seen at our site in order to compile a biodiversity atlas. Finally, we have joined Project Budburst (www.budburst.org) as a Botanic Gardens Partner to encourage visitors to gather data about seasonal changes in ten target plant species onsite.
These specific projects were chosen mainly to help build visitors’ ecological knowledge. Research has suggested that as cultures become more affluent, this ecological knowledge is lost (Pilgrim, Cullen, Smith & Pretty, 2008). The projects we have chosen offer an opportunity for visitors to learn about species and their roles in local ecosystems, which we hope will help address this loss of knowledge. Also by increasing ecological knowledge, visitors may become more aware of their local environment and the issues it faces (Cooper, Dickinson, Phillips & Bonney, 2007), potentially leading to greater support for restoration and preservation of natural lands, including our own site.
Although it is a modest start, and interest from visitors is just beginning, we hope that citizen science will become an integral part of the visitor experience to LKNCBG and will inspire other environmental education institutions to develop similar programs. We expect that it will take time to build a culture of science at our institution and this is just one step in that process. In the future, we plan to evaluate our program through visitor surveys to not only improve our own programs, but also to share with the environmental education community.
Taking the First Step
A citizen science center may be a great way to further your institution’s mission and goals. Using this research-based framework as a guide, it is possible to create a place to engage visitors through citizen science, even when resources are limited. Through these programs, environmental education institutions can play a key role in increasing their visitors’ science literacy and ecological knowledge. With time, visitors may start taking a more active role in stewardship and provide greater support for local environmental causes. It all starts with taking the first step.
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Shamim Graff is a volunteer at the Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens in Palos Heights, Illinois.