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    Philippa On The Ice Philippa Werry at an Antarctic research camp 2016

New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Education & Society

Community for citizen science takes flight

A monthly Twitter chat brings together a wide range of people from around the world to discuss all things citizen science.

globalCitizenshipCaren Cooper is assistant director of the Biodiversity Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, where she studies bird life history, ecology and conservation through the use of citizen science.

She recently established and moderated the first #CitSciChat, designed to bring together people from around the world to discuss citizen science. New Zealand Science Teacher talked to Caren about the project.


Hi Caren. A few days ago, you hosted the first #CitSciChat. How did the idea come about?

I like to connect with people around the world on Twitter. I had participated in a few Twitter chats, mostly the #StuSciChat moderated by Adam Taylor (@2footgiraffe), which connects scientists and high school students and teachers in lively discussions with rotating topics. I participated once in #STEMchat moderated by Kim Moldofsky (@MakerMom) when the topic was citizen science. One day I noticed that the number of people tweeting to the #citizenscience hashtag has been growing and I wanted to talk with everyone! So I thought a Twitter chat session on citizen science would be great fun.

When it comes to science communication, I collaborate with Darlene Cavalier (@SciCheer) and her organisation SciStarter (@SciStarter). I blog for SciStarter which syndicates to Citizen Sci in the PLOS blogging network and Citizen Science Salon of Discover Magazine. Darlene loved the #CitSciChat idea and we decided to align topics with projects and themes featured in SciStarter newsletters. We hope #CitSciChat will be of interest to practitioners and participants.twitter bird

How many people took part? Was it difficult to moderate and guide, and what questions did you ask?

According to researchers in Sweden, the first #CitSciChat had about 200 participants. I had arranged for guest panelists from the US, Europe, and Australia, and we had participants from those areas and possibly more. The conversation was fast-paced, which is typical of Twitter chats. I hope to slow down the conversations slightly in the future. The questions that I asked did prompt interesting conversations but I wasn’t skilled enough in my moderation to highlight those deeper dives and bring more people into those conversations. But there was plenty of ground covered. The hour flew by quickly.

The panelists were leaders in organising the field of citizen science. Some of my questions were to crowdsource answers about other names for citizen science and the many disciplines that find value in citizen science. We also discussed the goals of the new associations (the European Citizen Science Association, the Citizen Science Association, and the Citizen Science Network Australia). We talked about best practices, differences among countries, and the varied activities that citizen scientists do.  People shared their views on the pros and cons of professional associations in citizen science, which of course, involves people who are not professional scientists as key forces in scientific research. People shared their hopes for outcomes of the upcoming inaugural conference of the Citizen Science Association (Feb 11-12 in San Jose, California). Even though answers are less than 140 characters, they were perceptive and profound. Finally, people shared what they thought were frontiers in citizen science.

Were there any surprising or unusual insights from the chat?

The #CitSciChat conversation reinforced my impression that the practitioners involved in citizen science are innovative, outside-the-box thinkers, who value the fundamental ideals of citizen science. People raised issues of equity, inclusiveness, democracy, transparency, and related ideas that I don’t hear talked about as much in mainstream science. People had varied approaches; some who were trying to figure out ways to integrate citizen science into academia and get more validation from mainstream science, and others more inclined to push the other way, that is, for mainstream science to shift and adopt similar values as citizen science.

What ideas are you hoping to explore in future chats?

I hope to increase the frequency of the chats, from monthly to twice per month, provided there is interest. I can imagine one monthly chat focused on issues in citizen science, like ethics, technologies, curricula, policy, and funding. I can also imagine one monthly chat focused on particular projects and research topics with guests from a particular discipline and chat about the research questions and how volunteers can help. We’ll try to do both in the February chat, which is focused on gamification (big issue) in biochemistry and other fields helping disease research (projects like Foldit, EteRNA, Phylo, and Reverse the Odds).   

Citizen science has wonderful educational value. How might teachers and students explore it in their classroom?

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There are some great resources for teachers. First, SciStarter.com is a list of over 800 citizen science projects around the world. The list is searchable by categories like topic and location. Teachers and students can find projects of interest and learn within the SciStarter community. Second, a great resource is a new book published in the US by the National Association of Science Teachers (NAST) called Citizen Science: 15 lessons that bring biology to life, 6-12. Teachers shared their lesson plans focused on citizen science projects in their classrooms. Last but not least, a fabulous resource is the Students Discover program of the Your Wild Life project at North Carolina State University.  This programme, in collaboration with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, offers teachers the opportunity to gain research experience over the summer while they design lesson plans based on existing citizen science projects. These lesson plans cover many disciplines and grades and there are many, many more to come – so bookmark that page!

-          Caren Cooper is assistant director of the Biodiversity Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

-          Join #CitSciChat on the last Wednesday of every month, 7-8pm GMT. To find more details about the Twitter chat, and to read archived chats, click here.

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