April is Citizen Science Month
Last updated 4/6/2021 at 2:06pm
Every April, professional scientists and amateurs alike celebrate Citizen Science Month.
Citizen science is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions" and encompasses thousands of projects and experiments.
Crowd-sourcing data isn't a new idea. The Christmas Bird Count, which is sponsored by the National Audubon Society, began in 1900. Volunteers collect, record, and submit information about local bird groups from Dec. 14-Jan. 5. This data is then used to information conservation efforts, according to National Geographic.
Citizen science projects are proposed and organized through numerous sources, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the National Science Foundation, and many others. Projects range from bird and butterfly counts to Alzheimer's research to earthquake tracking. Websites like scistarter.org compile citizen science projects that users can search by area or topic.
Supporters of citizen science list numerous benefits, which include increased research scope that wouldn't be available without volunteers as well as science education for community members who participate in citizen science projects. There is no age limit to who can participate in citizen science projects, and many projects can be done for free or with items participants already own.
"Volunteers in citizen science gain hands-on experience doing real science, and in many cases take that learning outside of the traditional classroom setting," noted a 2015 fact sheet from the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. That same year, the White House installed a rain gauge in the First Lady's Kitchen Garden as part of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network citizen science project.
Some questions have arisen in citizen science surrounding the validity of research methods from untrained volunteers, the quality of the data submitted and the ethics of utilizing unpaid volunteers for research labor. While researchers look into answering these questions, citizen science continues to support scientific research in a variety of fields.
Both the University of Montana and Montana State University have their own citizen science projects, including ones focused on trout research and land use. The Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center, based in Glacier National Park, offers citizen science projects to study populations and distributions of loons, mountain goats, and migrating raptors. The Montana Audubon has several citizen science projects focused on birds, including observing Great Blue Heron rookeries and Harlequin Ducks.
Many citizen science projects seek to engage students and expose them to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. One project featured as part of this year's Citizen Science Month is designed for all ages and is called the Great Sunflower Project. Its goal is to count pollinators across the United States and use the collected data to track the strength of specific pollinator populations and potentially improve pollinator habitats.