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Citizen science, youth engagement and authentic inquiry

By Pamela Larson Nippolt

What are the best ways to engage youth and adults in authentic scientific inquiry? We are exploring this question with our Driven to Discover: Citizen Science project.

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, former evaluation and research specialist

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  1. Pam Larson NippoltJune 5, 2013 at 9:37 AM

    Trudy - thank you so much for mentioning the work at Cornell to connect 4-H and Citizen Science. The webinar next week should give us a good idea about the opportunities and possibilities in the near future to involve youth in scientific research - research being done by others and research that comes from the youth. I'm glad you are involved in helping us to think about this at a national level. What are you seeing nationally? Pam

  2. Pam - the full scale inquiry process I think is rare, but well worth doing. What I am seeing nationally is the opportunity for the "micro" citizen scientist, and "crowd sourcing". Opportunities to do something that can take just a little bit of time -- from a few minutes to a weekend. The other trend is crowd sourcing - where your and my efforts are pooled with that of others to do the science. Some of these interesting projects include Fold It, a project promoted as an online game enabling you to contribute to important scientific research around protein folding, and Ancient Lives, a social science project where you get a bit of ancient papyri and transcribe it. Phenology projects are some of the most popular, but increasingly we are tying these into current issues, such as the Backyard Bee Count.

  3. Pam Larson NippoltJune 6, 2013 at 3:30 AM

    Trudy - Your perspective on the types of citizen science is really helpful. I am interested in digging deeper into the benefits for young people when they take more time to do authentic inquiry in nonformal settings through Citizen Science as compared to (perhaps more highly accessible) types of Citizen Science that offer more touch points across more settings to more youth.
    I wonder if the types of outcomes we can expect for youth across Citizen Science types have been considered? Pam

  4. The differences between obtaining valuable citizen science data and engaging participants in the process of inquiry sometimes cause tension. Inquiry takes participants all the way from asking questions to sharing their own findings with others, and we've really learned that combining this whole process with citizen science takes a lot of very deliberate nurturing. If the main goal is "crowd-sourcing", or getting work done efficiently by a lot of people, participants don't engage in the whole process. I liked Trudy's use of the term "micro citizen scientist" to refer to this smaller level of engagement. Rob Blair, on the UM FWCE team, once use the term "citizen technicians" to refer to the same thing. Certainly, people will have a lot of different goals when they engage in citizen science, and it's important to recognize (and celebrate) these. It's been exciting (and not 100% easy) to work on trying to "marry" fields of citizen science and inquiry learning.

  5. Pam Larson NippoltJune 7, 2013 at 2:47 AM

    Karen, you are so right. Integrating authentic inquiry as a goal through Citizen Science is multi-layered and not a straight forward proposition in the context of a youth program but the benefits are worth it, in my estimation! Trudy's observations about the overall landscape of CS in youth programs remind me that choices in how we design youth programs are guided by the benefits that youth (and the adults who care about them and partner with them) want and need.
    I can also see, for example, that the connections to a global community that could result from "crowd sourcing" would be a worthy outcome goal for youth. Pam