Earlier this month, my children and I spent an afternoon at a local park helping the science community by taking pictures of local plants and animals. We used the Seek app by iNaturalist (a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society) to explore the variety of species in the park. And, I have to say, my kids were so engaged in this activity and they didn’t want to go home. They found it so fascinating that the app would identify for them the details about a plant or animal just by taking a picture of it.
This experience opened our eyes to notice new flowers, leaves, trees, and wildlife around us that we may have missed before. The app also makes it fun for kids because they can earn badges for recording more observations of different types of species and participate in special challenges. Not only does iNaturalist help kids learn how to identify wildlife and plants and encourage them to spend more time outside, but they are also helping experts collect data through citizen science.
What is Citizen Science?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, citizen science is “the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.” Citizen science involves volunteering to collect scientific data and is a way for our children to gain science experience and directly help the scientific community.
Through citizen science, government offices and other organizations engage the public in addressing societal needs and accelerating science, technology, and innovation. With citizen science, we can play a role in the scientific process to help address real-world problems like climate change and biodiversity.
Volunteers have varying levels of expertise, from kids in their backyards to members of high school science clubs to amateur astronomers with sophisticated home equipment. Technology like apps make citizen science more accessible today than ever before. Projects typically involve volunteers collecting data like counting the number of a certain type of bird they see in their neighborhood or taking pictures and submitting them through an app like iNaturalist.
One of the oldest examples of citizen science is the Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audubon Society. Since 1900, the organization has organized the bird count that runs from December 14 through January 5 each year. An experienced birder leads a group (called a circle) of volunteers as they collect information about local populations of birds. More than 2,000 such circles operate across the United States and Canada. This wildlife census contributes to bird conservation efforts.
Benefits of Citizen Science
Although most people don’t realize it, citizen science can help us feel happier and calmer for several reasons. Most citizen science projects take place outdoors. We know that spending time outside around nature can help reduce stress and boost our mood. When we are engaged in a project to take pictures or count a specific type of plant or animal, we become very focused and lost in the moment. Therefore, citizen science can stimulate mindfulness, which also has been shown to tremendously improve well-being. Finally, volunteering, especially outdoors in nature, helps us feel better as we give back to others and our community.
According to researchers Karen Makuch and Miriam Aczel, citizen science projects can benefit both the physical and mental development of children, and lead to increased levels of environmental stewardship and protection. They explain that part of this results from children being part of a team and community, having a purpose and role, and being involved in a structured activity when working on citizen science projects. These experiences tend to boost self-confidence, advance self-efficacy, and improve mental health in general.
Overall, citizen science projects that provide an avenue for children to connect with nature lead to many educational, psychological, and personal benefits. Seeking out citizen science projects in your community can help both your children and the planet thrive.
Where to Find Citizen Science Opportunities
There are citizen science opportunities for kids of all ages and levels. Your family can get involved from your own backyard or through a more organized group like a school nature or science club. Besides the national programs included below, you can check with your county or state Department of Natural Resources for ways to get involved.
- CitizenScience.gov: This searchable database provides a government-wide listing of citizen science projects.
- SciStarter: Provides a database of more than 3,000 vetted projects and events searchable by location, topic, interest, and more.
- Zooniverse: The world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered volunteer research.
- Audubon Christmas Bird Count: Initiated in 1900, this is the nation’s longest-running citizen science bird project. The bird count runs from December 14 through January 5 each year.
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology: It has several bird-related citizen science programs including NestWatch, Project FeederWatch, and Great Backyard Bird Count.
- Monarch Watch from University of Kansas: Involves tagging and tracking migrating monarch butterflies during their annual North American migration.
- National Geographic BioBlitz: This event focuses on finding and identifying as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time to get a snapshot of biodiversity.
- Project Budburst: With climate change being its focus, this project involves monitoring the leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants.
Citizen Science Month takes place every April. Check out these amazing resources all year long.
What citizen science projects have you done?