In the past 20 years, citizen science has blossomed as a way to engage a broad range of individuals in doing science. Citizen science projects focus on, but are not limited to, nonscientists (i.e., people who are not professionally trained in disciplines relevant to a specific project) participating in the processes of scientific research, with the intended goal of advancing and using scientific knowledge. A rich range of projects extend this focus in myriad directions, and the boundaries of citizen science as a field are not clearly delineated. Citizen science involves a growing community of professional practitioners, participants, and stakeholders, and a thriving collection of projects. While citizen science is often recognized for its potential to engage the public in science, it is also uniquely positioned to support and extend participants’ learning in science.
Contemporary understandings of science learning continue to advance. Indeed, modern theories of learning recognize that science learning is complex and multifaceted. Learning is affected by factors that are individual, social, cultural, and institutional, and learning occurs in virtually any context and at every age. Current understandings of science learning also suggest that science learning extends well beyond content knowledge in a domain to include understanding of the nature and methods of science.
Citizen science and research on science learning are mutually beneficial. Citizen science has much to learn from modern understandings of science learning and in order to support science learning through citizen science, it is critical that invested parties consider science learning in all its complexity. At the same time, citizen science offers a new venue in which to examine science learning, and seems especially well-suited to examining
the way learning is social and culturally mediated, and how learning can intersect with equity, diversity, and power.
In response to a request from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Simons Foundation, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine established an ad hoc committee to study science learning and citizen science. The 12-member expert Committee on Designing Citizen Science to Support Science Learning included individuals with expertise in citizen science programming, research and evaluation of citizen science projects, the learning sciences, K–12 science education, informal science education, and afterschool or extended school science programming. The committee was asked to address the following statement of task:
An ad hoc committee of experts will be appointed to conduct a study on how citizen science projects can be designed to better support science learning. The committee will identify and describe existing citizen science projects that seek to support science learning, consider research on science learning in both formal and informal settings, and develop a set of evidence-based principles to guide the design of citizen science projects that have science learning as a goal. The committee’s final report will discuss the potential of citizen science to support science learning, identify promising practices and programs that exemplify the promising practices, and lay out a research agenda that can fill gaps in the current understanding of how citizen science can support science learning and enhance science education.
CHARACTERIZING CITIZEN SCIENCE
The term “citizen science” can be applied to a wide variety of projects that share the core feature of nonscientists engaging in doing science. The committee identified eight common characteristics of citizen science projects. Citizen science projects actively engage participants, specifically engage participants with data, use systematic approaches to produce reliable knowledge, meet widely recognized standards of scientific integrity and use practices common in science, engage participants who are (primarily) not project-relevant scientists, seek to use the knowledge gained to contribute to science and/or community priorities, generally confer some benefit to the participant for participating, and involve the communication of results.
There are significant variations, however, in how citizen science projects support these common characteristics: how the participants engage, who organizes the projects, what the projects’ goals are, who the participants are, and how results are reported. Participation might be one time or repeated, projects might be online or in person, projects might be longitudinal (i.e., for monitoring) or experimental, projects might prioritize
community impact or advancing the field of science, and projects may be targeted to students or adults in formal and informal settings. Because this rich variation is part of what contributes to the suite of learning opportunities in citizen science, the committee elected to consider all these variations rather than develop or apply a restrictive definition. Recognizing the way in which citizen science projects are constructed, who it is that participates in these projects, the activities of those participants, and their different levels of engagement is critical for understanding the learning that occurs in citizen science and how to design for that learning.
UNDERSTANDING SCIENCE LEARNING
In everyday use and in professional research and educational contexts, the word “learning” is used to capture a multiplicity of processes and outcomes. In recent decades both educational practice and research on learning have moved beyond a simple view of learning as an individual acquiring a fixed body of declarative facts and procedural knowledge to the recognition that learning is embedded in social interactions and involves complex reasoning and reflection. Understanding the nature of different varieties of learning, the processes that support them, and the ways in which they are expressed requires considering factors at multiple levels and scales—individual and social, situational and cultural, and through time. Science learning inherits all of the complexity of learning, and applies them to understanding how people interact with the methods, processes, norms, and epistemologies of science.
Modern understandings of science learning consider a range of learning outcomes that includes developing interest and identity as well as understanding scientific knowledge and engaging in the practices of science. The committee did not assign relative value to potential learning outcomes; however, we found evidence that some outcomes are harder to achieve and require more intentional support than others. Context also influences learning outcomes. When using citizen science in K–12 environments, curriculum can constrain the choice of learning outcomes, but the sustained engagement and built-in support scaffolds in K–12 contexts may be especially suited to supporting harder-to-achieve learning outcomes.
Citizen science has the potential to support science learning in unique ways. The properties of citizen science that make it particularly useful for science learning include the opportunity to participate in authentic scientific endeavors, the way in which citizen science is conducted in real-world contexts, and the way in which citizen science engages participants with real data. Additionally, the fact that citizen science often is motivated by interest- or concern-driven participation, is a social or communal activity, and offers opportunity for longer-term participation also provides opportunities
for learning. Finally, the social and technological infrastructures of citizen science also enable learning opportunities. Viewing these characteristics in concert with one another, the committee used theories of science learning to investigate how citizen science can be designed to bring about specific science learning outcomes even though there are relatively few studies of learning specifically focused on citizen science.
Theories of learning make it clear that educational context and intent influence the kinds of learning outcomes that are achievable. We identify three broad contexts for learning in citizen science: (1) citizen science projects designed specifically for learning, (2) citizen science projects that are adapted in order to support learning, and (3) borrowing citizen science practices to support learning. Some contexts make it easier to achieve certain learning outcomes. For example, learning outcomes related to an identity as someone who contributes to science are easier to achieve in projects that are designed or adapted for learning, but harder to achieve when the data collection practices are borrowed from citizen science without contributing the collected data to some larger purpose. Further, whether particular learning outcomes are achieved also depends on the larger sociocultural context of a given project. The larger sociocultural context shapes participants’ motivations for participating, their previous experience with science, the knowledge they bring to the project and how they respond to participating—all of which contributes to what participants learn through engaging in the project.
There is evidence that citizen science, leveraged effectively, can contribute to community science literacy. A term somewhat new to academic conversations about science literacy—community science literacy—is the capacity of a community to apply, do, and even guide science in ways that advance community priorities. It is a shared capacity, and it depends on and relates to the science learning of individuals as well as the connections, networks and agency that are distributed throughout the community (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016). Citizen science includes projects that grow out of a community’s desire to address an inequity or advance a priority. When communities can work alongside scientists to advance their priorities, enhanced community science literacy is one possible outcome.
DESIGNING FOR LEARNING
In considering how to design citizen science to support science learning, the committee arrived at three simple but powerful principles.
First, if designers are not intentional about learning (either in design or by investigating the learning in a project) than there is very little that can be said with confidence about participant learning in a given project.
Second, if one is intentional in design, there are proven practices that can help participants take advantage of the unique opportunities for learning associated with citizen science. Including stakeholders—anyone who might have a role to play in the project, such as project leads, scientists, people implementing the project and supporting participation and participants in the design process ensures that the processes and activities of the project—will be more attuned to learners’ motivations and interests and better able to engage their skills and experiences.
Third, leaders and developers of citizen science projects interested in supporting science learning need to allow for iteration of the design. Rather than produce a full-fledged product based on a one-time interaction with stakeholders, it is more effective to produce a first cut or prototype and then engage with stakeholders in multiple cycles of feedback and refinement. This kind of process can help weed out ineffective design features.
In addition to these three overarching design strategies, the committee was also able to use research on design and practice to offer a number of guidelines that can be used in individual projects. Additional guidelines the committee suggests are
- Know the Audience
- Adopt an Asset-Based Perspective
- Intentionally Design for Diversity
- Engage Stakeholders in Design
- Capitalize on Unique Learning Opportunities Associated with Citizen Science
- Support Multiple Kinds of Participant Engagement
- Encourage Social Interaction
- Build Learning Supports into the Project
- Evaluate and Refine
Some of these guidelines are easy to address, some are challenging, and all require consideration of not only the guideline itself but also the intersection of the guideline with the specific context and the participants. Project designers face choices about what people will learn, and must invest in the program design to support that learning. These choices require balancing values that sometimes compete, and sometimes are complementary. For example, if a project designer’s highest priority is the collection of high-quality data, then it is reasonable to adopt a project design that emphasizes learning outcomes related to collecting, analyzing, and working with data. It is less reasonable (though not impossible) to expect that that same project would necessarily also offer substantive opportunity to reflect on the nature of scientific knowledge. On the other hand, if a project designer is hoping that participation will result in community action, than it makes sense to
offer opportunities for participants to reflect about the nature of scientific knowledge and its relationship to culture. In summary, designers need to make choices about desired learning outcomes, and use those choices to design appropriate learning activities.
The committee hopes that the sum total of citizen science will offer a range of learning opportunities and outcomes and urges the entire community of people engaged in citizen science to be mindful of the portfolio of projects—always with an eye toward who may be left out or underserved by what already exists.
ADDRESSING EQUITY THROUGH INTENTIONAL DESIGN
Citizen science project designers must grapple with issues of equity, diversity, power, and inclusion. They face these issues even if they do not set out to address diversity in their project and even when they are not consciously aware that these factors are at play in their project. This can be daunting: project designers necessarily have to make choices about how to use resources to best achieve multiple desired outcomes, and designing for broader participation can feel overwhelming. But where science learning is an expressed goal of participation, addressing these issues is essential: there is clear and ample evidence that diverse, equitable and inclusive program design advances learning for all participants. And, because participant learning outcomes support other project outcomes, this work can actually make it easier to achieve other project goals. Further, there is compelling evidence that not responsibly addressing issues of power and privilege can exacerbate learning inequities.
One of the most effective things project designers can do to attend to diversity is to question embedded and pernicious assumptions about who is capable of participation and what that participation can yield. This is especially true when thinking about members of communities that have been overlooked or marginalized by science, where these kinds of assumptions are more common, less questioned, and especially damaging to individual learning outcomes. Citizen science designers can make a special effort to welcome and respect the epistemologies, beliefs, practices, and skills that all people bring into citizen science. Collaborative design with participants from underrepresented groups (such as people of color, people of lower socioeconomic status, rural communities, women, etc.) helps to challenge limiting assumptions and create programming where all participants can learn.
One of the goals of this report is to share the committee’s synthesis of what is known about how practitioners can support science learning through participation in citizen science. As part of that work, several major conclusions emerged as this study’s central findings.
CONCLUSION 1: Citizen science projects investigate a range of phenomena using scientific practices across varied social, cultural, and geographical contexts and activities. Citizen science allows people with diverse motivations and intentions to participate in science.
CONCLUSION 2: Because citizen science broadens the scope of who can contribute to science, it can be a pathway for introducing new processes, observations, data, and epistemologies to science.
CONCLUSION 3: There is limited systematic, cumulative information about who participates in citizen science. Community and youth projects are underrepresented in the available data suggesting that existing data are biased toward white middle- and upper-class populations.
CONCLUSION 4: Participants’ learning through citizen science has benefits not only for participants and scientists but also for communities and science.
CONCLUSION 5: There is evidence that citizen science projects can contribute to specific learning outcomes in particular contexts and for some learners.
CONCLUSION 6: Citizen science supports learning outcomes related to scientific practices, content, identity, agency, data, and reasoning. Whether these outcomes are realized depends on the provision of learning supports and on intentional design.
CONCLUSION 6a: Citizen science can be readily mobilized to help participants learn scientific practices and content directly related to the specific activities in the project.
CONCLUSION 6b: With careful planning, intentional design, and learning supports, citizen science can
- amplify participants’ identity/ies as individuals who contribute to science and support their self-efficacy in science;
- provide an opportunity for participants to learn about data, data analysis, and interpretation of data; and
- provide a venue for participants to learn about the nature of science and scientific reasoning.
CONCLUSION 7: Science learning outcomes are strongly related to the motivations, interests, and identities of learners. Citizen science projects that welcome and respond to participants’ motivations and interests are more likely to maximize participant learning.
CONCLUSION 8: Research on learning science in other contexts provides insight into some fundamental principles that can advance science learning through citizen science. These principles include the following:
- Prior knowledge and experience shape what and how participants learn.
- When participants’ prior knowledge and experience are treated respectfully in the learning process, learning is advanced.
- Motivation, interest, and identity play a central role in learning, create learning opportunities, and are learning outcomes themselves.
- Most science learning outcomes will only be achieved with structured supports. These supports can come from specific tasks, tools, and facilitation.
CONCLUSION 9: Being aware of issues of power, privilege, and inequality, and explicitly addressing them in citizen science projects can help enable learning for all participants.
CONCLUSION 10: Community participation in citizen science activities can support the development of community science literacy.
CONCLUSION 11: Citizen science can create opportunities for communities, especially communities who have been marginalized, neglected, or even exploited by scientists, to collaborate with scientists and the science community.
CONCLUSION 12: Specific learning goals can be achieved with intentional design. Without intentional design, it can be hard to anticipate what learning outcomes will be achieved.
CONCLUSION 13: Research on program design shows that designing with input from stakeholders and building iteratively is an effective
strategy for supporting learning. This is true for designing for science learning from citizen science.
CONCLUSION 14: Formal learning environments have more structured and intentional learning outcomes. Citizen science can provide useful activities for formal learning environments; however, educators may need to incorporate additional supports to achieve more challenging learning outcomes.
RECOMMENDATIONS AND RESEARCH AGENDA
The committee was asked to develop a set of evidence-based principles to guide the design of citizen science projects. In reviewing research and practice, the committee discovered general principles that are relevant across citizen science and should be applied to the design and implementation of all projects. These principles derive from research and best practices in science education more generally: We present these overarching principles as recommendations. They are offered to all designers of citizen science projects, with the understanding that designers include a wide and representative range of stakeholders and that effective design extends well into implementation.
RECOMMENDATION 1: Given the potential of citizen science to engage traditionally underrepresented and underserved individuals and communities, the committee recommends that designers, researchers, participants, and other stakeholders in citizen science carefully consider and address issues of equity and power throughout all phases of project design and implementation.
RECOMMENDATION 2: In order to maximize learning outcomes through participation in citizen science, the committee recommends that citizen science projects leverage partnerships among scientists, education researchers, and other individuals with expertise in education and designing for learning.
RECOMMENDATION 3: In order to advance learning, project designers and practitioners should intentionally design for learning by defining intended learning outcomes, identifying a participant audience, integrating learning outcomes into project goals, and using evidence-based strategies to reach those outcomes.
RECOMMENDATION 4: In designing or adapting projects to support learning, designers should use proven practices of design, including iteration and stakeholder engagement in design.
As an emerging field, citizen science has opportunities to grow, to contribute to what we know about how people learn science, and to broaden participation in science. Not only will future research inform the design of citizen science projects but also design-based research in particular may be particularly well-suited to study the varied contexts of learning in citizen science. The next several recommendations explore how to maximize that potential. They are recommendations for building the field of citizen science.
The committee was also asked to lay out a research agenda that can fill gaps in the current understanding of how citizen science can support science learning and enhance science education, and those recommendations are outlined below.
RECOMMENDATION 5: The committee recommends that the educational research community perform regular analyses of the available evidence on learning in citizen science in order to identify and disseminate effective strategies.
RECOMMENDATION 6: The committee recommends that relevant researchers perform longitudinal studies of participation and changes in individuals’ and communities’ scientific knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors, both within individual projects and across projects.
RECOMMENDATION 7: The committee recommends the citizen science community collaborate to develop shared tools and platforms that they can share to support science learning across a large number of citizen science projects.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2016). Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.