In order to better understand the characteristics of citizen science projects as they relate to learning, the committee conducted an ad hoc review of 28 typical citizen science projects. This review was critical to the committee’s subsequent discussion of project design: So that we may be useful to the field in offering assistance related to how to leverage design for learning, we wanted to first ensure that we fully understood the existing landscape of what projects are currently doing to support learning. This review is in no way intended to be exhaustive nor does it suggest that atypical approaches do not make meaningful contributions to learning, but it does represent the committee’s best efforts to uncover how learning is both characterized and actualized according to the current literature.
To be considered a “typical” project for the purposes of this review, one or more committee members nominated it as such, as outlined by the common traits and variations in projects described in Chapter 2 of this report. Some of the characteristics that individual committee members used in defining a typical citizen science project included but are not limited to: the project had mutually dependent tasks that the participants and the scientists needed to do to achieve the scientific pursuit; the participants were part of the science team; and participants learned as part of their involvement. To be included in the sample, a project must have either a Website or detailed online information about the project. The projects included here are of varying size, scope, and focus.
Though multiple taxonomies classifying citizen science projects have emerged in the literature (as outlined throughout this report) the committee declined to apply any of these classifications because no single taxonomy
encompassed the universe of citizen science projects as envisioned by the committee. The committee instead decided to discuss projects in terms of significant characteristics (described in the text of this report) and the various considerations of these characteristics. As with the committee’s decision not to apply a standardized definition to the field of citizen science, so too did we elect to include programs in this review based on the constellation of their relevant traits and characteristics. Though our initial solicitation for projects included “typical,” “atypical,” and “close-but-not” citizen science, this ad hoc review focuses solely on projects the committee ultimately deemed typical. For each project, the committee analyzed quotations from the project that described the project itself, the learning goals of the project, claims for learning achieved, evidence of learning achieved, and learning aids provided by the project.
GOALS FOR PARTICIPANTS
Almost all of the citizen science projects had an explicitly stated goal or claim around the benefits of the project. Almost all of the projects claimed that participation would contribute to science, and that participation in projects was fun. A minority of projects aimed or claimed to contribute to stewardship of the natural world. A few projects aimed or claimed to lead to connecting with nature, developing a sense of place, physical exercise, social interaction, opportunities to educate others, a calming effect, or an empowering effect.
The most commonly cited learning goal was a statement around learning science concepts. A minority of projects had statements of learning goals or learning claims around: learning science skills, learning about science and society, and learning the scientific process. The majority of the projects, even those without explicit learning goals or claims, still offered some form of product to aid learning. The most common learning support were social media accounts. Many projects also offered background readings, FAQs, blogs, videos, newsletters, participation guides, training programs, news stories, online data exploration, and presentations. A notable minority offered educators’ guides, tutorials, activity plans, lesson plans, publications, discussion boards, identification keys, and alignments with science standards. Only a few projects offered data reports, photo galleries, webinars, interactive online resources, listservs, and materials in foreign languages.
SUPPORTS FOR LEARNING
Of the projects that aim or claim to increase knowledge of science concepts, most sought to aid learning with informational products about basic
and applied science concepts directly relevant to the project. For this subset of projects, all had online background information and many offered newsletters, social media, and other forms of communication with participants. These products were largely informative and passive; by engaging with the material, motivated participants could learn new scientific concepts. However, these informational products do not appear to be structured with a certain pedagogy or theory of learning in mind. Only a small minority of these projects offered lesson or activity plans that were explicitly designed for educational purposes. One exception to this observation is the trainings or participation guides, which often included information on science concepts and were offered by most of the projects. This ad hoc review did not examine the structure of the trainings and guides; however, given the purpose of these materials, it is possible that these materials were intentionally composed around pedagogy or theories of learning.
EVIDENCE OF LEARNING
Within this broad claim that participating in citizen science projects can lead to increased knowledge, the aim of learning science concepts has the most supporting evidence of any other aim or claim. One study found evidence of learning science concepts in multiple case studies. Pre- and post-tests showed an increased understanding of bird biology in one project and increased knowledge of invasive plants in another (Brossard et al., 2005; Jordan et al., 2011). Anecdotally, one project Website included testimonials from project participants, several of whom noted that training materials and participating in the project helped them learn to identify different bird species.
Of the projects that aim or claim to increase science skills, this benefit was limited to the skills needed to conduct the project. All of these projects involve the participants in data collection. Most of the projects in this subset are also projects that desire or require a long-term commitment and repeated data collection. Most involve participants in data recording and most do not have a process for verifying the validity of every individual data point. Thus, for these projects it is important that participants can reliably collect and record accurate data. To achieve this, most of the projects in this subset offer in-person training or extensive online tutorials and participant guidebooks.
There is no obvious relationship between projects that aim or claim to lead to learning about the scientific process, those that use the term citizen scientist, those that involve participants in higher level scientific skills such as analysis and project design, and those that offer learning aids specifically tailored to learning about the scientific process. This suggests that there may not be substantive design intentionality around learning about the scientific
process. Most projects seem to assume that simply engaging in the scientific process is an adequate means of learning about the scientific process. However, one study that examined this found that most participants did not improve their understanding of the scientific process as a result of being involved in a citizen science project.
In comparison to other projects, those that do not have any goals or make any claims about learning tend to be more extractive. Projects in this vein recruit participants to collect or classify information that the project organizers cannot collect or classify themselves. These projects offer few benefits in exchange for the service provided by participants other than the opportunity to contribute to science. This subset of projects has fewer products that support learning. In addition, most of these projects do not require repeated or long-term commitment to participating in the project. Also, most of these projects tend to involve the participants interacting with information via a computer; they usually do not require that the participant collect information or engage the natural world. The projects that do involve data collection and engaging the natural world but do not have learning aims or claims typically involve participants submitting information about a natural event that they (and not scientists) were uniquely positioned to observe.
Brossard, D., Lewenstein, B., and Bonney, R. (2005). Scientific knowledge and attitude change: The impact of a citizen science project. International Journal of Science Education, 27(9), 1099-1121.
Jordan, R.C., Gray, S.A., Howe, D.V., Brooks, W.R., and Ehrenfeld, J.G. (2011). Knowledge gain and behavioral change in citizen-science programs. Conservation Biology, 25(6), 1148-1154.