Community and citizen science: A brief history and report from CitSci 2019

From its beginning, we at the Concord Consortium have advocated for the notion that young people can produce high-quality, meaningful data to answer real questions. More than 20 years ago, Concord Consortium founder Robert Tinker sketched a compelling vision for authentic science in schools and communities, making the case that anyone can be a scientist. As Bob put it, “credentials are far less important than having an inquiring mind.”

At the center of Bob’s vision were the growing power and increasing prevalence of microcomputers and networks that could facilitate partnerships that spanned institutions, geographies, and levels of expertise. One of his early grants from the National Science Foundation proposed a set of guided inquiry activities that utilized telecommunication networks to share data across states in 1987. Kids across a network could engage in the practices of science and contribute to the work of scientists by making observations and sharing their interpretations. Three years later this work became the basis of the National Geographic Kids Network and the term “citizen science” was coined to describe how the public could be invited to join the scientific enterprise and shape science policies.

Today, Bob’s vision is coming to fruition under the umbrella of community and citizen science (CCS). Technologically, computer networks have expanded to cover the globe. Wi-Fi hotspots are providing connectivity and many mobile phones now come with multiple sensors like gyroscopes, GPS location tracking, and built-in cameras. Low-cost sensors, cheap online storage, and fast networks are enabling many to participate in scientific data sharing and analysis. Simple tools such as a mobile photo camera can capture an image and location of, say, a lizard lounging on a rock, and instantly broadcast this to an international community to verify its species. From their living rooms, people—young or old—can participate in science by opening their computers and describing sage grouse behavior, assessing galaxy shape, or folding proteins in a game. Residents concerned about the abundance of tar balls appearing on their local beach can monitor and report the size and frequency to an online environmental monitoring community. Schools, neighborhoods, or whole communities can grab their cameras and join together to document the plants and animals in their backyards, parks, and other important places, creating snapshots that help us understand changes in climate and habitat over time. These are just a handful of examples of data production enabled by tools that probe and observe scientific phenomena.

Yet, while technology has expanded the scope and reach of CCS, research participation in science by (and for) non-professional scientists is not new. For hundreds of years, naturalists, collectors, diarists, and record keepers of all manner, including those who lacked formal scientific training and credentials, have shaped our understanding of the natural world. Large-scale events, like Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, started in 1900, made participation in science recreational and communal, with the sharing of stories and experiences gaining importance alongside the sharing of data. Environmental monitoring for purposes of ecological understanding or assessing human health impacts also has a long history with invaluable contributions from environmental justice movements, local conservation groups, and commercial interests like fisherman and farmers. In addition, the creation of universal protocols makes it possible to gather data from places where professional scientists may not have time to reach. These can range from instructions on how to track marine debris on a beach, how to gather air samples for analysis, or how to build a balloon that can map coastlines.

Today, citizen science abounds in multiple professional citizen science organizations, community science groups, and amateur science clubs all contributing to collective scientific activity. At the Concord Consortium, we continue to work toward a vision of science education in which learners encounter real, unanswered questions and have access to the tools to answer them. We have developed curricula and handheld technologies to support learners in school and out-of-school settings to collect data using sensors and probeware across several inquiry-based science projects. For example, homeowners curious about solar energy can use our web-based software Energy3D to simulate how much power could be generated from their rooftops, while they also contribute data to a worldwide Virtual Solar Grid. As an international community grows around its use, Energy3D crowdsources a fine-grained, time-dependent, and multi-scale computational model, which could influence different energy futures and policies.

At the recent CitSci 2019 conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, hosted by the Citizen Science Association, I had the opportunity to present ongoing research projects exploring how practices and priorities of data science intersect with those of science education, as well as those that participants and community members bring to scientific work. I also introduced Paper Mechatronics and other computational crafts to the citizen science community as a way to help participants tell stories and open up new ways for people with a range of skills and interests to engage with real data.

I demonstrated a prototype that showed how students could create interactive objects that reflect real-time data. In the example, I used an open-source sensor to monitor particulate matter levels in the air (which have been a problem in California due to fires), then sent data through a “block” programming language and inexpensive microcontroller to a cardboard machine that raised a red flag when the air quality got bad. The tools are student and educator friendly. They provide new ways to share not just data, but also the insights and experiences that learners are building in CCS.

(Download the poster for details on how to bring data to computational crafts.)

These projects exemplify the ways CCS protocols and curricula support learning while doing, and allow neighbors, as well as people in disparate parts of the world, to collaborate in shared inquiry around real concerns. It is this notion of science as a collective endeavor that is perhaps most important. Joining in a community and citizen science project begins to dispel the myth of the scientist as a lone figure in a lab, and provides a way for scientists—credentialed or casual—to grasp the power of learning things together.