everyday SCIENCE Research in Your Backyard: Participating in the Practices of Science
Every November, thousands of avid birdwatchers join the community of fellow birders who participate in Project FeederWatch, one of several citizen-science projects operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. The goal of the project is to enhance scientific research by providing a cadre of “citizen scientists” with the opportunity to contribute to science while pursuing their own interests. Participation begins by downloading (or receiving in the mail) the FeederWatch Research Kit, which describes the project goals and rationale, instructions for setting up an observation area, procedures for collecting data, and a subscription to the project newsletter, which includes detailed results of FeederWatch data.
The success of the project depends on the quality of the data submitted from participant observations. To make the data collection process easier, online data collection forms are tailored for each region depending on the types of birds known to be in that area. If the submitted data match expectations, they are automatically added to the database. If unexpected information is reported, such as a bird species outside its usual habitat or expected range, the entry is flagged for review by a project staff member, who looks over the data to see if more information is needed. An e-mail conversation may ensue.
“When those situations occur, we find that the participants are often correct,” says Rick Bonney, director of program development and evaluation at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “They have observed something we did not know was there, which adds to our overall knowledge.” All participants can access the database and work with the data to answer their own questions as they arise.
This project has been in place for more than 20 years, making the lab staff among the first to give the public an opportunity to collect data and be part of authentic scientific research. The thinking behind the project was that giving “regular” people the chance to engage directly with phenomena and learn how to conduct investigations would help them become comfortable with the tools and practices of science.