Citizen Science

Have you ever heard of the term citizen science? How about community science? No? Volunteer monitoring? Crowd-sourced science?  If you are like I was, you may be unfamiliar with these terms. In essence, citizen science is when scientific researchers use non-scientist, a.k.a. ordinary, everyday people, to help with their studies collecting data in quantities they could not do on their own.

It was in the most recent issue of Horticulture Magazine which introduced me and probably many others to the term ‘citizen scientist’ as part of their cover article, The Great Sunflower Project. This project focuses on pollinators by asking interested people to grow the same variety, specifically Lemon Queen. Once the flower has bloomed, scientist ask their citizen volunteers to simply sit for 5 minutes on three separate occasions and count the number of visiting pollinators to that one flower. 5 minutes, 3 separate times – a total of 15 minutes of your undivided attention towards a flower can tell researchers so much. The volunteer data comes from all over the country, helping scientists understand the number of pollinators that visits per hour, per flower, the same flower, all across the country.  Scientists and researchers would not have the money, time, or ability, let alone the manpower to record this type of data without the help of citizen scientists.

A Little History
Citizen science has been around actually for centuries. Before the late 19th century most scientists made a living some other way than science. Collaborations between researchers and scientists across the world has always been the norm way before the age of technology, as early as 17th century. It just took a lot longer for the things to happen.  Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who standardized the naming of organisms (binomial nomenclature) wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t collaborated with other amateur researchers helping him collect specimens.  Wine makers for centuries have kept records on grape harvests. Hunters and fisherman have equally recorded specific, valuable data about animals for generations.  All very important data to modern day scientists and researchers.  

How Can I Get Involved?
Today, anyone still can be a citizen scientist. If you’re interested in gardening and nature, there are projects similar to the Great Sunflower Project, like the Hummingbirds At Home Project where people track, report and follow the spring hummingbird migration to better understand how climate change may be impacting hummingbirds.

What I’ve discovered about citizen science projects so far, is that whether it’s a project being organized by the Appalachian Mountain Club, Smithsonian, SciStarter.com, Scientific America, Zooniverse, Crowd & Cloud or National Geographic, there is an opportunity to get involved in a project that directly relates to your world.  Projects vary in disciplines including the arts, biology, climate, history, language, literature, medicine, nature, physics, and more…

While checking out the Scientific America’s citizen science website, I stumbled across a project called Small World of Words. The goal of the project is to help researchers discover how the meaning of words is stored in memory. All I had to do was take a 5 minute quiz where they give you a word and all you have to do is type the first two or three words that word makes you think of. No need to even leave the house to become a citizen scientist. Another project that caught my eye is the Folger Shakespeare Library, Zooniverse.org, Oxford English Dictionary collaborating on the project called Shakespeare’s World which asks participants to “transcribe handwritten documents by Shakespeare’s contemporaries to help researchers understand his life and times”. A fascinating study, you can pick from either transcribing letters or recipes depending on your own interests.  

Lemon Queen

However, the projects which most interest me are the ones that require you to go outside and simply watch what’s going on in the world around you.  In today’s world, disconnecting from technology can be impossible, so I welcome the chance to take a few moments to tune out the technology and focus on nature.  Sure, I’ll be reporting back my finding using technology but a pad and pen will do fine for counting the amount of bees that visit my Lemon Queen sunflower or how many hummingbirds visit my feeder.  I wish I had known about citizen science programs when my kids were little. What a great way to encourage children to be observant and perhaps gain a better understanding, interest and love of science.

There are projects for people of all ages, so anyone can be a citizen scientist, if they are interested. Technology and the internet have bridged the gap between university researchers and scientists stuck in labs – linking them with ordinary people who have similar interests in their research.

For gardeners, there are plenty of projects to get involved with from the Great Sunflower Project to the Citizen Science Soil Collection Project , aimed to help scientists at the University of Oklahoma study microscopic life in soil samples in search of new drug compounds. Or the Lost Ladybug project aimed to help entomologists better understand ladybug distribution across North America. Another project involving sunflowers is Turing’s Sunflower project where volunteers are asked to grow sunflowers and put mathematical theories of Alan Turing and other researchers to the test. As a gardener, I always include sunflowers in our garden since I love the majestic beauty sunflowers bring to the garden and can’t think of a better way to help contribute in some small way than helping researchers compile some data from something I was doing anyway.

Technology has allowed us the ability to easily record our observations with the use of our cell phone cameras and apps. Whether it’s Project Noah or Nature’s Notebook, there are more and more platforms like these that allow ordinary people to join the citizen scientist movement and get involved. In a few weeks on April 18th we celebrate Citizen Science Day #citsciday, hopefully making more and more people aware of how they can get involved with citizen science and perhaps attend a scheduled event near them.  Check out this PSA



I believe in order for us to live a sustainable life, we need to make these seemingly small contributions of data to the scientific world. The more data collected will help researchers further their understanding of the world we live in and help us to take batter care of it and ourselves for generations to come.


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