January 4, 2010

Citizen Science

By Andrew Yuan, 4-H Youth Mentor, Pinellas County Extension

Citizen science is a way for everyone to be scientist. It is an approach to experimentation or data collection that allows everyone to get involved in the scientific method. The main principle of citizen science is to take advantage of the existing workforce and turn the common citizens into researchers. With just a little bit of direction, anyone can become a scientist.

The way it works is a group scientists or even just one scientist creates a simple set of instructions for data collection and then distributes it to the public. Once the “citizen scientists” have finished their job, the scientists in charge compile all of the data. For example, one of the most popular citizen science projects and the longest running project is the Christmas Bird Count. The annual event hosted by the Audubon Society, since 1900, has groups of volunteer bird watchers identify and count all of the birds observed in a single day within the period of December 14th to January 5th. The data is compiled by the leader of the group and submitted to the Audubon Society which uses the information to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

The greatest thing about citizen science is that the work is easy enough for anyone to do, even small children. Most tasks are designed for people of all ages. Many of them don’t even require any experience or can be performed under the guidance of a seasoned veteran. Often times all of the necessary information is made available with the project. Methods of identification or collection are clearly outlined. Tools may be provided or participants are told where to obtain them or how to construct the tools themselves. Nowadays citizen science especially has room to flourish since information can be so easily transmitted via the email and internet. Also, complex calculations can be carried out by powerful computers. Because these projects are so accessible, citizen scientists comprise some of the largest research teams in the world without the hefty cost of hiring individual scientists. Even errors made by the citizen scientists are minimized by their large numbers as opposed to additional costs and wasted time that result from the mistake of a scientist in a smaller group.

How can you get involved? Citizen science projects are sprouting up left and right and many have been going on for years. Projects can be easily found online or it might turn out that you already know some citizen scientists and didn’t even realize it. Once you have found something interesting, the process could be as easy as printing out a data table and getting out into the field. One such project that is pertinent to Floridians is documenting and controlling the invasive Cuban treefrog population. Some of the other projects you may find are measuring rainfall, identifying birds, tracking stars, or even measuring dinosaur bones! The 4-H youth development organization is also creating opportunities for youth to become scientists through the 4-H SET (Science, Engineering, and Technology) initiative. One of the latest curricula to be added is the Butterfly WINGS project. In project Butterfly WINGS, youth get to practice citizen science firsthand by learning to identify butterflies and keep track of butterflies in the area. At the same time, youth learn environmental science through studying butterfly habitats and biology.

Through citizen science everyone can do their part to contribute to scientific research. Citizen science even promotes global cooperation by bringing together the common people of different countries. Projects might be just for fun but some of the results could be of global significance. Whether it is a passion for science or the thrill of participating in an actual scientific study that draws you in, don’t miss your chance to become a citizen scientist.


The Citizen Scientist

The Big Deal With Citizen Science

Citizen Science Cuban Treefrog Study

Citizen Science Projects

Christmas Bird Count

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