Public participation in science, known as citizen science, is when citizens collect and report data, using specified methods, to contribute to scientific research. In our Driven to Discover project, research teams made up of youth and adult citizen scientists are monitoring Monarch butterfly larvae, birds, and water quality, then conducting investigations.
This five-year project is now entering its fourth summer. Through it, we are designing a model and curriculum to prepare and support adults - content experts, youth leaders, parents. Their reasons for participation vary -- to volunteer, to extend their teaching, to deepen youth programs in nature settings, to learn through inquiry with youth.
Spring is a busy time for this project. A new group of adults has just completed a three-day workshop, and middle school-age youth are signing up to be citizen scientists through 4-H, Girl Scouts, their local nature centers, and through summer programs at their schools. Our main goals are to engage youth in citizen science, and to encourage them to do authentic inquiry. Along with those big goals, the youth in the programs can build their environmental and service ethic.
You may ask, "What does citizen science have to do with authentic inquiry?" As we work with a dozen or more teams from four states each year, and with the financial support of the National Science Foundation, our surveys of participants tell us that citizen science is a great "on ramp" for engaging youth to investigate their own questions about the world.
A teacher who leads a summer program noted the benefits for youth when they experience "real world" research outside of the classroom:
"That's very exciting, one of my groups really modeled so well how the inquiry process isn't linear because they ... started their observation and then they noticed something and then they went back and they wanted to tweak their question, which was of course OK, and then they got a little farther, and these are fifth graders, and so each time they would clarify their question more... We're learning it a lot of times as linear - you come up with these questions, you do your hypothesis, you do your procedure and you ... follow steps. But I think because I'm not working with 120 (students) right now I'm just working with the 12 (youth), I had that chance to be able to say "No you can go back and do that and it can be kind of messy, that's ok and so that was what was good."
One young person offered an insight about how her learning in the program transferred back to the classroom:
"And you really can learn a lot like I did something I was doing an experiment that showed which part of or which milkweed plant part was ... the most nutritious. And I raised so many Monarchs that I will feed them that food now, cause I know that they will grow and have a high survival rate. So it's just really helpful too to know, and you can teach so many other people. And there's so much stuff that you get from this experience that you don't even realize that you have learned until later when ... you'll be in class and we'll be learning about something else and the whole class will be... confused and I'll be like oh I know this cause it's like even when you weren't studying it that specifically you remember it cause it's something you just happened to learn while you were outside."
There is no question that youth are doing "real" science. Stay tuned for results from our ongoing research of the project. We will be sharing lessons about the model and what we learn about how it prepares adults and promotes learning for youth. In the meantime, I would like to know what you are doing. What are some of the ways that we can expand how we engage youth as citizen scientists in youth programs?
-- Pamela Larson Nippolt, evaluation and research specialist
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