The Importance of Citizen Science

This summer we are offering several camp sessions for kids in Grades 3-6 which will enable them to get directly involved in the emerging discipline of citizen science.  What is it?  

As you might expect, scientists can't be everywhere all of the time and so miss out on collecting a ton of data that could be collected if there was a virtual army of people available to do that work.  It turns out that that army exists and is growing everyday. Scientists are not necessarily using the data collected by citizen scientists to support their studies but rather use it as a "haystack" which can inform them of hotspots or possible trends around which they can design studies.  In other cases, citizen scientist collected information is directly requested as part of the design of the study. 

Native peoples were the first to engage in citizen science, and they did that for centuries.  Without taking note of the seasonal changes in local plant and animal abundance, they would have starved.  They were experts in collecting this information by necessity.  Since then, people have collected incidental observations about seasonal changes for purposes ranging from determining when crops should be planted to choosing the best times to fish and hunt.  More recent examples have been bird counts and bioblitzes, which attempt to catalog all of the species in a given area.  iNaturalist and other apps and interfaces make data collection a straightforward process for lay people.

It turns out that another time of collecting information by necessity is upon us. Climate change is already changing the migration patterns of birds, precipitation patterns that affect the water supply and much more, and many other natural cycles.  By making sure that we are gathering information about these changes, we can document these changes which may lead to policy changes.

This summer we will collaborate with local organizations such as the Save the Redwoods League, the River Otter Ecology Project, SPAWN and many more.  With the Save the Redwoods League we will photograph and document the numbers, size and other details of sword ferns, and indicator plant in our coast redwood forests.  Finding evidence of otters through tracking their sign (tracks, scat and slips) as well as hopefully finding the actual animals helps to document population numbers.  And our work with SPAWN will include determining the numbers of Coho salmon fry who will spend almost a year in our creeks before migrating out to the ocean as well as creek health indicators such as the presence of woody debris and certain kinds of insect larvae.

Citizen science is an emergent field that is easy to share with kids and may just get them taking inventory of the creatures and plants that live in their gardens or their schoolyards.  For more information, check out Mary Ellen Hannibal's new book, Citizen Scientists: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction.