This spring, in a Michigan meadow, teenagers spent a Saturday afternoon poking through tall grass collecting unknown bugs. In a library in Massachusetts, other children and youths spent a weekend glued to their tablets and smartphones, playing an online game about mouse brains. Still others turned their star-gazing into academic papers.
It’s a pretty disparate grouping of weekend activities, but all are part of a growing “citizen science” movement, in which nonscientists collaborate with scientists to gather data to feed into real research projects. Experts say these projects, which often involve adults as well as children and teenagers, represent the next generation of science learning, an approach that can happen out of school as easily as in the classroom and connect students to real research in the field.
“Citizen science offers a new venue in which to examine science learning,” notes a 2018 report on the field by the National Academies of Science, “and seems especially well-suited to examining the way learning is socially and culturally mediated, and how learning can intersect with equity, diversity, and power.”
What Is Citizen Science?
The Citizen Science Association describes four characteristics that distinguish these sorts of projects from more traditional school science activities: Anyone can take part; volunteers use the same protocols as the professional researchers to allow their data to be pooled and checked; scientists and volunteers work together to conduct original research and solve real problems, not just demonstrate concepts; and researchers share and help explain results to the volunteers and the public, to help them understand how their contributions were used.
Citizen science projects can give students a more realistic view of the field, said Alice Sheppard, an expert with Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS), an initiative of University College London that helps schools and community groups in Europe and the United States engage in citizen science.
“Sometimes, the way the way we teach science in the classroom leads people to expect answers, when science is really all about uncertainty,” Sheppard said.
She recalled the frustration of a middle school science class starting GalaxyZoo, a project in which students observe and categorize galaxies.
“There was a very high-achieving pupil who was very interested in astronomy, and he did not like citizen science,” she said. “He just wanted to know what the answer was. He was asked, ‘Is it a spiral or elliptical galaxy?’ and he would want someone to say that he’d gotten it right when, if you could do that, then we would not need the project.”
Citizen science is a concept as old as science itself.
“I would have us look at science in a historical arc. Science was born of ingenuity,” said Jason Frenzel, who oversees citizen science projects for the Huron River Watershed Council in Michigan. “A long time ago, it was just regular people who were scientists. We should be giving the community a lot of opportunities to integrate in our field.”
More recently, citizen science has spread with the rise of social media and technology platforms that allow millions of people to share data and observations easily online.
Take Stall Catchers, an online video game introduced by the Human Computation Institute in partnership with Alzheimer’s researchers at Cornell University. The researchers had found a link between clogged capillaries in the brain, dubbed “stalls,” and the progression of the degenerative disease, but computer programs do not identify these tiny blockages in video as accurately as people do. The researchers developed a game in which players compete to identify stalls in Cornell’s actual dataset of videos taken from mouse brains.
“Today, we’re operating around four or five times as fast as the lab,” said Pietro Michelucci, director of Cornell’s Human Computation Institute, which runs the game.
In April, Stall Catchers held a 48-hour “Megathon” in which nearly 1,500 adult and child players at libraries and community groups in the United States and four other countries churned through nearly 117,000 films—what would take a normal research team more than three and a half months to analyze. The massive data crunch was intended to help scientists figure out how blood pressure affected Alzheimer’s progression and whether a particular intervention could help. Early results from the megathon suggested that high blood pressure could increase the frequency with which blood stalls in mice’s brains, and particularly in the brains of mice genetically engineered to get Alzheimer’s disease. But, the data were messy, the intervention did not seem to work, and the researchers laid out for players exactly what the data meant for their research going forward.
“For some reason, middle school students really gravitate to the game, and they are super competitive,” Michelucci said. “The thing I’ve noticed is that some people have a knack and some people don’t, and it has nothing to do with how old they are. So you’ll get kids who come through with their parents, and the parents are clueless and the kids get it right away.”
“It’s showing students, ‘Look, if you follow these basic steps and these basic principles, you can get answers to questions that actually make a difference in the real world,” Michelucci said. “It’s showing them the power of science at an age where they’re impressionable and can incorporate that later in life ... whether or not they become scientists themselves.”
Kelly Corrigan, the programming and Web teacher at Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Watertown, Mass., built the weekend Stall Catchers event into her science class. Corrigan brought in a working biologist to explain how the game connected to the research, as well as her own sister, whose husband had Alzheimer’s disease, to talk about the importance of the research.
“Several students had family members with Alzheimer’s and were able to discuss how they felt hopeful and enjoyed being a part of a solution,” Corrigan said. “The approach was not a sad awareness, yet more of putting a face with what caregivers may look like. We took an approach of how science helps and how it reaches us all.”
Building a Science Pipeline
Connecting sometimes dry data collection to real people and problems can motivate more students to enter science, technology, engineering, and math careers, according to Suzanne Harper, who directs the Girl Scouts of U .S.A.'sThink Like a Citizen Scientist journey program. The Girl Scouts launched their “Think Like a Citizen Scientist” series of projects in 2016. Researchers who work with the program send videos explaining their work and how observations or data from the scouts could help them.
“We know from research that the best way to let girls get involved in STEM is to let them know how it will help others, help animals, help the earth,” Harper said.
For example, California Brownie Troop 33662 worked with keepers at the Oakland Zoo to document animals’ behaviors in their enclosures and compare the rhythms of eating, sleeping, and other activities there to how the animals behaved in the wild.
“I learned that anyone can make observations and collect data, even if they’re not a real scientist, and my Girl Scout troop can help real scientists solve problems,” said Sienna, a 2nd grader in the troop, whose mother asked that her last name not be used.
In Ann Arbor, Mich., the Huron River Watershed Council uses tiered citizen science projects to spark young people’s interest in local science issues, according to Frenzel, the volunteer coordinator.
Three times a year, about 600 local volunteers take part in the council’s “bug census,” collecting and identifying insects throughout the community. More committed volunteers, most of them high-school-age, participate in a separate project to help monitor local water chemistry every other week. And the council supports special investigative research projects from returning college students.
“We’re trying to structure a trajectory for future scientists,” Frenzel said. “It’s important for students to have the opportunity to learn through place-based work ... just to be able to touch the critters, gather the water, it strongly reinforces their class learning.”
These often-crowdsourced projects may also help train young people for a scientific world that has become increasingly focused on broad collaboration.
“The cognitive labor economy’s evolving—I’ve seen the signs of it for years actually—and it is creating new kinds of jobs for people,” Michelucci said. “I think more and more it’s going to be tapping those capabilities that humans have that machines just haven’t gotten yet. And I think this kind of experience doing citizen science for kids today prepares them for that new labor economy.”
William Dunn agrees. The Harvard-Smithsonian research fellow coordinates the ORBYTS project, in which undergraduate and doctoral researchers work with high school students on original questions in the astronomy field. The project targets high schools with few science teachers and in low-income communities.
The project has the double benefit of giving young scientists experience in managing research teams, while giving high school students the room to explore scientifically.
One recent discovery about the chemical makeup of a planet outside our solar system came from students “playing around with the data and then finding something weird in it. And the researcher saying, ‘Yes, that is weird, I don’t know what it is.’ And that’s good for the kids to hear.”
So far, the ORBYTS teams have co-written five articles of original findings which have been published in academic journals—and the high school students were listed as co-authors.
Coverage of afterschool learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2019 edition of Education Week as ‘Citizen Science’ Pairs Students With Researchers