Learning Through Citizen Science: Enhancing Opportunities by Design

National Academies: “Scientific research that involves nonscientists contributing to research processes – also known as ‘citizen science’ – supports participants’ learning, engages the public in science, contributes to community scientific literacy, and can serve as a valuable tool to facilitate larger scale research, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  If one of the goals of a citizen science project is to advance learning, designers should plan for it by defining intended learning outcomes and using evidence-based strategies to reach those outcomes.

“This report affirms that citizen science projects can help participants learn scientific practices and content, but most likely only if the projects are designed to support learning,” says Rajul Pandya, chair of the committee that wrote the report and director, Thriving Earth Exchange, AGU.  

The term “citizen science” can be applied to a wide variety of projects that invite nonscientists to engage in doing science with the intended goal of advancing scientific knowledge or application. For example, a citizen science project might engage community members in collecting data to monitor the health of a local stream. As another example, among the oldest continuous organized datasets in the United States are records kept by farmers and agricultural organizations that document the timing of important events, such as sowing, harvests, and pest outbreaks.

Citizen science can support science learning in several ways, the report says. It offers people the opportunity to participate in authentic scientific endeavors, encourages learning through projects conducted in real-world contexts, supports rich social interaction that deepens learning, and engages participants with real data. Citizen science also includes projects that grow out of a community’s desire to address an inequity or advance a priority. For example, the West-Oakland Indicators Project, a community group in Oakland, Calif., self-organizes to collect and analyze air quality data and uses that data to address trucking in and around schools to reduce local children’s exposure to air pollution. When communities can work alongside scientists to advance their priorities, enhanced community science literacy is one possible outcome….

In order to maximize learning outcomes, the report recommends that designers and practitioners of citizen science projects should intentionally build them for learning. This involves knowing the audience; intentionally designing for diversity; engaging stakeholders in the design; supporting multiple kinds of participant engagement; encouraging social interaction; building learning supports into the project; and iteratively improving projects through evaluation and refinement.  Engaging stakeholders and participants in design and implementation results in more learning for all participants, which can support other project goals. 

The report also lays out a research agenda that can help to build the field of citizen science by filling gaps in the current understanding of how citizen science can support science learning and enhance science education. Researchers should consider three important factors: citizen science extends beyond academia and therefore, evidence for practices that advance learning can be found outside of peer-reviewed literature; research should include attention to practice and link theory to application; and attention must be given to diversity in all research, including ensuring broad participation in the design and implementation of the research. Pursuing new lines of inquiry can help add value to the existing research, make future research more productive, and provide support for effective project implementation….(More)”.