The LEARN CitSci research project resulted in a range of key findings across the following study areas:
BioBlitzes are wildlife surveys that bring together professional scientists, volunteer naturalists, and members of the public to create a snapshot of biodiversity within a set location over a defined period, often 24 hours (Robinson et al., 2013). We studied youth participation and learning during BioBlitzes by collecting data from 32 BioBlitzes over three years, documenting details about the overall setting of the BioBlitz, twenty-minute observations using ethnographic fieldnotes of 70 youth aged 5-19, pre- and post-event surveys with youth, and interviews with facilitators and designers of the events. Our key findings were:
- We identified five different types of participation that youth take part in during BioBlitzes that help contribute to creating a biological record for an organism: Exploring and Discovering, Observing, Identifying Organisms, Documenting, and Recording. Some youth only did some of these activities, and some took part in all of them, and while this “division of labor” is also true of professional scientific projects, many BioBlitz program leaders hope that participants will engage in all of these activities over the course of the event.
- We found that Observing species was the most prevalent activity that youth took part in at BioBlitzes, with Exploring and searching for organisms more commonly observed in younger ages, while Recording was the least prevalent. The collection and sharing of scientific data (Recording) is what distinguishes Community and Citizen Science from other types of environmental education (Hecker et al., 2018). Our data suggest that programmes need to offer additional support, e.g. facilitator/parent training, iNaturalist instruction, etc. to empower young people to participate in this step of the scientific process.
We observed three different participation profiles for youth at BioBlitzes (Lorke et al., 2021) that clustered typical combinations of participation we saw: the environmental education, natural history, and citizen science profiles. These profiles should be taken into account when designing BioBlitzes and Community and Citizen Science programs more broadly, to target the associated engagement and learning goals for that event or program.
As an example of how our findings can inform program design, we found that while many youth took part in Identifying Organisms most drew on a knowledgeable person for assistance, but identification tools such as guides and the iNaturalist app were also used. While some adult facilitators simply told the young person what the organism was, others discussed and supported the young person to determine the identification themselves. Providing the latter type of support encourages youths’ participation in the data generation practices and may open up or enhance opportunities for developing Environmental Science Agency (ESA).
Facilitators were vital in framing the event as a scientific activity, and in teaching or supporting participants in using scientific tools; simply having the tools available was insufficient.
Youth participated in other activities at BioBlitzes that were not directly related to Community and Citizen Science tasks but may be important for environmental and science learning, including leading and helping others and sharing science knowledge, skills, and findings. Some youth showed environmental stewardship behaviours by putting organisms back where they found them or asking others to behave in this way, highlighting that providing learning opportunities at BioBlitzes outside of scientific data collection is valuable.
Ongoing Monitoring Projects
Ongoing monitoring projects are designed to engage participants repeatedly over a period of weeks or months in environmental science data collection and often analysis, which can develop their knowledge and skills over time. We studied three contrasting out-of-school programs — Science Action Club at California Academy of Sciences, SuperProject at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and the Big Seaweed Search at the Natural History Museum in London. While these three projects differ in subject focus, length of participation, and setting, they all share a common goal of supporting participants to gather and submit observations of species for scientific research and biodiversity monitoring over extended periods of time. Our qualitative research on youth participation and learning in these programs included– twenty-minute observations using ethnographic fieldnotes of 19 focal youth (71 separate observations) , post-program interviews with those youth, pre-program surveys (n=45) and post-program surveys (n=61) with all consented participating youth in the programs. We found that the structure of each CCS program provides a range of opportunities for youth to engage with the multiple elements of each program and to participate in scientific research. Our key findings were:
- Given the three different CCS programs and diverse learning
environments, our data showed that youth across all programs
reported improved understanding of environmental science content
and practice, as they learned about biodiversity in their local
area and habitats. Many also gained scientific observational
skills, and developed skills in using scientific field tools. In
addition, youth learning went beyond science content knowledge
and practice as many youth also developed an identity with
science (Carlone and Johnson 2007) and aspects of agency with
environmental science (Ballard et al., 2017a) which is called
Environmental Science Agency:
- Environmental science content knowledge and skills (Environmental Science Agency (ESA) Component 1) – the analysis of the data showed that all participants increased understanding oft environmental science content and science inquiry skills in various ways, including: 1) increased knowledge about different species, their habitat, and understanding of local spatial environmental knowledge, 2) gained skills and knowledge of how to use the various scientific tools in each CCS context. 3) gained an understanding of data generation and its application in science, 4) displayed scientific reasoning in their interactions with others for identifying species or predicting the cause and effect of a phenomenon; and 5) learned concepts related to the common or traditional norms of science.
- Identifying areas of their own expertise within environmental science (ESA Component 2): In each program, there was evidence showing youth development of science identity by 1) taking on new roles, 2) positioning themselves as experts by sharing their gained CCS knowledge and skills with others, 3) becoming competent over their actions and roles, and 4) gaining (new) interest and values of nature or the species they studied.
Agency with environmental science (ESA Component 3): We looked for evidence of youth using CCS and environmental science as the foundation for change in their lives or communities, and found that some youth, (though not many): 1) described plans to use (scientific) practices they learned during the program in another context, 2) took initiatives to do/help/contribute to science or other areas to improve their Environment or local community.
Based on our findings we recommend to CCS practitioners aiming to foster Environmental Science Agency development for young people:
Explicitly and consistently frame the CCS activities of the program as a collective scientific endeavor that positions young people as contributors to the scientific work, and continually reinforce this throughout the program: Emphasize the importance of young people’s roles in the scientific work, the inherent importance of the scientific research, and that they are helping scientists.
We found that when youth saw clearly the purpose of the CCS project and of the data they collected, to be for scientists, for the museum, or in some cases to help address problems they care about, they were more likely to express identity and agency with the scientific work of the project. This was particularly true with SuperProject at NHM Los Angeles, where continual framing by the program leaders of the ways youth observational data of biodiversity collected in their own neighborhoods was contributing to the research of the museum curators, helped youth see their own role in contributing to science through CCS.
We saw evidence in the 3 different programs that youth who had a better understanding of the purpose of the activities and science practices explained how they wanted to use their knowledge to address an environmental issue p and take environmental action.
Putting youth in a position where their work has meaning and is a contribution to their community, making space for them to take action with science, can support their development of agency with science.
To help youth develop identities and agency with environmental science and the CCS project, explicitly build youth awareness of the connections between their individual efforts and actions to the collective work of the scientific research and monitoring. This represents the bigger picture in environmental research and its impacts on issues young people care about.
Encourage Teamwork! We found that the three NHM CCS programs provided different opportunities for youth to interact with others: Super Project provided “meet-ups” where youth met other participants and scientists, and Big Seaweed Search and Science Action Club provided multiple opportunities for teamwork with other youth through facilitated data collection sessions that required multiple kinds of expertise and skills. Teamwork provides opportunities for youth to see, act, combine different roles and use different resources while being supported, and to leverage each other’s expertise to accomplish a group science goal.
We examined youth participation and learning through Online Community and Citizen Science (CCS) projects on two platforms, Zooniverse and iNaturalist. Zooniverse is an online crowdsourcing platform that hosts multiple research projects at any one time. Volunteers take part in CCS projects across a wide variety of research domains, and tasks vary according to the research need. iNaturalist is an online CCS platform and scientific social network that asks participants to upload photos or sound files that document the presence of various species and help identify these observations.
Our key findings about youth participation and learning through the Zooniverse platform were:
- By analyzing the participation log files of 104 young people using Zooniverse, we identified that the majority were female (67%) and between 16 and 19 years of age (95%). We then looked at their patterns of participation on the platform and identified that the majority were not regularly active on Zooniverse, but instead they were active for short bursts of time. We found no statistically significant difference between the number of contributions from male and female volunteers.
- By surveying 64 young volunteers about Zooniverse, we found participants were mainly White,with some previous science experiences and/or interest in science; for example, they reported visiting science-related content online, talking with others about science when not in school/university, and liked learning science both in and out of school. After taking part in Zooniverse, the majority of participants reported knowledge about how CCSe works, felt confident and identified with science’, got better at learning or doing science, changed their way of thinking about science, and developed scientific questions for which they wanted an answer. Young people with an interest or previous experiences in science were found to be more likely to report these learning benefits from taking part in Zooniverse.
Our key findings about youth participation and learning through the iNaturalist platform were:
- By analyzing the participation log files of 183 young volunteers on iNaturalist, we found they were not systematic in their contributions, and the majority of them (59%) contributed for one or two days only.
- We compared the contributions of young volunteers to that of adult volunteers on iNaturalist and found that young people were more likely to observe molluscs, arachnids, and insects and less likely to observe plants and birds. Also, the contributions of young volunteers were less systematic than those of adults on INaturalist and other CCS platforms.
Follow-up interviews with young people showed learning benefits from taking part in iNaturalist, in particular developing scientific knowledge, gaining expertise or becoming better in a science-related area, developing a new role or taking up a new initiative, and transforming their own practices.
Across all 3 CCS settings: BioBlitzes, Ongoing Programs and Online Platforms
We focused on the participation and development of Environmental Science Agency of33 young people (ages 10 to 13 years) participating in CCS programmes across 3 different informal science education settings: BioBlitz events, Ongoing programmes, and Online platform (Zooniverse, and iNaturalist). We found aspects of learning pertaining to the three components of Environmental Science Agency: a) knowledge gains of environmental science content, practice, and norms; b) identification of one’s own expertise with science; and c) use of citizen science experiences as a foundation for meaning changes in one’s own life and beyond. These three components each individually encompassed a set of more specific learning phenomena, such as gaining taxonomic knowledge of species and understanding the purpose of data collection in CCS. Overall our key findings were:
- Young people gained environmental content knowledge and developed scientific skills (for example, to survey places and use scientific tools) in all of the settings.
- Most young people in all settings understood the purpose of the data they collected (field-based settings) or the purpose of their contributions (online settings) for scientific work.
- Across all settings youth also described feeling like a scientist, and/or developing confidence with science, across all settings. To a lesser extent, youth in all settings described sharing their knowledge by teaching others.
- There was some, but less prominent, evidence from all settings of young participants using CCS as a foundation for meaningful change in their own life and beyond.
- Most of the learning evidence that emerged across data sets are expressed at the individual level, and social or collective learning evidence was less prominent.
We found that peers and knowledgeable others created important “scaffolding” to support and encourage learning opportunities.
Summer 2020 saw a global social justice uprising in light of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Amaud Arbery, and countless others before them. Communities took to the streets in protest of the injustice and racism faced by Black communities in the United States and across the globe. Our team felt we had to embark upon a course of action to tackle racism, particularly anti-Black racism, in our field of study. To centre those most affected by racism, the Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) members of the team were consulted by co-lead Lila Higgins (none of the team’s leadership were BIPOC) about the course of action we should take. We worked through a multi-step process with the ultimate goal of implementing anti-racist actions within LEARNCitSci as a Research-Practice Partnership project, and in future projects.
In an effort to bring the team together and educate those who were earlier on in their personal anti-racism journeys, a series of foundational readings were assigned and a facilitated meeting was held to work through the material. The group then mapped oppressions personally experienced or witnessed in the course of the project, and worked to theme them out and brainstorm antidotes. This truth-telling exercise was difficult, but the team agreed it was essential work for us. The antidotes we devised and endeavored to hold ourselves accountable to, included enhancing our existing group norms and values, adapting team meeting formats and agendas, a meeting planning and chair guide, collated resources about group dynamics and leadership development, and a plan for how to better work with our community-based organization partners.
This work is difficult and ongoing. We do not claim to have solved all our problems, or figured out the best ways to hold ourselves accountable. We certainly make no claims to have created an oppression-free work environment. We share our key findings in the hopes that they will help all of us to continue doing this work, and hold ourselves and others accountable as we move into new projects with new collaborators. We also hope to inspire others to undertake similar efforts to make their work less oppressive and explicitly anti-racist.
Our key findings from this work were:
- In a large and diverse Researcher-Practitioner collaborative
project such as LEARN CitSci, but also in many project contexts,
it is essential to:
recognize, and center, the needs of those most affected by racism in this work (i.e. the BIPOC members of the team).
be conscious of the emotional labour this work takes and harm it can cause for BIPOC team members and provide space for staff to step away when needed.
provide foundational readings and space for team members who are early in their personal anti-racism journeys to learn the basics, gain vocabulary, and practice speaking about racism and oppression in the work of the project. It should be optional for BIPOC staff to take part in these discussions (although BIPOC members of our team found it helpful to know more about their rights as well as common forms of discrimination or oppression frequently experienced).
provide training to white team members in an effort to reduce harm and stem white saviorism, white guilt and shame, and performative allyship during this work. This can look like a guided space for white folks to explore the feelings that often arise during anti-racism work (this should be an early step in the work).
recognize that acknowledging past harms and oppressions in the work is critical and difficult, and coming up with a list of antidotes is only a first step toward taking an anti-racism approach.
commit to the antidotes your team devises, revisit them, and know they may need to be revised along the way. Create concrete ways to hold each other accountable.
co-create group strategies to “call in” or call out any behaviors, passive or active, that negate the anti-racism work. Focus on the impact of the behavior, not the intention behind it.
make anti-racism an ongoing part of your team’s daily/weekly work; it is not something to just dip into once a quarter.
Sharing Key Findings to Improve Community and Citizen Science Program Design and Practice to Support Youth Learning
The key findings of the LEARN CitSci project have been summarised in a guidance document for practitioners. The document was written by the project team and covers the following topics:
- Project background
- Guiding learning theories
- Design based research
- Ongoing monitoring projects
- Online settings
- Impacts on our community & citizen science programmes
- Researcher practitioner partnerships
- Collaboration with community based organisations
- Our response to COVID 19 and social justice movements
You can download a copy here, or you can contact us to request a paper copy.