Citizen Science: A Growing Movement

At National Geographic Education, we’re kind of obsessed with citizen science. We love the notion of pairing kids and members of the public with real scientists to conduct research–in and out of school–which is why we participate in programs like the BioBlitz and develop new tools like Fieldscope. What better way to engage students in authentic, inquiry-based learning? Citizen science is fun and motivating, and it helps students develop skills in data collection and analysis, collaborative teamwork, and technology literacy, to name a few areas. In most cases, it has the added benefit of getting kids outside!

While citizen science is a relatively new term emerging over the last few decades, the concept is old. For centuries, humans have been making observations about Earth and the cosmos and passing this knowledge down across generations. Many of history’s most renowned thinkers began their careers jotting field notes about the world around them as youngsters.
To learn more about the value of citizen science, its history, and future directions I spoke with Dr. Sandra Henderson, Director for Project Budburst and Associate Director of Education and Outreach for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a consortium of research universities supported by the National Science Foundation. Sandra has a long track record of working with citizen science programs; before developing Budburst she was involved with GLOBE at Night and the Great World Wide Star Count. Below is a summary of our conversation.

Keep reading about citizen science, and then be sure to take our July MicroSurvey. We want to know: “What’s the best part about participating in citizen science?”

Tell us a little about the history of citizen science.
Citizen science as it is known today began in earnest with the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count in 1900. Prior to that, citizen observations of weather and meteorology had been incorporated into editions of the Farmers’ Almanac (check this fact with Sandra). The last 20-25 years have seen substantial growth in citizen science participation, with Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab at the leading edge in developing programs like FeederWatch and new urban bird projects like PigeonWatch.

What types of research questions are best suited for citizen science?

Research based on observations that people can make without
sophisticated instrumentation or in-depth training lends itself best to
citizen science. The power of citizen science networks really becomes
apparent in projects that require a large quantity of observations
distributed over a wide geographic range. For example, the Community
Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network (CoCoRAHS), which now has
active chapters in 46 states, was developed to turn everyday
observations about precipitation that would otherwise go untapped–for
example, rain collected in backyard basins–into usable data.

Tell us about Project Budburst.

In Project Budburst, participants make observations about life-cycle
characteristics, or “phenophases,” of plants–including trees, shrubs,
flowers, and grass–in their local area.  The timing of phenophases such
as “first leaf,” “full flower” and “leaf fall” is affected by changes
in season and climate. By compiling data about when these events are
occurring, we hope to identify trends over time and across different
environments and regions. In particular, we are interested in seeing
whether there is a relationship between climate change and annual plant
development; this question was the biggest driver leading us to
initiate the project. I should emphasize, however, that we are an
apolitical organization; our intent is to conduct objective scientific
research, not to take a stance on policy around climate change.

Now in its second full year, Budburst is supported by a partnership of
several leading organizations including the University of Montana and
the Chicago Botanic Garden, the National Science Foundation, NASA, the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Service, and National Geographic. At this stage
of the project, we are compiling baseline data against which future
observations will be compared. We are also excited to be developing
new, standards-based educational materials in collaboration with
National Geographic.

Why should people participate in Project Budburst?

Climate science can be pretty gloom and doom. Project Budburst allows
people to take action by contributing to real scientific research about
climate change, rather than sitting around passively while scientists
swap theories. It is a wonderful context for learning about climate
change and local environments.

Through the Budburst website, anyone with access to a computer can
input data and get instant feedback. They can compare their
observations with as many as 100 previous observations displayed on an
interactive map, and then they can analyze trends across geographic

Relative to other citizen science projects, Budburst’s focus on plants
has some unique advantages: Most plants are relatively easy to
identify, being of moderate size, unlike some insects, and they don’t
move. Aside from the phenologic changes we are studying, they are
relatively consistent from year to year.

Who has participated in Project Budburst?

We’ve had a wide range of participants including grandparents and
gardeners, scientists and naturalists. I would estimate that
approximately 50% are students and teachers and 50% are members of the

What are your future goals for the Project?

We hope to leverage new technologies to expand our reach, improve data
accuracy, and enable participants to engage in more sophisticated data
analysis online. Some of the new tools we are experimenting with
include mobile phones and photography “apps,” social networking sites
like Facebook and Flickr, and web-based activities and interactives.

2 thoughts on “Citizen Science: A Growing Movement

  1. Back to School and Catching Up! Love what Project Budburst is doing! Another Excellent Citizen Science Project: Operation Ruby Throat: The Hummingbird Project
    Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (RTHU), Archilochus colubris, are the most widely distributed of the 339 species of hummingbirds, occurring in all ten countries of North and Central America. They come frequently to nectar plants and backyard sugar water feeders and are easily observed. Nonetheless, many aspects of RTHU natural history are not well understood, so “Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project” has teamed with EarthTrek to allow citizen scientists to collect data about RTHU migration and nesting. The project is also affiliated with The GLOBE Program, through which K-12 teachers and students make hummingbird observations and submit data through the GLOBE Web site. With EarthTrek, adult citizen scientists and independent students also can contribute important data to the overall Operation RubyThroat project. Operation RubyThroat principal investigator Bill Hilton Jr. leads mid-winter hummingbird expeditions to Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Belize. During the past five years, Bill and more than a hundred citizen scientists who accompanied him have made some remarkable discoveries about RTHU behavior in the Neotropics. To learn about these successes, review data—or to join Bill on one of his citizen science expeditions in 2010:

Leave a Reply