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The Value of Citizen Science

Picture a scientist. What is the person wearing? What are they doing? Do you they look anything like you?

By Erin Dreps, Education Coordinator

If Google Image Search results are any indication, the most common image of a scientist is someone in a white lab coat wearing goggles, peering into a microscope or examining the contents of a beaker, and making incredible scientific discoveries not achieved by the common person.

You're more a scientist than you realize, and Butterfly Pavilion can help!

The overall impression one takes away from this is that science is something done by a highly trained person with specialized equipment in a sterile environment. And while this might be representative of some scientists and some areas of study, it’s hardly all-encompassing.

The truth is, most scientists look just like you or me!

For example, a butterfly scientist, or Lepidopterist, doesn’t usually spend time wearing protective goggles standing over a bubbling cylinder. Rather, their research may involve gather data on the existence and health of butterfly populations in their habitats. Further straying from the prevalent narrative found on my Google search, this work is far from a solitary project. If a Lepidopterist tried to take on the survey of butterfly populations single-handedly, it would only be possible to capture a very small snapshot of data from a handful of locations. Needless to say, an individual Lepidopterist would face many barriers including, but not limited to, geographical distance, time, and resources to accomplish such a feat alone.

The thought that may pop in your head is, “Well, you’re out of luck unless you get more financial resources to hire some more scientists.” But what if you had a pool of engaged citizens that cared enough about butterfly conservation that they were willing to volunteer their time to help you complete your data collection. Adults, families, neighborhood and community groups, Scout troops, and classrooms – folks from all walks of life observing and recording the appearance of butterflies in their areas and reporting back to you. Suddenly you have vastly more data than you could have collected on your own, a much better picture of butterfly population health, AND you’ve given these volunteers an opportunity to have direct, hands-on impact on the future of butterfly conservation. Too good to be true?

In fact, it’s not! This is citizen science, and it’s a powerful data collection tool that, in the case of Butterfly Pavilion’s Colorado Butterfly Monitoring Network (CBMN) and Urban Prairies Project (UPP), is providing essential insight on invertebrate species and habitats that land managers can use when making conservation decisions. But the benefits of citizen science don’t stop there. It also serves as a powerful learning tool for teachers and classrooms.

Traditional science curricula, like the common stereotype of scientists, are often limited to a single approach to the subject. Lessons commonly emphasize what is already known or agreed upon by scientific consensus, focusing on factual information and rote repetition of experimental processes (if experimentation is mentioned at all). The outcome of this strategy discourages curiosity and builds the view that there’s not much left to discover. However, recent estimates suggest that nearly 90% of all species that exist on earth are yet to be described. As the California Academy of Science puts it, “Citizen science gives participants insight and exposure to the idea that there remain mysteries to solve, that the internet does not hold all the answers, and that science is a dynamic and ever-changing process of pursuing curiosity.” This is a powerful message to instill in young learners, and a crucial one given that they will eventually be tasked with finding solutions to incredibly urgent and complex issues like climate change.

Along with encouraging inquiry, classroom participation in citizen science has been shown to improve performance, ownership of, and investment in scientific work. According to UC Davis, “Extensive research shows that a strong sense of ownership of the work is associated with more active engagement, increased sense of agency and self-efficacy, positive attitude toward science, and improved science learning outcomes.” And not only does this positively impact student motivation and confidence in the classroom, but also encourages them to feel empowered in other parts of their lives as well.

In sum, whether you’re a researcher interested in getting your community engaged in science, an individual wanting to make an impact on habitat and species conservation, or a teacher hoping to inspire your students the stay curious, consider citizen science! Butterfly Pavilion can help you get started:

Sources:

https://www.nature.com/news/2011/110823/full/news.2011.498.html

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4798802/

https://www.calacademy.org/sites/default/files/assets/docs/pdf/cascitizensciencetoolkit_forweb.pdf

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