One evening last summer, 11-year-old Owen and his mom put on white suits and taped their rain boots to their pant legs. Then they each grabbed a wooden pole with a large white cloth attached to it and started dragging the tools through the trees and grass in their Wisconsin backyard.
They were looking for ticks. Owen’s mom, Amy Prunuske, teaches microbiology and immunology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Wausau. She studies diseases that ticks carry. Owen, though, is what’s known as a citizen scientist. Citizen scientists are people — young or old — who help collect data for research projects. They usually aren’t professional scientists, or if they are, not in the field of the project. Still, their work can be incredibly important.
Citizen scientists can help trained scientists gather data from all over the world — even from space. They can provide new ideas and new ways of thinking.
Kids often make great citizen scientists because they tend to be curious and good at following precise directions. Sometimes they’re even better at these things than adults. And schools are convenient places for scientists to recruit big groups of helpers. As a bonus, citizen science often gets kids more excited about science.
That day in the backyard, Owen found two black-legged ticks, animals so tiny they’re often hard to see. He and his mom took the pests to a summer program she was teaching. There, he and other young citizen scientists tested the ticks for the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. This illness causes fever and headaches and can make a person extremely tired. People can get it from the bite of a black-legged tick, also known as a deer tick.
“We want to test as many ticks as possible from different places in Wisconsin and Minnesota to better understand how many ticks are carrying the bacteria that can make people get sick,” Prunuske says. Those states are hotbeds of black-legged ticks and Lyme disease.
The tick project is just one of many, many citizen-science programs. And kids are participating in many of them. Some are helping astronomers study the night sky. Others are working with marine biologists to develop robotic boats that can study marine mammals. Some are even giving data about the atmosphere to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. In each case, their work is helping scientists make new discoveries.
Plus, Owen and his classmates say, it’s a lot of fun.
Strength in numbers
Sometimes even the best technology isn’t as powerful as a lot of people working together. At NASA, for example, satellites help scientists study clouds. Cameras and other tools on those satellites do a great job of seeing clouds all over the planet. But most capture an image of one specific location at most twice a day.
“You’re not able to get a sense for what’s happening with the clouds in that location throughout the day,” says Jessica Taylor at NASA. But citizen scientists can fill those gaps, this physical scientist says. She leads the science education team at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
NASA collects data from citizen scientists through a project called S’COOL. That’s short for Students’ Cloud Observations On-Line. It’s recruited people from all around the world to observe clouds at lots of different times. All they have to do is look up, Taylor explains. They provide those reports to the project along with weather data. The large numbers of observations are helpful. NASA scientists use them to make sure they match satellite data. That way they know whether satellites are working correctly.
“It’s crowd-sourcing at its finest,” Taylor says. “You might have one student say, I think it’s 50 percent cloud cover, and another say 75 percent, and another say, no, it’s 40 percent.” But when you combine everyone’s observations over time, all those estimates average out to create more and more accurate information.
Also, some types of satellites “see” differently than we do. For example, some satellites looking down at Earth can’t tell the difference between snow and a cloud. “Both are white and really cold,” Taylor explains. That can make it hard for the satellite sensors to tell them apart. But “on the ground, it would never be a question.” And this is where a human’s eyes can be better than a satellite’s.
Different ways of thinking
Citizen science takes advantage not just of many sets of eyeballs, but also of many minds.
When professional European scientists in Austria were trying to find how best to encourage people to use less energy, they partnered with student citizen scientists. The adult scientists had a long list of questions for people about how much energy they used. Right away, the students noticed some problems the adults hadn’t thought of. There were too many questions, the kids said. And some of those questions were too complicated.
Kids can sometimes offer a new way of looking at an issue, bringing a new perspective, says Petra Siegele. She’s in charge of Sparkling Science. It’s a program of the Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy in Vienna, Austria. And it partners students with scientists, “So researchers come into different ways of thinking.”
That can be helpful when scientists get stuck and can’t think of new ways to approach a problem. In another Sparkling Science research project, professional scientists had students interview traditional bakers living in the mountains of Austria. The scientists were curious about how breadmaking techniques had changed over the last few generations. They wanted to figure out how new bakers might learn traditional breadmaking skills. Kids, the scientists found, were able to get more detailed and honest answers than adults had.
Helping out with research like this can also give students a new perspective on science. At the beginning of a project, kids often ask about the answer to a research question, says Jennifer Long. She’s coordinates education and outreach at the Center for Environmental Biology at the University of California, Irvine. Students are usually surprised — and excited — to find out that no one actually knows the answer, and that it’s their job to help make discoveries.
Waiting, waiting . . .
Sometimes, trying to find those answers can be frustrating. In California’s Crystal Cove State Park, students are helping researchers figure out the best way to bring back native plants, such as California sagebrush. Native plants can help protect habitat for wildlife. In the first year, the young citizen scientists decided to weed out non-native plants and put up fencing to keep out rabbits. The kids also learned how to measure plant growth very accurately and how to use a probe to measure moisture in the soil. These two factors were important for recognizing whether research techniques are successful.
Their initial data showed that fencing and weeding California sagebrush did make it healthier.
The next year, the students tested whether it was better to plant seedlings close to adult plants or farther away. They thought having adult plants nearby would help seedlings grow by providing shade and moisture. But this time, the results were the opposite of what the students had predicted. Adult shrubs had competed with the seedlings for water.
Some kids thought that meant that the project had failed. But it hadn’t. That’s because in science, unexpected results are helpful.
“At first, the students thought that the experiment failed because their hypothesis was rejected,” Long says. “But then,” she notes, “they realized that they did find very useful information” — both for scientists and for people who make decisions about the land.
The students decided to keep gathering data to see how far away seedlings need to be from adult plants. They won’t know the answer for another year. That’s another challenge of science, Siegele says. “You have to work a very long time to get results.” That can get tedious.
Waiting for results isn’t the only part of citizen science that can be a bit boring. For example, Prunuske notes, kids sometimes get tired of counting the number of legs on a tick. (Adult ticks, which can spread Lyme disease, have eight legs. Young ticks have only six.)
Long says that it can help keep students engaged in data collection if they remember that they’re finding the answer to a question — perhaps an important one. “Then they get really excited.” She says “that sustains them through the tedium of doing science.” (By the way, adult scientists can find repetitive data collection tedious, too. It’s just a price they pay to sometimes get important data.)
Another challenge for some students is the yuck factor. “They’re all pretty grossed out, at first, looking at the ticks,” Prunuske says. Once they get over their fear, they realize that working with these parasites is not so bad.
As a kid, Joanna Buckley wasn’t interested in science — until she had a chance to try it. That happened when she got a chemistry set for Christmas.
“Over the course of a few weeks, I’d completed every experiment. But in the process, I stained my parent’s dining room carpet with methyl-orange indicator and charred the kitchen worktop with the spirit burner,” she says. (Spirit is a term sometimes applied to alcohol.)
Now science is Buckley’s job. She does outreach for the chemistry department at the University of Sheffield in England. “I realize, first-hand, how important it is to have something or someone to show you why science is so great,” she says.
Citizen science takes the fun of experimenting a step further than Buckley’s at-home chemistry kit. That’s because these experiments are real, looking for novel answers.
“What’s cool about citizen science versus a one-off experiment is that students get that this has a purpose,” Prunuske says. Students want to do a good job, she says, because they know scientists are going to use the new data in their own research.
Long agrees. “Kids like that it’s real. And they like that it’s important, that it matters.” Citizen-science projects have made big discoveries. One found a previously unknown galaxy cluster. Another project helped size up how much damage a big earthquake had caused in Japan. And one of the first citizen-science projects helped scientists learn where monarch butterflies go every winter.
Some adults worry about teens losing interest in science. That’s one reason they hope that fun, exciting citizen-science projects can keep them engaged, Long says. And she has some evidence that it’s working: “Last year, we did have a couple of students say: ‘I really think I want to be a scientist now.’”
astronomy The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers.
atmosphere The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.
average (in science) A term for the arithmetic mean, which is the sum of a group of numbers that is then divided by the size of the group.
bacteria (singular: bacterium) Single-celled organisms. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside other living organisms (such as plants and animals).
biology The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.
chemistry The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact. Scientists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) Chemistry also is used as a term to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties. People who work in this field are known as chemists.
citizen science Scientific research in which the public — people of all ages and abilities — participate. The data that these citizen “scientists” collect helps to advance research. Letting the public participate means that scientists can get data from many more people and places than would be available if they were working alone.
climate The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.
climate change Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.
cloud A plume of molecules or particles, such as water droplets, that move under the action of an outside force, such as wind, radiation or water currents. (in atmospheric science) A mass of airborne water droplets and ice crystals that travel as a plume, usually high in Earth’s atmosphere. Its movement is driven by winds.
crowdsourcing A term coined in 2005 for the collection of data from a large community of volunteers — often over the internet. For instance, those volunteers may collect information intentionally (such as data on cloud cover, the appearance of a particular butterfly or a recording of the call of a certain bird), then send the data to some researcher. Alternatively, an app downloaded on someone’s phone might collect light, vibrations or some other information periodically — and automatically — and then relay it over the Internet to researchers.
data Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.
earthquake A sudden and sometimes violent shaking of the ground, sometimes causing great destruction, as a result of movements within Earth’s crust or of volcanic action.
economy Term for the combined wealth and resources (people, jobs, land, forests and minerals, for instance) of a nation or region. It is often measured in terms of jobs and income or in terms of the production and use of goods (such as products) and services (for instance, nursing or internet access).
factor Something that plays a role in a particular condition or event; a contributor.
federal Of or related to a country’s national government (not to any state or local government within that nation). For instance, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health are both agencies of the U.S. federal government.
field An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.
galaxy A massive group of stars bound together by gravity. Galaxies, which each typically include between 10 million and 100 trillion stars, also include clouds of gas, dust and the remnants of exploded stars.
galaxy cluster A group of galaxies held together by gravity. Galaxy clusters are the largest known objects in the universe.
generation A group of individuals (in any species) born at about the same time or that are regarded as a single group. Your parents belong to one generation of your family, for example, and your grandparents to another. Similarly, you and everyone within a few years of your age across the planet are referred to as belonging to a particular generation of humans. The term also is sometimes extended to year classes of other animals or to types of inanimate objects (such as electronics or automobiles).
habitat The area or natural environment in which an animal or plant normally lives, such as a desert, coral reef or freshwater lake. A habitat can be home to thousands of different species.
hypothesis (v. hypothesize) A proposed explanation for a phenomenon. In science, a hypothesis is an idea that must be rigorously tested before it is accepted or rejected.
mammal A warm-blooded animal distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, the secretion of milk by females for feeding their young, and (typically) the bearing of live young.
marine Having to do with the ocean world or environment.
marine biologist A scientist who studies creatures that live in ocean water, from bacteria and shellfish to kelp and whales.
marine mammal Any of many types of mammals that spend most of its life in the ocean environment. These include whales and dolphins, walruses and sea lions, seals and sea otters, manatees and dugongs — even polar bears.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It also has sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.
native Associated with a particular location; native plants and animals have been found in a particular location since recorded history began. These species also tend to have developed within a region, occurring there naturally (not because they were planted or moved there by people). Most are particularly well adapted to their environment.
novel Something that is clever or unusual and new, as in never seen before.
physical (adj.) A term for things that exist in the real world, as opposed to in memories or the imagination. It can also refer to properties of materials that are due to their size and non-chemical interactions (such as when one block slams with force into another).
recruit (noun) New member of a group or human trial. (verb) To enroll a new member into a research trial. Some may receive money or other compensation for their participation, particularly if they enter the trial healthy.
satellite A moon orbiting a planet or a vehicle or other manufactured object that orbits some celestial body in space.
seedling The initial plant that sprouts leaves and roots after emerging from a seed.
shrub A perennial plant that grows in a generally low, bushy form.
technology The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.
tedious (n. tedium) An adjective for something that is disturbingly slow, boring, monotonous and/or repetitive.
tick A small eight-legged blood-sucking arthropod, related to spiders and mites. Although they look like bugs, these are not insects. They attach themselves to the skin of their host and feed on their blood. But in the process, they may spread any germs that could have been present in the blood of an earlier host.
weather Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.
weed (in botany) A plant growing wild in, around — and sometimes smothering over — valued plants, such as crops or landscape species (including lawn grasses, flowers and shrubs). Often a plant becomes such a botanical bully when it enters a new environment with no natural predators or controlling conditions, such as hard frosts. (in biology, generally) Any organism may be referred to as a “weed” if it enters an environment and begins to overwhelm the local ecosystem.
Journal: H.R. Shah and L.R. Martinez. Current approaches in implementing citizen science in the classroom. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education. Vol. 17, March 2016, p. 17. doi: 10.1128/jmbe.v17i1.1032.
Journal: R. Follett and V. Strezov. An analysis of citizen science based research: usage and publication patterns. PLOS One. Published online November 23, 2015. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0143687.