Putting the Citizens in Citizen Science

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   A climate change and vegetation monitoring project in Joshua Tree National Park 2015

A climate change and vegetation monitoring project in Joshua Tree National Park 2015


Citizen Science refers to research projects that involve data or observations gathered from everyday people.  It isn’t a new concept. In the 1830s, William Whewell coordinated thousands of volunteers (by letter!... through the mail!) in nine countries to measure Atlantic tides on the same dates. Two new highly entertaining books describe the history and current progress of citizen science: Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery by Caren Cooper (released on 12/20) and Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction by Mary Ellen Hannibal. Read more about the pros and cons of citizen science in this Nature article.

There are citizen science projects representing almost all scientific disciplines.  Volunteer for one in your area of research to broaden your understanding of the larger field and what studies are currently under way.  Or find a project about something that has always interested you like dogs or volcanoes or comets. 

As a science librarian I’ve never had to settle for just one discipline so I am a beta tester for Zooniverse.  Some days I’m counting capybara on wildlife cams and the next day I’m categorizing galaxies.  Zooniverse provides examples, guides and templates so that I learn along the way.

If you aren’t sure what sort of project you’d like to participate in, SciStarter is a database of thousands of projects you can sort through by type or interest. Review Field Museum projects to get ideas of how to participate in Chicago.  Project Squirrel, co-founded by UIC’s Joel Brown and collects information on populations of gray and fox squirrels in Chicago and around the country.

Citizen science projects are a great way for non-scientists to learn about their environment.  Do you have a relative who thinks climate change is a hoax? It’s ok. Many of us do.  One of the best ways to change someone’s mind about a fundamental belief about the environment is to get them involved in the science (see Citizen Science). Measuring rainfall, storm reporting, and wildlife surveying are easy ways people can contribute to important research and forecasting while learning more about the natural world.

Have you participated in a citizen science project here at UIC or elsewhere? Tell me about it (clantz@uic.edu). Future newsletters depend on you!