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Developing Citizen Science Projects to Help People Learn

Developing Citizen Science Projects to Help People Learn

Schools aren't the only places where science learning happens. A draft report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine examines citizen science, the concept that non-scientists can perform research that pushes scientific knowledge ahead. In the process, participants can learn scientific practices and content, but "only if the projects are designed to support learning," as Rajul Pandya, the chair of the committee in charge of the report, stated.

Among the projects referenced in the report was one that takes place in West Oakland, CA to monitor air quality and use the data to "address industrial trucking around schools to reduce local children's exposure to air pollution." A national monarch butterfly larva monitoring project, run out of the University of Minnesota, collects data from participants around the United States and Canada for monarch research. Another reference mentioned a middle school student whose work in a lab "transformed her description of herself, from 'klutz' to "expert in DNA extraction and science contributor."

As the report noted, these programs are useful to science learning because they give citizen scientists a chance to participate in authentic scientific endeavors in the real world and let people work with real data. According to the report, citizen science has eight common qualities in varying degrees. They:

  • Actively engage participants;
  • Engage participants with data;
  • Use systematic approaches to produce reliable data;
  • Meet standards of scientific integrity and use practices common in science;
  • Engage participants who are not project-relevant scientists;
  • Seek to use the information gained to contribute to science and/or community priorities;
  • Confer some benefit to the participant for participating in general; and
  • Communicate results.

The projects themselves may encompass participation that's one-time or repeated; they might be virtual or physical; they might be experimental or longitudinal; they might focus more on community impact or on advancing science; and they may be targeted to students or adults or both in formal or informal settings.

However, the report pointed out, if one of the goals of a citizen science project is to promote science learning, those in charge of organizing it need to do three things especially well: define intended learning outcomes; use evidence-based strategies to reach those outcomes; and "allow for iteration of the design." For that last item, the report's authors recommended that scientists produce a "first cut" of the project they're hoping to enlist help on and "then engage with stakeholders in multiple cycles of feedback and refinement." Doing so, the report stated, will "help weed out ineffective design features."

The report also offered a research agenda intended to help boost citizen science by filling gaps in the current understanding of how it supports science learning and enhance science education. First, researchers need to understand that citizen science goes beyond academia, which means that evidence for practices that advance learning can be found outside of peer-reviewed literature. Second, research should "link theory to application." And third, diversity needs to be a part of the research work, including generating "broad participation" in the project design and the implementation of the research.

The study was sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Simons Foundation.

The pre-publication report is openly available in a PDF format on the NAP website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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