A study released today by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) evaluated the science learning that takes place in citizen science projects and how it could be increased. In these sorts of projects, which have grown increasingly popular in the past 20 years, scientists engage nonscientists in the process of discovery or scientists work side by side with community members with or without science training to apply science to community goals. Typical community science projects might investigate local pollution sources or devise ways to increase a city’s renewable energy use.
Atmospheric scientist Rajul Pandya, who is a member of the AGU staff and director of the Thriving Earth Exchange, AGU’s community science program, chaired the 12-person panel of scientists and educators that conducted the study.The Thriving Earth Exchange program, which AGU launched in 2014 as the first step toward celebrating its Centennial next year, matches scientists with communities both in the United States and abroad. The program has completed or is carrying out more than 80 projects that have undertaken such tasks as reducing vulnerability to flooding, redesigning a city hall to improve energy efficiency, and realigning a traditional agricultural calendar in central Asia with seasonal changes shifted in time by climate change.
Pandya sat down with Eos this week to answer a few questions about the purpose of the new study, its findings, and AGU’s involvement in citizen science.
Eos: What motivated this study? Is there a hope among scientific and civic leaders that citizen science might offer a way to rekindle interest in and learning about science among Americans uneducated about it and alienated from it?
Pandya: Our committee was asked to do three things: understand how citizen science supports people in learning science, give some practical tips for people who want to design citizen science projects that maximize learning, and lay out a research agenda so we can learn more about the relationship between citizen science and science learning. This report, the first National Academies report about citizen science, was sponsored by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Simons Foundation, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute to learn more about citizen science as a collaborative approach to science engagement. One of the things we found as we explored the literature on these topics is that projects are more successful in advancing learning if they start by working with what people know about science and what they care about in and related to science. Educators call this an asset-based framing, and it draws people deeper into science, engaging them much more quickly and deeply than an approach that focuses on what people don’t know or how alienated they are from science.
Eos: You report that citizen science is capable of fostering science learning with the possibility of more effectively spurring science learning if designed with that educational goal in mind. Given these findings, what kind of relationships might develop between mainstream science education and education via citizen science? Might citizen science someday become a regular component of primary, secondary, and college science classes?
Pandya: Citizen science and its practices are already a part of some formal education classes, our research found. We also discovered that some citizen science projects already use materials and strategies from mainstream science education to amplify science learning. Our report suggests that citizen science should be thought of as part of a landscape or ecosystem of educational opportunities. What happens inside the classroom and outside of it can reinforce one another, and when they do, learning in both places is improved.
Eos: How much and what sort of potential does citizen science, and community science in particular, have to alter the ways in which science is used and in which scientific understanding and education are pursued in the United States and elsewhere? What needs to happen for this nation and others to benefit from this potential?
Pandya: One of the report’s conclusions was that “because citizen science broadens the scope of who can contribute to science, it can be a pathway for introducing new processes, observations, data, and epistemologies to science.” Some of the recommendations are about the design of citizen science projects, and those recommendations emphasize a collaborative design process in which communities, scientists, and educators work together in an iterative fashion to design projects. We encourage citizen science project designers—which, of course, includes participants—to take that collaborative design approach. We also encourage researchers to study all aspects of citizen science, especially over time and across a constellation of projects. I think what we learn from that could be important in helping us as a nation continue to improve access to science and science education for everyone.
Eos: Why do you think that you were chosen by the National Academies to lead this study? Which qualifying and relevant experiences and expertise have you brought to this inquiry?
Pandya: I can say that the committee as a whole was chosen for its members’ breadth of expertise; we had science educators, education researchers, citizen science leaders, educational designers, practicing scientists, and experts in evaluation. My job as chair, with lots of help from the academy staff, was to help everyone bring their best thinking to the table, to guide the group in rigorously testing ideas and interpretations against available evidence, and to move toward meaningful consensus and useful advice. I think I was chosen because I had a breadth of relevant experience as the former director of science education at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, as a board member of the Citizen Science Association, and, most recently, as head of AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange. Because the academies are committed to advancing equity in science education, including education through citizen science, some of my work on diversity and equity in science education and citizen science may have also caught their attention.
NASEM has made the full report available online and free of charge.
—Peter Weiss, Interim Features and Special Projects Editor