My Work with Citizen Scientists

Background MotivationI want to challenge the traditional framework of citizen science projects. Most citizen science initiatives will have citizen scientists collecting data, but these people will never be notified about the results of the project nor have a sustained dialogue with the scientist leading their data collection. As Caren Cooper notes in Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery, this behavior is part of a highly imperialistic approach to crowd-sourced scientific research, where the data, specimens, and final publications end up restricted to the “ivory towers” of academia, in museum collections roped off from the public, and behind online article paywalls. I believe all of those who have participated in the scientific process should see the results of their work and have the option to keep up with the project long after the data collection has ended and the analyses and reporting are underway.

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“Selfies” with my citizen scientists

In an effort to be more democratic in my research efforts with citizen scientists, I pledged on their invitation to join my research that I would share results about their work with them and keep them actively engaged throughout the entire process of the scientific method. Most of my citizen scientists consist of primarily of adults recruited through the Commonwealth-funded Virginia Master Naturalist Program. I sought to create a friendly and attentive open-door policy with my citizen scientists to help erase the perception of scientists as unapproachable and removed from society. I visited my citizen scientists’ homes all over Virginia to meet them in person, meet their family (and pets), share and pick up research materials, and answer questions in-person. I encouraged my participants to always reach out with questions and share feedback with me. These relationships with citizen scientists are powerful for building a society’s trust in science. To share the results of the study, I created an online database where participants can see which bee species I have identified from their property from their collecting efforts, with relevant photos of each species.

Brief Summary of Research Engagement: For 2017 and 2018 I have coordinated 12-week experiments with over 150 citizen scientists to collect pan trap contents and monitor trap nesting devices at properties all over Virginia. To be brief, I will only outline my 2017 efforts (2018 is similar). 2017 Details: In March 2017, 196 bee hotels were distributed to 98 Virginia resident participants. Two bee hotel types were distributed to each participant, one termed a “wood hotel” (Fig. 1A) with pre-drilled holes, and one dubbed a “PVC pipe hotel” (Fig. 1B) fitted with cardboard tubes. Participants set each hotel type up in similar conditions on their property and have been monitoring their occupancy weekly. Participants are from a wide geographic range across Virginia (Fig. 1C), and we have an even distribution of participants located in developed areas and more natural areas. Many participants are Virginia Master Naturalists and recruited through their Master Naturalist chapters, and other participants include Virginia Master Gardeners, members of the Virginia Working Landscapes program through the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, among other groups.

Fig1
Figure 1: A. “Wood” bee hotel used in study. B. “PVC pipe” bee hotel used in study. C. A map of the 98 participants (represented by colored dots) across the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Of those 98 Virginia participants that installed bee hotels on their property in 2017, 45 participants also installed “bee bowl” pan traps on their property away from the hotels to provide an independent population estimate of the insect community at-large. For each bee bowl setup at a property, nine cups in cup stands are each spaced five meters apart in a straight line, and they rise 1-2 feet above the vegetation line. Each cup is filled half-way with low-toxicity propylene glycol and dish soap that will attract, trap and preserve bees and other flying insects. Every seven days, participants scooped out the specimens caught in the cups, placed them in a specimen bag, and then stored the bag in a freezer for pickup later by a researcher.

woodowrking
You never know what skills you might pick up during your Ph.D. – for me it was woodworking.

Programming Features to Engage with Citizen Scientists
Throughout this program, the following activities were included:

  • With the use of Google Forms, created a comprehensive interest form that people could submit information about the property where they wanted to collect data
  • Held an initial training webinar for participants to introduce participants to study system, demonstrate data collection protocol, and answer questions.
fitincar
Fun fact: I’ve fit 200 bee hotels in my car.
  • Hand-delivered materials to participants and answered any further questions in-person at that point (~3,000 miles driving – I learned a lot about Virginia geography!)
  • Created an e-mail group (googlegroups) for sending out weather advisories, sharing periodic natural history notes, answering questions, sharing photos from other participants, announcing presentations and upcoming workshops they could attend, updating participants about my research progress, sharing preliminary reports of results, providing pick-up information for wrapping up project
  • Set up a Flickr photo page for participants’ photos of their bee hotel observations to be annotated and shared with others – Flickr Webpage for participants’ photos
  • Tried to respond to as many general questions about ecology and pollination as possible
  • Created a database for participants to view their data from pan-trapping efforts (will soon be able to also share database for bee hotel data)
  • Gave time back to participant’s representative groups by conducting workshops and presenting results at their meetings and via webinars (e.g., various Virginia Master Naturalist local chapter and statewide meetings across Virginia, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries trainings for pollinator habitat development, etc.)

    dgifworkshop
    Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, August 17, 2017. Pollinator Habitat Training Workshop in Harrisonburg, VA
  • Collected feedback via an extensive survey for participants at conclusion of study (along with asking for feedback throughout the entire project) using Google Forms.

    feedbackgraph
    Figure created from 2017 Monitoring Survey responses. Getting to see the results of their hard work, helping scientists, and receiving more info about their backyard bee diversity were the most-liked features about the program.
  • Practiced Gratitude — wrote individual thank-you cards for each participant.

I seek to revolutionize the world of research by using lifelong learning as a guiding principle for citizen science, and in effect transforming science into a practice that everyone can access and experience. From these efforts I have learned that science is not a solo endeavor. Recruiting others (be they colleagues, citizen scientists, or undergraduates) to join you in scientific quests will make for a more impactful and fulfilling discovery experience for all.

Reference: Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery by Caren Cooper