Citizen Science – finding its place in education and discerning the outcomes

Published by Dr Greg Mannion

‘Citizen Science’ is where members of the public – amateur non-professional, younger, and older people – contribute in various ways to scientific projects of all kinds. (See this blog for an introduction to the topic). For example, people can now engage in citizen science by using their smart phones to record weather, water quality or the presence of wildlife and often upload findings to what are often large, internationally significant data bases. Three members of the faculty are actively researching this area in connected ways.

The research team

Andy Ruck, PhD student, is researching how conservation action linked to citizen science in the UK as part of the Polli:Nation project where over 260 schools are transforming school grounds to encourage pollinating insects

Science teacher, Claire Ramjan, is a newly arrived 1+3 ESRC funded doctoral student whose study will compare the outcomes of different kinds of environmental citizen science projects.

Dr Greg Mannion (with and doctoral researcher Andy Ruck) participates in a specialist Working Group of an EU funded COST action looking at the synergies and tensions involved in embedding citizen science into education.

The main aim of the Citizen Science ‘COST’ action EU project is to investigate and extend the impact of citizen science with the stakeholders from all sectors concerned: policy makers, social innovators, citizens, cultural organizations, researchers, charities and non-governmental organizations. The project seeks to increase the potential of citizen science as a transformer and enabler of innovation and socio-ecological transition. Currently, 36 member countries are involved with members contributing to workshops, hosting early career scientists, and writing scientific papers.

One of the working groups there looks specifically at the ways in which citizen science and education programming can interact, synergise and support each other. There are now many examples, inside and outside of formal education when citizen science has been shown to support learning.

For sure, citizen scientists can engage in learning about science and some go on to engage in science in their careers. Through citizen science, participants learn about the topic of the inquiry (for example, the importance of bees for pollinating our plants), and they also learn about the process of inquiry in science in general. Young people can become involved in recording and monitoring their local environment for example. It potentially provides opportunities to learn new skills, engage with the scientific community, and find out how scientific observation can deepen understanding, connection and knowledge of scientific processes.

But emerging research on practices, motivations and outcomes of participation in citizen science also shows that it is not all about the science. Participants will often engage in say monitoring a local habitat because they have some connection to a place or because they want to make a difference to another species. Some evidence now shows that the projects need to be real science and be impactful for real public audiences to generate certain kinds of learning. Educationally, we need to recognise that the science data gathering and analysis are important but are also means to other outcomes for learners – for example community-based conservation skills. Inquiries are now beginning to focus on how citizen science actions are opportunities for all kinds of learning outcomes beyond science itself. In environmental citizen science, these might include connection to nature, active citizenship, understanding complexity and sustainability, and collective forms of conservation action.

Researchers are concerned that if citizen science generally is driven only by the need for better and bigger science, or driven by instrumental policy needs, that the focus on making the transition to a more sustainable future may get lost in the mix. We may urgently need more emancipatory and less instrumental approaches to citizen science – and we need to work out how to embed these in formal education programmes. It is thought that involving citizens more in co-designing citizen science (rather than merely harnessing the public to collect data as contributors) would also lead to better and more valuable place-based outdoor learning opportunities – but this is an empirical question we need to be clearer about. For us in Stirling, based on existing evidence, we suggest encouraging place-responsive citizen science in education in ways that is sustained and meaningful. To achieve this, we have argued that citizen science in formal education needs to be designed so that it is regular, real, relevant, responsive to place for it to be effective as a form of civic action for sustainable futures.

The on-going research in the Faculty of Social Sciences in University of Stirling looks in different ways at the learning outcomes of CS projects in education contexts. They are looking critically at how and when citizen science gives young people and communities the chance to get hands-on with science in a meaningful way. The outputs and impact of this work are already being felt locally and internationally. The researchers are collaborating on a research article on synergies with education with colleagues from over 6 countries. They are also embedding citizen science into teacher education at University of Stirling and recently gave a key input to over 60 teachers, policy makers and other stakeholders at a ‘Sharing Good practice’ event hosted by Scottish Natural Heritage.

About the author

Dr Greg Mannion is a Senior Lecturer of Education within the Faculty of Social Sciences and member of the Faculty’s Education Studies research group. Some of Greg’s substantive research interests include: the place-related dimensions of learning and human-environment interaction, outdoor and environmental learning, education for sustainable development and global citizenship, rights-based education, citizen science learning, child-adult relations, learners’ experienes of formal and non-formal education, visual and participatory research methods. Read more.