The Rise of the Science Citizen

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“Citizen science is creating excitement throughout the ecological world”

Serendipity strikes again! Just as I was completing some work for students on systems models so an email arrives inviting me to participate in a programme of “lagoon” (read freshwater areas, this is Australia!) studies. The proponents (a local university research team) want to investigate how people interact with nature. That was easy to complete, so we are going along in a few weeks time. Returning home I get the latest BES bulletin which applauds the rise of citizen science (that quote is from p43!). The author rightly states that such a move is not new and that it is increasing but I think there is far more to it than that. If we look back at some of the British Isles examples we can see such work at its finest. The first I was aware of was the  Land Utilisation Survey where both Dudley Stamp (1st) and Alice Coleman (2nd)  sent out maps to be completed in set ways by volunteers (many of whom were schools) using a pre-designed code. The volume of work completed was immense and I have no doubt that it would not have been completed without such intervention. Today, we have Google Earth and similar which can complete the task far quicker over larger areas (although I doubt the complexity of land use would be caught as well). Later on, the Irish Forestry Service, An Foras Forbatha, pioneered a study of lichen distribution using a simple code and large numbers of volunteers (including schools). Again, the results were fast, accurate and cheap; the ultimate piece of fieldwork.

And now we have the call for more of this kind of work. The BES has set up a citizen science group to promote and encourage such work. At the moment it appears to be just a proposal but the aim appears to be the grow this area of work. The advantages are obvious with large amounts of work carried out by personnel the average research grant could not afford. It also gets people in closer contact with their environment and that has to be positive. However, I think there’s another side which is being either overlooked or ignored.

Let’s put it simply – what are we doing about citizen science in education? It might be stereotypical but there has been a trend over the last 20-30 years to carry out less fieldwork. It might be cost but it’s also the growth of a risk averse culture where work outside the classroom is deemed to “risky” (or actionable which might be closer to the truth). If we add to this a new generation of teachers who have little fieldwork training and possibly little inclination we have a mix whereby all our intentions could come to nothing. There’s enough research to show that students who carry out virtual field work get less of a connection with nature than those who work in the “real” thing (see this US Wildlife report).  One of the workers in this area, Richard Louv, has gone so far as to suggest we now have “nature deficit disorder” – an inability to perceive the value of nature because we have direct experience of it. Taken to its extreme, and there’s no suggestion we are there yet, we have a population who sees nature only through the television and how, consequently, supports it less. At a time of mounting pressure on the environment, the last thing we need are people who don’t care.

So, what are we in education going to do about it? It’s a serious, tough question. If our students don’t get the experience they won’t value the wildscape in the future. That can only mean degradation of ecosystems with concomitant loss of ecosystem services. It also implies that you might get volunteers but they will have less well-developed field instincts which in turn could affect the quality of research delivered. It’s not all gloom – some jurisdictions  have promising ideas in place but no-where do I see the full package that we should be fighting for:

  • educators trained in fieldwork (not the usual jump-on-and-off-the-bus fieldwork but decent ecological day studies, or even longer;
  • syllabuses that mandate fieldwork (luckily this is one area that seems to be getting some traction at least in Australian reforms);
  • administrative systems that make it easier along with funding to ease the burden of staff out on field trips;
  • educational cultures that value out-of-classroom time (I did have to sit through a talk by a very senior administrator who praised virtual work by noting that, soon, no student would ever need to leave the classroom!).

Fieldwork in inherently interesting to students. Bring them out of the classroom and put them near a lake, on a mountain or wherever and see the lightbulbs go on as they relate a lesson to the feature they are standing on. No amount of videos or computer simulations does that! Once we have students involved, they may well take field subjects at university or at least get involved in a wildlife-oriented hobby.

Once you have keen citizens, you get citizen science and a science citizen! Your research is more accurate and better supported. I’d be happy to call on ecology colleagues in university to recognise the value of this to them – more students on courses, better fieldwork and even more support for grants. It’s possible, it used to be the norm – I want it back!

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