Citizen science is presented as a means for the general public to contribute to the production of new knowledge. But citizen science volunteers do not always represent a broad cross-section of society. On the contrary, they are often white, male, middle-aged, educated and already interested in science.
This lack of representation poses several problems. This can undermine the potential of citizen science to bridge the gap between lay people and experts. It also means that fewer people benefit from the opportunity to advance their informal science education and learn valuable life skills.
It is important that citizen science projects engage volunteers from across society, including young people. A new Australian initiative does just that.
The B&B BioBlitz aims to get students collecting data on Australia’s natural environment. This year’s event shows how citizen science in schools can help build STEM skills and advance biodiversity research.
More hands on deck
It is widely recognized that Australia needs more hands on deck when it comes to collecting scientific data. For example, only about 30% of Australia’s estimated 750,000 species have been officially named and documented. Addressing this will require a huge increase in information gathering.
Additionally, Australia has one of the worst extinction records in the world. Citizen science is an important way to fill information gaps, identify species decline and their causes, inform conservation decisions and evaluate their effectiveness.
This year’s State of the Environment Report recognized the need for more citizen science. He said the level of biodiversity research required “cannot be achieved by professionals and institutions alone”.
This is where the B&B BioBlitz comes in.
Read more: From counting birds to speaking out: how citizen science leads us to ask crucial questions
What exactly is a BioBlitz?
The B&B BioBlitz is a national school citizen science program coordinated by PlantingSeeds Projects – a non-profit sustainability organization founded by the lead author of this article. The inaugural event took place during National Biodiversity Month in September this year. The two authors of this article were project organizers and educators.
Sixty schools from all Australian states and territories participated. Participants included students from kindergarten through high school and their teachers.
Most schools are located in urban areas, making them particularly valuable sites for scientific research. Many endangered plant and animal species live in urban areas, but only 5% of citizen science projects in Australia are urban-based.
The project involved students taking images of plant and animal species in their schoolyard on devices such as school-provided tablets and smartphones. Students also recorded information such as the time, date and location of the photo.
A designated teacher uploaded the photos and data about the B&B BioBlitz project to iNaturalist, one of the world’s most popular citizen science platforms and apps. At the time of writing, iNaturalist contains over 121 million sightings uploaded by citizens around the world.
Throughout September, students made more than 2,300 schoolyard observations, involving 635 plant, animal and fungal species. Students could log into iNaturalist to view a project “ranking,” browse submitted observations, and learn more about taxonomy and species distribution.
A study has shown that young people can contribute observations to iNaturalist that are “research-grade” – and therefore more accessible and potentially useful for biodiversity research and monitoring. And the longer they participate, the better their observations.
Species observations during this project have contributed to more comprehensive datasets that scientists can now rely on. Of note are the images of an uncommon “Balsam Beast” katydid and Sturt’s iconic desert pea.
Almost all observations uploaded to iNaturalist are also directly exported to CSIRO’s Atlas of Living Australia.
The pros and cons
Verbal and online student feedback reveals how citizen science can be a hands-on and positive experience.
A primary school student from North Melbourne said the activity made her feel “more part of a community”.
A Darwin student said the activity was “the most fun he’s ever had” and his teacher said that by participating in it, the student was “the most engaged he’s ever seen”.
But B&B BioBlitz was not without its challenges.
Many teachers, including science teachers, had limited knowledge of citizen science and often had not heard of the term. This meant that teachers needed basic training on the subject before any school participation in the BioBlitz.
Teachers are busy and face many pressing demands. However, if the benefits of citizen science are to be fully realized, there is a need to broaden teachers’ awareness of the practice and improve their skills in accessing databases such as iNaturalist.
Read more: Thousands of photos captured by everyday Australians reveal secrets of our marine life as oceans warm
8 Tips for Successful Citizen Biodiversity Science
So how do you help young people make good citizen science observation? The following eight tips offer a guide:
Capture as many angles and as much information as possible. While some groups such as birds can often be recognized from a single photograph, many other taxa require multiple characteristics for positive identification.
When observing plants, photograph as many features as possible. This includes the flowers and leaves (from above and below), bark, fruit if present, a branch showing the arrangement of the leaves, and a photo of the whole plant to give an idea of its mode of growth
Photograph mushrooms from above, below (showing gills or pores) and from the side
Record the “substrate” on which you find a fungus, such as soil or dead wood, and the type of soil a plant is growing in
Insect identification can often be aided by the number and position of veins in an insect’s wing. Try to capture this by taking photos directly above
Noting the plant on which you find a beetle or insect can aid in identification and provide useful ecological data.
If you find a spider in a web, photographs from above and below may be helpful
When in doubt, just record as much information as possible. You never know who might find your data useful!
Read more: Bed and breakfasts for birds and bees: turn your garden or balcony into a wildlife refuge
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