Blog Post

Learning through Citizen Science

A Blog Series for Citizen Science Educators and Coordinators
by: the Education Working Group
Photo courtesy of Mike Denniston, participant in the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Vital Signs program
What can people learn through participating in citizen science? Of course not all citizen science needs to incorporate learning objectives for participants. But for projects that do have this goal, how can such learning best be supported?
As the Education Working Group of the Citizen Science Association (CSA), we are launching this blog series to stimulate conversation and collaboration addressing these issues. Working together as a field, we hope to trigger ideas for publications, grant proposals, workshops, and the 2017 CSA conference. We invite you to join the discussion!
Founded in 2015, the CSA envisions “a world where people understand, value, and participate in science.” The association seeks to “advance citizen science through communication, coordination, and education.”  Through involvement in citizen science, people of all ages and backgrounds can contribute to science while building passion for and understanding of scientific ways to investigate the natural world.
Within the CSA, the Education Working Group aims to understand what types of learning, and what benefit to learners, are possible through participation in citizen science. Our focus is not on mastery of program protocols required for participation, but rather on the moments that transform the participant by expanding his or her ideas, interests, sense of self, skills, or understanding of scientific concepts.
Recognizing that transformative learning across all audiences and the great diversity of citizen science activities is an enormous area of inquiry, we are choosing to begin our work with a somewhat narrower focus on learning among youth and the adults who facilitate their experiences (teachers, parents, docents, informal educators, mentors, club leaders, etc.).
Over the next few months, we will explore the strategies and design choices that can advance learning opportunities and scientific inquiry through citizen science activities. This blog series will open a dialogue for educators, scientists, and citizen science participants around key issues such as learning objectives, working across diverse communities, sharing leadership and credit, and communicating within the citizen science enterprise.
We need your help! Please use the comment section to post your thoughts.

  •    What key research questions would advance the field of learning through citizen science?
  •    What research or project evaluation findings already exist to inform future study?
  •    What existing practices appear promising in integrating citizen science and learning?
  •    What related topics would you like to see future blog posts address?

Together, we can shape this emerging field.

5 thoughts on “Learning through Citizen Science

  • Richard Edwards

    This is a really great initiative, not least as it will provide a space within which to clarify different understandings of learning in the context of citizen science. We all tend to use the concept of learning without necessarily defining it. And there are many different theories of how learning occurs, whihc are not always made explicit, even among educators! So a space to explore and evidence this multiplicity and difference is very valuable.
    And as a provocation, personally I am wary of the notion of learning as either necessarily or inherently transformative. Most learning might be considered mundane – and that is not a negative judgement.

  • Too many possibilities for one blog comment! But a couple of questions that would really benefit from more experimental data, IMHO:
    1) How do implicit versus explicit learning goals affect scientific process skills?
    2) A lot of work has focused on the degree of participation in the process of science among different cit sic endeavors, but does that spectrum affect students’ ability to transfer scientific reasoning across domains? Presumably yes, but I think the evidence is still shaky!
    3) When students create experimental designs, does it matter if it is part of a citizen science project in which the data are meant to be shared/used instead of a more traditional lab experience where the is no expectation of authentic science and useful data?
    4) Along those same lines, is there a tradeoff when using citizen science in the classroom between depth of engagement with the experimental design and the fate of the data (e.g. you can collect some “real” data for this project that has already been designed OR you can design a randomized, controlled experiment whose data will never leave the classroom)? Obviously the tradeoff doesn’t have to exist, but in reality it may exist, and if it does, does that translate into learning tradeoffs?
    A ripe research culture is so exciting!

  • Rebecca

    Great ideas David! I would love to see the questions you raise above put to study. In particular, I am interested in the notion of trade-offs as you suggest but also on the project level. When do projects require of volunteers, in depth engagement versus enacting topical tasks? How are resources allocated differently between projects that invest more in learning and learning transfer versus those that rely on more minimally trained volunteers and how does this differential allocation of resources affect outcomes?

  • Benjamin Keep

    As David said, lots to comment on here. What’s interesting is that usually educators and learning scientists ask “we want students to learn X, how should we best accomplish that?” With learning in CS, we’re asking “We have an approach that might teach some people something. What is it that they’ll be learning?”
    Also of note: the post makes a distinction between “mastering the program protocols for participation” and other kinds of learning. In many cases, yes, I agree that the “training” part of participation is not the kind of learning that we’re interested in. But what if fully participating in the CS program actually DOES require “the participant [to] expand[] his or her ideas, interests, sense of self, skills, or understanding of scientific concepts”? There are some cases where I think that’s absolutely the case.
    I’d like to see discussions of specific projects in the blog – both what the participants are doing and what the learning goals are/could be. Then we can discuss in the comments how we think the learning is taking place, how we might measure the learning, and whether this is the best way to accomplish these learning goals.
    Thanks for getting the conversation started!

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