By Becca Nelson '20
The light is streaming gold through the oaks as I walk around Stanford’s Lake Lag. I stare up at the piercing blue sky and watch a pair of White-tailed Kites hovering over the brittle grasses. The White-tailed Kites are sleek, snowy-plumed raptors with deep red eyes. They hover with a slight flap as they scan for prey—a motion ornithologists (bird biologists) call kiting.
When I get back to my dorm, I post my sighting of the kites as well as the 10 other species of birds I find on eBird, a website where any birdwatcher anywhere in the world can record bird sightings. On eBird, you can include detailed descriptions of migratory location, breeding information, and photo and audio, which provide a wealth of information to ornithologists. I’ve been uploading my field observations on eBird for the past four years as a citizen scientist.
The term “citizen science” hasn’t fully made its way into the general vernacular. I had already been submitting my data on eBird for over a year, when I first heard of it. I was reading an article about the growing contributions of citizen scientists and I realized it was exactly what I was doing. Citizen science describes the contributions in data collection or analysis by non-scientists to collaborate with ongoing scientific research across all fields. Citizen scientists can work directly with researchers (for instance, on biodiversity surveys) or upload their data to portals such as eBird. Citizen science connects academic researchers to the general public, increasing scientific literacy and involvement outside of academia. It includes more people in the scientific process in several ways:
Way 1: Citizen Science Is Very Inclusive
Citizen science has the potential to increase people’s knowledge and concern regarding sustainability and environmental issues by connecting disenfranchised stakeholders and communities historically marginalized from STEM fields to the research process. For example, during the Flint, Michigan water crisis, researchers from Virginia Tech collaborated with local Flint residents on a citizen science project called the Flint Water Study. The residents had been largely excluded from the decision-making process that led to toxic lead levels in the first place. The researchers gave these residents water quality test kits, which they used to collect data on their home water quality. The study found that lead levels were 10 times above the EPA limit. Citizens of Flint were empowered through playing a role in the citizen science that helped expose one of the greatest environmental injustices in recent years. Citizens could take action, even if they weren’t part of the scientific and governmental forces at hand.
Way 2: Citizen Science Introduces Kids to STEM
Citizen science can also play an important role in getting kids interested in science at an early age. When I was learning about birds for the first time in seventh grade, I explored my backyard with a camera, photographing the different species I encountered. I walked through the ankle-high grass, starting intently at the tops of the oaks and walnuts. The first time I saw a White-Breasted Nuthatch, a common backyard bird, I felt a thrill of excitement pass through me. I watched the nuthatch clamber against the rough contours of the walnut bark, pecking at the wood with its narrow beak. I was shocked that such a small, fascinating bird had been living in my backyard. Recording my backyard bird sightings on eBird as a kid sparked within me a deep passion for ecology. This passion eventually influenced my decision to pursue a career in ecological research. Submitting my data on eBird empowered me by teaching me how to think like a researcher and gave me the confidence to pursue ecological research in high school.
Way 3: Changing Public Opinion
There is a huge gap in knowledge between the public and scientific communities on many issues, and citizen science can help bridge this gap. For example, while the vast majority of the scientific community accepts anthropogenic climate change as a fact, the American public is much more ambivalent about it. Even many people who believe in global warming don’t see it as an urgent issue because its effects are more gradual than the natural disasters that typically occupy the news. About a year ago, I talked to a classmate at my high school about climate change after we sat through a lecture on it. She poked fun at teacher for exaggerating how catastrophic the effects of unmitigated climate change would be. It’s not really that big a deal—at least not until the far future, she told me.
Her attitude toward climate change is understandable. Growing up within the bubble of suburban Illinois, the effects of climate change seemed distanced from my community. I was not living on a developing island nation, having to cope directly with rising sea levels or on the tundra where the permafrost is melting. Yet, participating in citizen science made me more aware that climate change is affecting the forest and prairie ecosystems of my home. The signs are more subtle than receding glaciers and rising waves. One 2012 study analyzed eBird data from 2000-2010 on the arrival times of migratory birds. The species in the study were some of my favorite backyard birds, such as the vivid indigo bunting with its glossy blue feathers. The study found that the birds were arriving on average 0.8 days earlier for each degree Celsius of warming, with some species arriving up to 3 to 6 days earlier. As the planet warms due to climate change, migratory birds will be arriving earlier to their breeding sites, posing potential challenges for breeding, due to fluctuations in their food supply. Beyond watching birds, increased citizen science projects have the ability to help people see the effects of climate change on a variety of organisms.
How Can I Get Involved in Citizen Science at Stanford?
Stanford provides opportunities to engage citizen scientists in its research. For example, in the spring there is a Bioblitz survey in which students and community members monitor campus biodiversity. Stanford also has a docent program at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve open to both students and the public. This program involves its participants in educational outreach and research projects at Jasper Ridge.
Participating in a citizen science project for the first time can be a little intimidating. I’ve often worried about what happens when I make a mistake such as misidentifying a bird species. Most citizen science programs have checks to ensure that the data is accurate and thus useable for scientific studies. In programs where you work directly with scientists, they will train you on how to collect the data and double-check your work. For programs like eBird where you upload your data to a computer, there are reviewers who double-check your data. For instance, one time I reported what I thought was a rare Northern Goshawk. Since it was rare, an eBird reviewer emailed me and asked for photo documentation. After discussing the photo with him, it turned out to be a much more common Cooper’s Hawk. I changed the species on my list, and the issue was fixed. So don’t feel barred from participating because you’re worried about making mistakes or feel you are lacking in experience. Part of citizen science is the fun is in the learning process itself. Ultimately, citizen science is important in promoting inclusivity, engaging the next generation of scientists, and helping people better understand environmental issues.
"Citizen Science." Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. Stanford University, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2016. https://jrbp.stanford.edu/education/citizen-science
Hurlbert, Allen H., and Zhongfei Liang. "Spatiotemporal Variation in Avian Migration Phenology: Citizen Science Reveals Effects of Climate Change." PLOS One. PlOS One Journal, 22 Feb. 2012. Web. 8 Nov. 2016. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0031662#abstract0
Maynard, Andrew. "Can Citizen Science Empower Disenfranchised Communities?" The Conversation. The Conversation, 27 Jan. 2016. Web. 8 Nov. 2016. https://theconversation.com/can-citizen-science-empower-disenfranchised-communities-53625
Flint Water Study. Web. 8 Nov. 2016 http://flintwaterstudy.org/
E-Bird. Web. 8 Nov. 2016 http://ebird.org/content/ebird/
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