Major grant awarded for Museum research on citizen science

6 April 2017

A group of children and an adult using a tablet to identify a plant

Citizen science programmes aim to inspire a new generation of professional and amateur scientists © goodluz/Shutterstock.com

A collaborative research project to investigate the educational benefits of participation in citizen science has received a prestigious grant.

The four-year project studies how young people aged five to 19 learn through and benefit from participating in citizen science activities. It examines three types of initiatives led by natural history museums: BioBlitzes and other short-term events, longer-term outdoor monitoring projects, and online platforms such as the Zooniverse.

The study is led by Lucy Robinson, Citizen Science Manager at the Museum, and Prof Heidi Ballard of the University of California, Davis.

The UK partners received £684K from the Wellcome Trust and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) through the Science Learning+ scheme.

Citizen science relies on the collaboration between scientists and members of the public to collect, transcribe, categorise and analyse data about the natural world, which in turn advances our understanding of life on our planet.

Children pouring mustard to bring earthworms to the surface

Children participate in the Earthworm Watch programme
 

'This grant will enable us to better understand the educational benefits of participating in citizen science projects, especially for young people,' says Lucy. 'Actively involving young people in science research is a key aim of the Museum's citizen science programme.'

The findings from this research, Lucy adds, 'will help us to develop citizen science projects that maximise the benefits for the young people who take part, so they are better equipped to ask questions, gather evidence and use scientific reasoning and skills in their wider lives'.

The study is examining the outcomes of projects run by the Museum, the California Academy of Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles - the same three organisations featured in a study on the conservation benefits of museum-led citizen science.

Two young students preparing DNA for analysis

For the Museum's Decoding Nature project, students joined scientists to generate DNA sequencing data
 

Benefits of technology on citizen science revealed

Meanwhile, the Museum's past and current citizen science initiatives were researched for a recent study on the diversity and development of ecology- and environment-focused citizen science.

Scientists at the Museum and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology have revealed that citizen science projects are becoming more and more diverse, particularly due to advances in technology.

The study is co-authored by Dr John Tweddle, Head of the Museum's Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, and is published in the journal PLOS ONE. It shows how technology and new methods of analysis have increased both the number of citizen science initiatives and the ways in which people can participate. 

Close-up of the iRecord Butterflies app being used

The iRecord Butterflies app makes it easy for people to submit their sightings to Butterfly Conservation's national recording scheme © Centre for Ecology & Hydrology
 

More smartphones, more participants

The researchers found that the number of projects rose by 10% every year throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Since 2010, citizen science activities have relied increasingly on mass participation through now-common devices such as smartphones, digital cameras and tablets.

Before then, most initiatives were carried out by trained volunteers through regular monitoring of species and environments, such as recording water quality or atmospheric pollution. While such projects remain vital, new approaches to participating through everyday devices mean that citizen science is more accessible than ever. It also allows participants to connect with experts, even when they're in the field.

Focus on biodiversity

The study reveals that out of 509 observed citizen science projects in various countries, 77% focus on biodiversity, such as bird or bee monitoring.

The Museum offers a number of such activities you can participate in.

In the Big Seaweed Search, members of the public are invited to explore the coastline of the British Isles and submit photographs and records of the seaweeds they find within a chosen plot of seashore. This helps researchers track the impacts of rising sea temperature, non-native seaweed species and ocean acidification.

Boys looking for seaweeds in a rockpool

The Big Seaweed Search was launched in 2009 and continues to be a popular citizen science initiative
 

Another popular initiative is Earthworm Watch, where people dig small holes in different garden habitats and use a free survey pack to record information on the soil and earthworms found. 

Dr Tweddle says, 'The tremendous diversity of citizen science approaches means that it has never been easier to get involved in scientific studies of our wildlife and environment. At a time of pressing environmental concern, this gives real cause for optimism.'

  • By Marie-Claire Eylott

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