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. In this chapter, we summarize the committee’s findings throughout the report, offer brief summaries of our major messages, and give some recommendations for how to further the work of supporting science learning through citizen science for both practitioners and researchers. Finally, we offer a formal conclusion.
In engaging in that work, the committee found it necessary to clarify terms and unpack challenging concepts. First, we needed to calibrate different understandings of what constitutes citizen science. We recognized that our different understandings arose, in part, from the multiple histories that have contributed to citizen science. In particular, the committee noticed three converging histories for citizen science: one rooted in established science, characterized by scientists reaching out to nonscientists for their help advancing science. Another history is rooted in community groups reaching out to scientists to bring science to bear on a community priority. Finally, youth educators in both formal and informal settings represent a third community that has contributed to developing relationships between citizen science and science learning and has been active in pointing the way toward new ways of integrating them. These different histories are not mutually exclusive or complete, but they do illuminate the range of
approaches, motivations, and participation that are part of citizen science. The committee believes that this diversity is a strength and opportunity of citizen science, and rather than constrain citizen science with a singular definition, we found it useful to describe how it is distinct from more traditional science inquiry.
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.
The committee identified several traits common to many citizen science projects. Though projects do not necessarily have to possess these traits in order to count as citizen science, these traits are often characteristic of citizen science activities. The traits identified by the committee show that, generally, citizen science projects actively engage participants, engage participants with data, use a systematic approach to producing reliable knowledge, help advance science, and communicate results. Participants in citizen science generally chose to be involved and benefit from participation.
There is ample evidence that diversity1 enhances scientific discovery and impact. Diversity is a source of new scientific questions, practices, insights, and evidence, all of which enhance discovery and innovation. Broader participation in science can help ensure that the priorities and needs of all communities, not just majority communities, are reflected in the research agenda of science. As an activity that explicitly broadens participation in science by welcoming people who are not and do not intend to be practicing scientists, citizen science has the potential to bring more and different people into the fold of science, and can be a mechanism by which marginalized groups can influence scientific agendas and guide science in directions that reflect their priorities.
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.
As the committee will discuss in the recommendations, the fact that citizen science could introduce new ideas into science does not mean it will. Moreover, the fact that citizen science allows opportunities for more diversity does not mean designers and other stakeholders will use that
1 The committee defines diversity in Chapter 1 of this report to mean “the differences among individuals, including demographic differences such as sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, and country of origin, among others.”
opportunity effectively. Taking advantage of these opportunities requires conscious attention to issues of power, willingness to examine practices for implicit and explicit bias, and skill in engaging diverse perspectives. All of this, evidence suggests, is facilitated by engaging in a process of collaborative project design.
In attempting to address its statement of task, the committee recognized that it was important to first understand who engages in citizen science. That is, before it is possible to plan for learning through participation in citizen science, it is critical to know who participates, what the modes of participation look like, and what kinds of learning outcomes are reasonable to expect through participation. Our efforts to identify who participates in citizen science were frustrated by incomplete data. Though the data that do exist points to certain trends in participation, the committee was surprised to find that popular notions of who participates in citizen science are often based on limited data.
Only a small number of projects collect and make available data about participants, and there are significant differences in how different projects characterize their participants. Both of these make it challenging to draw overarching conclusions about who participates in citizen science. The committee observed that where the data do exist, they are likely to over-represent large-scale projects with sufficient technological and financial support to have a Web presence, as well as those projects that are connected to educational researchers at universities. We learned about several projects with a community-driven history that did not report their participation in peer-reviewed literature, suggesting that these projects (and their more diverse participants) may be undercounted. Youth who participate in citizen science may also be undercounted, potentially because many people who use citizen science projects as part of formal and informal education activities do not publish as often. For these reasons and others detailed in this report, the committee finds that this limited participant data is likely to underrepresent critical populations, such as communities of color, youth participants, and people from lower socioeconomic statuses.
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 is biased toward white middle- and upper-class populations.
Though limitations in the availability of data may fail to recognize certain kinds of participants or modes of participation, the committee did
observe some trends in the data that do exist. In Chapter 2 of this report, the committee delves into some emergent trends in the kinds of projects that report participation data. The committee reflects on these trends throughout the report and offers additional relevant recommendations to the field below.
In examining learning in citizen science projects, the committee was struck by the way that attending to learning could advance other goals that are often part of citizen science. For example, we saw evidence that helping participants develop and practice the skills associated with data collection improved the quality of data collected, which is good both for science and the communities who base subsequent action on that data.
CONCLUSION 4: Participants’ learning through citizen science has benefits not only for participants and scientists but also for communities and science.
One of the committee’s primary tasks was to distinguish between the aspirations for citizen science to support science learning and the actual documented evidence of science learning through participation. For instance, the committee heard reports that citizen science engaged students who did not participate in other science activities, but we did not find widespread evidence that citizen science reached all reluctant learners. We found that enthusiasm about citizen science’s potential occasionally clouds what is actually known about what kinds of learning occur in citizen science. While there is some evidence that participation in citizen science projects can enhance science learning, more studies are needed that examine processes of learning and document specific learning outcomes in a wider variety of contexts including more diverse learners. Such studies would buttress these early findings and provide more robust guidance that could be used to maximize learning outcomes for all learners.
CONCLUSION 5: There is evidence that citizen science projects can contribute to specific learning outcomes in particular contexts and for some learners.
Based on emerging evidence from available research and the carefully articulated observations of practitioners, the committee was convinced that multiple kinds of learning through citizen science are achievable with intentional planning. The committee considered what learning outcomes were accessible in citizen science through the framework offered in the
National Research Council study Learning Science in Informal Environments (National Research Council, 2009). These six strands of science learning helped the committee to delineate what kinds of outcomes might be reasonably expected and offer insight into what conditions are necessary to bring about specific kinds of learning.
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.
Supporting learning in citizen science requires recognition of the various ways that people enter into and travel through a citizen science experience. Participants bring personal motivations and interests into citizen science projects, which can support and enhance science learning and may change over time. Knowing about and responding to this shifting array of motivations and interests can help project designers and implementers advance learning goals. For example, knowing how a participant might begin his or her work as an interested volunteer who collects data according to a well-established protocol and then move on to help guide the project can help project implementers and designers to enable pathways like these and to enhance learning along these pathways.
Research shows that more learning occurs when learners’ knowledge and previous experiences are welcomed into learning environments, and learners are given opportunities to connect previous experience and knowledge to new concepts or ideas. Research also suggests that when learners’ prior knowledge and experiences are neglected, marginalized, or treated as wrong, it slows science learning, undermines interest in science, and diminishes agency to use science. Evidence reveals that this happens more often to individuals from communities of color, lower income communi-
ties, and Indigenous communities. The committee emphasizes the value in using citizen science to engage with participants’ lived experience, cultural knowledge, and rich epistemologies in a way that underscores rather than rebukes connections to science.
Learners’ identities influence learning outcomes. Here, identities need to be understood in terms not only of identity within the scientific enterprise, but also their larger cultural identity and how that intersects with science. A historic and comprehensive understanding of how the scientific community has treated traditionally marginalized groups or cultures allows for projects to explicitly address longstanding and ongoing tensions and facilitate individual learning.
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.
Science learning has been extensively studied in many contexts, and for many learners. Certain principles discovered about science learning are especially relevant to citizen science.
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.
The committee recognizes that within the institution of science, social structures exist to continually privilege some demographic groups in ways that mirror society at large. If issues of power and privilege are not explicitly investigated and managed in ways that minimize inequity, citizen science projects are likely to default to the same kinds of power structures already at work. For instance, a project can amplify existing inequity by preferentially engaging people with previous scientific experience. On the other hand, explicitly building projects to welcome, include, and advance
learners and their contributions from a wide variety of backgrounds creates a richer learning environment for all learners.
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.
In addition to learning outcomes for individuals, the committee found that citizen science can contribute to learning outcomes at the community level. Indeed, some projects can be designed with community outcomes, including science literacy, as the primary goal. In this context, the committee found the notion of community science literacy—a community’s ability to leverage collectively held but individually distributed expertise—particularly useful (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016). The committee acknowledges that science literacy and science learning are not synonymous but notes that community science literacy can be bolstered when some constituent individual learning outcomes (such as content area expertise, or facility with the use and misuse of scientific methodologies) are grown and strengthened. Though evidence in this arena is limited, the committee found some case study evidence that community participation in citizen science can contribute to a community’s science literacy when some specific learning outcomes are realized. As with learning by individuals, we found that the potential for citizen science to contribute to community science literacy is not realized automatically but requires attention in design and implementation.
CONCLUSION 10: Community participation in citizen science activities can support the development of community science literacy.
In creating opportunities for communities that have historically been marginalized to develop scientific projects that pursue their goals and enhance their community science literacy, citizen science has the potential to shift traditional scientific notions of whose questions are considered worthy of scientific investigation, what kinds of data and methods are considered scientific, and who gets to lead and participate in scientific inquiry. The committee recognizes that while participation in citizen science has the potential to enact these shifts, they are unlikely to occur without acknowledging past inequities and finding and changing current practices that either ignore or perpetuate inequity. Bringing a historic and comprehensive understanding of how traditionally marginalized groups have been
treated by the scientific community allows for project design that explicitly addresses longstanding (and ongoing) tensions.
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.
Design is the process of turning ideas and intent into action. Being intentional in design is a critical component in achieving science learning through citizen science. To intentionally design in the ways the committee has talked about in this report requires a level of commitment and resources that may differ from historical approaches to developing citizen science projects. There are, however, free resources to do this, and the committee has attempted to identify such resources in this report where appropriate.
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.
Modern theories of design describe it as an ongoing process of learning, prototyping, gathering feedback, and refining. State-of-the-art design includes engaging stakeholders2 in all aspects of the design process. In science, this understanding of design can be seen in participatory methods for science such as coproduction, participatory research, and boundary-spanning organizations. Applied to science learning, and science learning in citizen science, modern design theory makes it clear that design for learning outcomes, and therefore learning outcomes themselves, is enhanced by designing with learners and other participants in an iterative process.
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.
2 For the purposes of this report, the committee considers “stakeholders” to be individuals concerned with the immediate design and implementation of a citizen science project. These entities include project designers, project facilitators, participants, and relevant community actors.
The committee finds no evidence that designing for learning in this way undermines the larger scientific goals of a project; rather, we see that designing in this way advances learning in ways that may even enrich the project outcomes and project experience for all stakeholders. In summary, citizen science projects that are designed with participants rather than for participants are better poised to actually bring about desired learning in the context of citizen science participation. This collaborative approach, while always recommended, is especially helpful for uncovering and addressing some of the factors that undermine traditionally underserved and underrepresented groups and individuals. By working to enable learning and participation for a wider range of learners, participatory design enhances learning opportunities for all learners.
Some contexts may be more appropriate for certain kinds of learning outcomes and, accordingly, context (and all the considerations therein) should be carefully addressed in project design. The committee discussed the role of learning environment in project design and found that while there are benefits to recommend citizen science activities to formal learning environments, it is critical that the educators engage with citizen science with the appropriate level of support to achieve specific outcomes.
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.
In summary, there is clear evidence that citizen science presents opportunities for individuals to learn science, and that individual science learning can help advance a broader set of project goals and a community’s ability to leverage science for their benefit. Learning outcomes around science content and process require some supports for learning, while learning outcomes related to scientific reasoning, identity, and data require even more explicit support. All learning outcomes are more likely with intentional design, and design is better when done with a broad range of stakeholders.
Identity, interest, and motivation are especially rich areas of inquiry. Citizen science can contribute to identity as someone who participates in science, and that is both a learning outcome and something that enables other learning outcomes. Identity is also connected to a larger cultural and social context, and that larger cultural and social context is an especially important consideration for communities and members of communities that have had their identity undermined, marginalized, or neglected. Citizen science, by virtue of expanding the scope of science, has the potential to medi-
ate these tensions if it is willing to take up that challenge. If it does, it can pioneer practices and approaches that could be used in science writ large.
The committee was asked to develop a set of evidence-based principles to guide the design of citizen science projects. In this chapter, the committee offers general principles that are relevant across citizen science and should be applied to the design and implementation of all projects. Many of 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—discussed throughout—that designers include a wide and representative range of stakeholders and that effective design extends well into implementation.
These overarching recommendations for enabling learning from citizen science are supplemented by a set of evidence-based suggestions that can be used by designers (again, broadly construed) to advance learning in specific citizen science projects. These suggestions, or guidelines, are developed in detail in Chapter 6.
In thinking about learning in citizen science, our committee was confronted early and often with the reality that citizen science is embedded in a larger set of cultural practices and that these practices can be less than equitable. Assumptions about who is eligible and prepared to participate in science activities, what kind of knowledge counts as science, and even who is entitled to ask or answer scientific questions are influenced, not always positively, by attitudes and practices in society at large. To put it another way, science, especially citizen science, is a sociocultural activity. Along with the positive learning opportunities that come with social and cultural interaction, comes the possibility of inheriting and propagating biases that inhibit learning. And these biases do not just inhibit learning for members of the groups that are targeted by the biases; by limiting the breadth of people and ideas, they inhibit learning for everyone.
In order to ensure that participation in citizen science does not unquestioningly accept biases and inadvertently propagate existing and historical inequities that undermine learning, the committee positioned its first recommendation around understanding issues of power and intentionally designing to promote equity. The history of design and sociocultural theories of learning both make it clear that if citizen science stakeholders do not explicitly question implicit biases and inequitable distributions of power, and work to minimize their impact, they are likely to design proj-
ects that cater to a narrow range of learners. Most often, the narrow range consists of members of dominant social groups, defined above. Conversely, explicitly considering inequity, finding ways to minimize barriers for all learners, and designing to welcome and respect members and ideas from nondominant groups can result in more diverse, equitable participation, which improves project outcomes for all stakeholders. It also offers insight into how science as a whole can move toward more equitable outcomes and broader participation.
In order to engage in this work, the committee recommends that designers, researchers, participants, and other stakeholders in citizen science examine existing inequities that can impede participation in all facets of citizen science, and design pathways around those inequities. This work entails welcoming diverse ideas, methods, and epistemologies, particularly from communities whose contributions have been neglected or minimized, in the design and implementation of citizen science projects.
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.
In examining existing citizen science projects, the committee found a number of projects that could take better advantage of the state-of-the art understanding about science learning. Often, these projects were designed and led by scientists with deep expertise in the discipline of the project, but less experience in education, educational design, or education research. Conversely, projects that involved education researchers, educators, and people with expertise in education presented more evidence of learning. By the same token, these kinds of partnerships can also help advance research about learning from citizen science.
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.
The committee cannot underscore the next point enough: Success in learning outcomes through citizen science is enhanced by intentionally 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.
Design theory makes it clear that strong collaborations among multiple stakeholders helps to broaden participation and support learning. Strong collaborations approach citizen science design as a partnership where all stakeholders are active participants with valuable insights and contributions. Further, strong collaborations avoid positioning participants as “targets” of citizen science activities who must be managed by others who seek to help them overcome a lack of knowledge, but focus instead on understanding participants needs, expectations, and areas of expertise.
In practice, this looks like engaging with potential stakeholders early and often in the process of designing a citizen science project or adapting an existing citizen science project to promote learning. This can be done by engaging in discussions with a broad range of stakeholders (including scientists, education researchers, educators, learners, and members of learners’ communities) about learning goals and how they can support individual or community goals. In those discussions, project leads should make a concerted effort to talk with individuals from a diverse range of communities to learn about their participation—what it might look like, what might get in the way, and what might produce more value for them to participate. If there are difficulties—for example, a community with limited access to the project—exploring how to overcome those barriers is preferable to not continuing to work with that community. A leadership team that includes scientists and potential participants can facilitate these conversations. From these discussions, it can be helpful to build a prototype, and use that prototype to anchor subsequent discussions. Strong collaborations grow from these discussions and the iterative work afterward, and they are aided by being explicit about the collaboration and developing a common and clear understanding around roles, decision making, data collections and sharing, and ownership of intellectual property.
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 advance in itself, contribute to what we know about how people learn science,
and broaden participation in 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.
Existing research can begin to point stakeholders toward understanding the mechanisms at work when attempting to design citizen science to support science learning. Given the somewhat nascent nature of the field of citizen science as its own research domain, however, more research on the long-term strategies for how to support science learning is necessary in order to clarify and develop evidence-based practices and understand common elements and variations across a variety of sociocultural and practical contexts. The committee wishes to point out that design-based research may be especially fruitful here: Not only will future research inform the design of citizen science projects but also design-based research in citizen science could also offer significant contributions to developing and refining theories about learning in citizen science. In particular, design-based research is well suited to characterize the challenges and opportunities presented by the range of contexts in which citizen science learning takes place.
More rigorous research, more documentation of effective practice, and more attention to equity will grow the foundation of practice that can be used to advance learning outcomes in citizen science.
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.
Research is essential to continued advancement in citizen science, and formal, peer-reviewed research remains a gold standard for understanding how learning happens in citizen science and leveraging citizen science to advance our understanding of how people learn in many contexts. This report is a starting point for future analyses that go into more depth on key parts of science learning or consider new results made available after this report.
There are three important factors to consider. First, citizen science extends beyond academia, and this means that evidence for successful practices that advance learning can be found outside of published peer-reviewed journals. In the process of preparing this report, the committee learned from conversations with a variety of stakeholders, blogs, and other online communications about citizen science, posters and informal presentations,
and unpublished papers. In disseminating strategies that are useful for supporting learning, the citizen science research community should continue to learn from a wide variety of communication formats and not confine itself to the peer-reviewed literature.
Second, research should include attention to practice and link theory to application. The committee heard from practitioners and researchers alike about the challenges of translating emerging research on learning to actual practice in citizen science. Citizen science, as a nascent field, does not have codified divisions between educational researchers and practitioners. For instance, practitioners and researchers involved in citizen science attend the same conference and are members of the same professional society. This interaction between research and practice is unique, and the committee sees it as an opportunity to investigate how research-to-practice can work well. More importantly, we see the interplay of researchers and practitioners as one facet of productive collaborative design and urge the citizen science community to continue to welcome and respect contributions from both theory and practice. Examining the interplay of research and practice in citizen science could point to strategies for linking research and practice that can be used beyond citizen science.
Finally, the committee underlines the importance of paying attention to diversity in all of these meta-analyses, including ensuring broad participation in the design and implementation of the research.
Citizen science has the opportunity to develop research methodologies that allow more intercomparison across and among projects, as well as practical tools to help build capacity among practitioners seeking to support science learning. Pursuing these new lines of inquiry can help add value to the existing research, make future research more productive, and provide support for effective project implementation.
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.
The committee acknowledges that the field could strongly benefit from the creation, testing, and improvement of accessible tools for practitioners to use to support science learning through citizen science. Though the committee holds that effective collaboration remains the primary way to design for specific learning outcomes in specific learning contexts, the committee also recognizes that not all stakeholders will always have access to the best collaborators. As a result, the committee notes that it would be particularly useful if practitioners were able to rely on proven design tools to help isolate desired learning outcomes and backward map program participation to
support achievement in learning. When developing these tools, researchers need to find ways to account for the unique assets and insights that different individuals bring to their experience with citizen science, especially for individuals who come from historically underrepresented communities.
RECOMMENDATION 7: The committee recommends the citizen science community collaborate to identify, enhance, and develop shared tools and platforms that they can use to support science learning across a large number of citizen science projects.
This report represents our attempt to synthesize the best available research on citizen science and science learning. Future work should build on the evidence drawn out in this report and continue to realize the potential of citizen science.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2016). Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
National Research Council. (2009). Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
This page intentionally left blank.