Humans are an inquisitive species. From the beginning, humans develop knowledge by engaging in inquiry: in learning about the world, young children observe their surroundings, ask questions, and communicate about what they see with others. While Western society will turn some of those young explorers into professional scientists, the vast majority of individuals will be left to engage with science—both the institution and the content—from outside the gates of “professional” science.
In the past 20 years, the phenomenon of citizen science has emerged as one way to engage individuals of all ages and occupations in the doing of science. When asked about their experiences in citizen science, enthusiastic participants often celebrate that engagement. In conducting the study that would lead to this report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Designing Citizen Science to Support Science Learning heard from a number of experts whose experiences offer vivid insight into the potential of citizen science to bring all kinds of people into the community and practice of science. The stories these experts shared point to the diversity of opportunities available through citizen science. The committee heard the story of a middle school student whose experience working in a lab transformed her description of herself, from “klutz” to “expert in DNA extraction and science contributor.” Similarly, the committee heard the story of a young man who was prevented from dropping out of high school when his participation in citizen science showed him, and helped him show others, that he was smart and could succeed. The committee also encountered the story of a woman, living in a senior center, who turned to citizen science to continue a lifelong tradition of volunteering. She
found a deepened sense of purpose from knowing researchers depended on her data. The committee also learned about the West-Oakland Indicators Project, a community group in Oakland, California, that self-organizes to collect and analyze air quality data and uses those data to address industrial trucking around schools to reduce local children’s exposure to air pollution.
These kinds of stories are also clues about the potential of citizen science to support learning. They point to skills gained, social connection, and community capacity. This report seeks to follow those clues toward answers to underlying questions about how citizen science can contribute to science learning. What kinds of learning can citizen science advance? What is it about citizen science that contributes to science learning? How would someone design citizen science to maximize learning? What can be learned from citizen science that can influence science learning in other contexts? What kinds of additional research would help educators and practitioners of citizen science in their ongoing work?
In response to requests from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Simons Foundation, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine through its Board on Science Education convened a committee to undertake a study of science learning and citizen science (see Box 1-1). 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.
In interpreting the charge, the committee members asked themselves a series of questions. First, we embarked on a definitional exercise intended to help us calibrate our understanding of citizen science. We then attempted to arrive at consensus on our understanding of science learning, before turning to an investigation of what kinds of citizen science experiences support learning. Finally, we turned our attention to addressing the charge’s most pressing question: How can citizen science be designed or leveraged to support science learning? The following sections offer insight into how the committee entered into this investigatory process.
To help orient this report, the committee arrived at an inclusive description of citizen science, rather than a specific, narrow definition. Citizen science projects are those that typically involve nonscientists (i.e., people who are not professionally trained in project-relevant disciplines) in the processes, methods, and standards of research, with the intended goal of advancing scientific knowledge or application. The committee found it useful to think about this description as it relates to specific examples. A project in which community members collect stream data using well-established protocols to monitor stream health fits this description of citizen science, but the same project where only professional water quality technicians collect the data would not. A project where students collect water quality data solely for their own edification does not fit the committee’s description of citizen science. That is not to say that a purely educational project cannot share in the strategies and practices that have been developed for and proven effective in citizen science, but the committee notes the use of those practices in service of a larger goal—community action or scientific knowledge—as a defining feature of citizen science. As another example, a project where people play a video game (however much that game is dealing with real scientific problems like protein folding) is not citizen science unless the players know they are dealing with real scientific challenges, have some understanding of those challenges and the relevant science, and know that their individual results are useful.
There are several important elements contained in this description of citizen science. One is the active and continual engagement of nonscientists.
Even a project that is defined in close consultation with community members ceases to be citizen science when the community members cease to be involved—for example, if the research was all carried out by professional scientists. People who are the subjects of the research are not participating as citizen scientists, nor are people who are unaware that they are participating in a citizen science project. Another important element in the description of citizen science is the notion of communicating and using the results of the project, especially within the scientific community. Finally, projects must adhere to the standards of scientific integrity to be described as citizen science, and projects in which data are ignored or cherry-picked to advance an agenda do not fit this description.
What all this points to is that the practice of citizen science is not a clearly delineated well-bounded space with well-defined and well-accepted exclusion and inclusion criteria, which is consistent with a young field with diverse antecedents. The field is still relatively new and has not yet been fully codified. Citizen science, as it exists today, is a confluence of several different evolutionary pathways; the committee discusses these pathways in depth in Chapter 2 of this report. As a result, citizen science projects are designed and implemented with different motivations, theoretical frameworks, and content areas. Given these different considerations, the committee believes that citizen science is better suited to classification by description.
As a note, the committee uses the term citizen science because that is the term most commonly used within the scientific and science education communities to describe these activities. We recognize that the term “citizen,” particularly in the United States, connects to a contentious immigration debate about who is eligible to participate in civic life, including science and education. While other terms can be used to describe citizen science, such as community science, public participation in scientific research, participatory action research, and community-based participatory research, none of them is as complete or widely used as citizen science. The committee uses citizen science despite its associated tensions.
The committee interpreted science learning broadly, and elected to consider a range of learning outcomes. The committee found it helpful to think in terms of the learning strands identified in Learning Science in Informal Environments (National Research Council, 2009), which we discuss in Chapter 3 of this report. In addition to the learning outcomes typically presented in a discussion of science learning (such as the ability to generate or use concepts or the ability to participate in scientific activities) the com-
mittee purposefully includes the development of interest, motivation, and identity as a critical component of science learning.
The committee also acknowledges that learning outcomes—both in the context of citizen science and in general—depend on not only the educational context but also larger sociocultural contexts. This framing suggests that these sociocultural factors are part of the inputs, sometimes implicit, in any citizen science project. This includes, of course, the things people come into the project with: What a person learns is influenced by prior knowledge, motivations for participating, and previous experience with science, to name just a few. Our analysis of learning outcomes led us to consider the different ways people enter into citizen science projects, the different experiences they bring into and have as part of citizen science projects, and the way both of those things may influence learning outcomes.
Early on in this work, the committee realized that in order to effectively address the study charge as laid out, it was important to delineate not only what kind of science learning could occur through citizen science, but also who it is that learns through citizen science. After extensive deliberation, the committee agreed that although professional scientist practitioners of citizen science stand to learn a lot by conducting citizen science, the focus of this study is the science learning of citizen science participants. In the event that professional scientists are participating in citizen science as members of the public (and not in service of their own scientific goals), this study is concerned with that learning as well. Finally, we use the term “project designer” to indicate the entities involved in the structuring of a citizen science experience, including professional scientists and other relevant community stakeholders. The term “participant” is intended to encompass individuals and communities who engage in some aspect/s of a citizen science project or activity. Also along these same lines, we use the word “project” in reference to those citizen science experiences that are planned and constructed in service of specific citizen science goals, whereas citizen science “activities” refer to the various kinds of things one might do or engage with while participating in citizen science.
Though science learning can certainly happen as an unintended byproduct of participation in citizen science, the committee elected to focus its attention on the kinds of citizen science experiences where achieving science learning outcomes is an expressed goal of participation. Though “by-product of participation” learning outcomes are valuable, the com-
mittee was charged to “develop a set of evidence-based principles to guide the design of citizen science projects.” As a result, the committee decided to focus its investigation on projects where participation leads to specific, intended learning outcomes as opposed to projects where learning was not explicitly identified as a goal for participation. This distinction helped the committee understand how projects planned for learning goals.
In its investigation, the committee identified three ways that citizen science supports intentional learning outcomes:
- Citizen science designed for learning. These are projects that are intentionally designed to support science learning from the outset (often alongside other goals). In this example, scientists, science educators, and perhaps even community leaders, work together to design a project, from the beginning, with learning goals in mind and explicitly consider how learning goals and outcomes complement other project goals, like accurate data collection.
- Citizen science adapted or repurposed for learning. These are citizen science projects that were originally designed without explicit learning goals and have been later used to promote learning. Often, this involves people who were not part of the original design who add additional learning supports to a citizen science project. For example, a Girl Scout troupe that participates in a citizen science project through Scistarter1 and takes advantage of the supplementary materials prepared to help reflect on what the girls learned through participating and what it meant.
- Citizen science practices used for learning. In this case, practices or elements of citizen science are used to promote learning, but some essential feature of citizen science is missing—often the link to some purpose beyond learning. For example, borrowing a GLOBE protocol for use in a classroom monitoring of a local stream, without sharing that data back into the wider GLOBE community or using it in local decisions.
Parsing these types of science learning experiences allowed the committee to be specific about both why and how science learning is likely to occur from citizen science activities—a task that is a necessary prerequisite to identifying project design considerations.
In addition to the challenging work of interpreting the committee charge, the committee also needed to have several other important conversations that would frame our later analyses. In this section, we explain which issues surfaced as particularly important and compelling in order to set up our later analytic discussions.
In interpreting this part of the charge, the committee agreed that the potential to achieve learning outcomes is not the same as achieving learning outcomes. Instead, we sought to focus on the evidence available to identify both potential and documented learning outcomes in citizen science. In order to sort through the plethora of claims about the potential of citizen science to support learning, the committee needed to agree on certain standards of evidence that could be relied on to support our argumentation. A very strong kind of evidence for learning comes from dedicated studies of learning outcomes in the context of citizen science but, not surprisingly for a field that has emerged relatively recently, focused investigations of learning outcomes in citizen science are rare. While the few available investigations are compelling, they do not provide enough evidence to make definitive statements about learning from citizen science. The committee found it more helpful to delve into the large body of research on learning science and map this robust literature to the landscape of citizen science. The bulk of this report, therefore, describes what research on science learning and teaching, including theories of learning, offers to the design of citizen science, or to using practices of citizen science to support learning outcomes. Similarly, literature on volunteerism was useful for understanding some of the aspects of science learning related to identity motivation and persistence in citizen science. For developing guidance on the design of citizen science projects to support learning outcomes, the committee delved deeply into literature on design, with a particular focus on design theory applied to designing for learning. Finally, the committee found the experience of citizen science practitioners, as reported in person, nonacademic writing, or conference presentations, to be invaluable pointers toward potential learning outcomes that could be investigated more thoroughly using peer-reviewed sources.
The committee entered into this work with a commitment to exploring how people of all backgrounds can learn through citizen science, and that meant exploring the intersection of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and
learning in citizen science (see Box 1-2). While recognizing that we have not reached parity in terms of all people’s opportunities to learn, contribute to, and benefit from science, the committee is inspired by progress in the fields of science, education, and science education. Because citizen science is built around interaction between scientist and nonscientists, it offers an opportunity to welcome beliefs, epistemologies, and ideas that historically have not been as included in science. As we discuss in Chapter 7, however, this opportunity will only be realized if diversity, equity, and inclusion are part of the goals in the design and implementation of citizen science. Further, the committee notes well-established scholarship showing that failing to consider these aspects in the design of educational systems can lead to the perpetuation of inequity (Banks, 1997).
No discussion of science learning is complete without careful attention to the needs and opportunities, barriers and access points, and assets and challenges for learners with different backgrounds, experiences, contexts, and histories. Further, the committee agreed unanimously that discussions of learning must consider who is learning, what they are learning, who is deciding on learning goals and outcomes, and how those goals are reached. Addressing these questions meant that the committee needed to wrestle with issues of privilege, acknowledge historic patterns of discrimination, grapple with current structural inequities, and explore biases.
Citizen science, like science, is practiced in an imperfect world. Unless they actively try to combat society’s pervasive inequities, citizen science project designers are necessarily influenced by the world around them. For instance, if a project requires use of specific research protocols in order to participate but does not ensure that participants can read, understand, and work with the protocol, the project is likely to engage people with the education and experience necessary to complete the work. Narrowing the field of who can participate in this way has the potential to obstruct a project’s educational goals and, ultimately, deepen existing inequities. People who design, implement, and participate in citizen science must therefore 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, the committee believes that addressing these issues is essential.
The goals of citizen science often include a mix of goals around advancing science and goals around serving participants. Participant-oriented goals at the scale of the individual include advancing learning and motivation. At the scale of the project, scientific goals include accumulating high-quality information that can then be used in decision making—whether those decisions describe a scientific discovery or innovation, or a resource management, environmental health, or even human health outcome. Are these goals and scales compatible? Stated another way, can a citizen science project that promotes learning also advance science?
The committee suggests that science learning goals and scientific project goals are not only compatible but also mutually reinforcing. Evidence suggests that attention to participant learning can increase the quality of
data and analysis in citizen science. First, however, it is critical to overcome unfounded biases against citizen science data (see Box 1-3).
If it is accepted that citizen science is a valuable tool for expanding and deepening scientific inquiry, then attending to the learning outcomes of participants should be an important consideration for project designers. This, in itself, is one way that advancing learning and advancing science are compatible: More science learning by participants has the potential to improve their contribution to the project and potentially enhance the chance of the discovery and scientific advancement in the project. Citizen science has the ability to spark new science questions or launch new investigations, and balancing participant learning goals with the scientific goals of the project provides an additional venue for interactions that can bring participants’ ideas to the surface.
The committee made a number of methodological and analytic decisions in order to conduct the investigations necessary to complete this report. In this section, we detail our approach to addressing the study charge, as well as this report’s intended audiences. We conclude with a description of the organization of this report.
The committee held four in-person meetings and one telephone meeting over the course of the study. The first meeting was largely information gathering at which we heard from a variety of stakeholders, including our project sponsors: Janet Coffey from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Bridget Conneely and Dennis Liu from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Greg Boustead from the Simons Foundation. Rick Bonney from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Sarah Kirn from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute offered framing perspectives on the potential of citizen science, and Leona Schauble from Vanderbilt University and Leslie Herrenkohl from the University of Washington provided insight into the landscape of science learning.
The second public meeting took place over 3 days, and allowed the committee to delve into specific issues. Cindy Hmelo-Silver from Indiana University and Joe Polman from the University of Colorado Boulder kicked off the event, offering a deeper dive into the science learning literature. Heidi Ballard from the University of California, Davis, provided the keynote address with an overview on the potential of citizen science to support science learning. On day 2, Bill Zoellick from the Schoodic Institute, Ruth Kermish-Allen from Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance, and Rebecca
Jordan from Rutgers University did a panel on frameworks for designing learning opportunities in citizen science. Rob Dunn from North Carolina State University; Andrea Wiggins from the University of Nebraska Omaha; Jennifer Fee from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; and Linda Peterson from Fairfax County Public Schools, conducted a panel on citizen science in K–12 classrooms. Gwen Ottinger from Drexel University; Michael Mascarenhas from the University of California, Berkeley; and Muki Haklay from University College London offered insight into citizen science and community learning outcomes. Karen Peterman from Karen Peterman Consulting and Cat Stylinski from the University of Maryland conducted a panel on assessing learning in citizen science, and Laura Trouille from Zooniverse and the Adler Planetarium, Kathryn “Kit” Matthew from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, and Sue Allen from Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance closed the event with a panel on citizen science in informal settings.
In addition to the public meeting, the committee held a listening session as part of the meeting of the Citizen Science Association’s 2017 Meeting, as described in Box 1-4.
After the public meetings, the committee met in closed session to review and debate evidence and develop consensus around conclusions and recommendations. The committee reviewed multiple evidence bases to develop their arguments around how citizen science might address science learning and how those opportunities could be designed to maximize specific learning outcomes.
Several fields of scholarship were considered throughout this work. The committee considered literatures from science education and the learning sciences, as well as the science of program design and design theory. Citizen science literature, while still a nascent field, offered invaluable insight into the specific issues one must consider when planning for citizen science programming. A growing body of research on learning in the context of citizen science helped us understand which learning outcomes were proximal to citizen science participation and which kinds of learning outcomes required more supports. As discussed above, the committee spent much of its time investigating the application of scholarship from the learning sciences and design theory to the practical work of citizen science in order to delineate the specific possibilities for learning that participation in citizen science might embody.
The committee also commissioned three papers to support its work. Heidi Ballard from the University of California, Davis, provided a paper that expanded on her keynote address from our public meeting on citizen science and science identity. Bill Sandoval from the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote a paper on design-based research in education and its potential in citizen science. Christopher Hoadley from New York University provided a paper on supporting science learning through intentional design strategy. These papers enabled the committee to address the entirety of the statement of task.
The committee discussed at length the breadth of audiences who might find this report useful. As a result, we have attempted to write throughout to meet the needs of multiple constituent groups. We want this report to be useful to as many citizen science stakeholders as possible. The following groups are just some of the audiences we hope will find value in our investigation:
- Educators, scientists, instructional designers, citizen science practitioners, who want to design and implement new citizen science projects in ways that maximize learning for project participants.
- Educators and community leaders who want to leverage existing citizen science projects to advance science learning in their communities, classrooms, museums, or programs.
- Citizen science project leaders who want to understand more about learning in order to provide better supports for participants in their existing programs.
- Researchers who want to understand the boundaries of what we know about citizen science and science learning and help push on those boundaries.
- Funders and policy makers who want to understand the promise of citizen science in order to support programs, policies, and projects that advance that promise through proven practices.
- Policy makers and curriculum designers who want to know how citizen science can be leveraged to support science learning.
- Researchers who want to advance our understanding of how citizen science contributes to science learning and what the practice of citizen science can reveal about science learning more generally.
This report is organized into seven chapters, with four appendixes. Chapter 2 describes citizen science, detailing what differentiates participation in citizen science activity from other science experiences and mapping the landscape of experiences. Chapter 3 provides an overview of why citizen science is an appropriate and effective context for science learning. Chapter 4 provides a deeper look at the processes of learning as well as specific kinds of learning in science, and Chapter 5 provides insight into how specific science learning outcomes play out in citizen science contexts. Chapter 6 uses design theory to offer guidelines for project designers and educators to use in order to achieve learning outcomes in citizen science projects or in processes borrowed from citizen science. In Chapter 7, we conclude the report with a summary of the report’s conclusions and offer recommendations for continued practice and further research. Appendix A presents a table that summarizes demographic trends in participation in citizen science. Appendix B includes a brief description of how design research can and has been used in educational contexts. The committee performed an ad hoc analysis of 28 citizen science projects to review their claims and efforts related to science learning outcomes, which we have included in Appendix C. Appendix D contains biographical sketches of committee members and staff.
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