Initial findings from citizen science project leader focus groups

Focus groups with citizen science project leaders revealed numerous advantages for citizen science in schools, but also a number of challenges. Working jointly with project leaders and teachers will help overcome some of the challenges and maximise the benefits.

By Ciara Kenneally

Learning By Doing aims to create and adapt evidence-based citizen science programs for students, to better engage them in science education. Our first step in realising this goal involves understanding the experiences of key stakeholders (teachers, project leaders, etc.) who have used citizen science in Australian schools.  

In this blog, I will discuss finding from my honours thesis analysis (which has just been submitted!), engaging our first group of stakeholders – Australian citizen science project leaders. We conducted a serious of focus groups (guided group conversations) with 17 project leaders from across a range of scientific disciplines, who have worked within Australian schools. It was great to have such a diversity within participants – this meant we could learn from a range of projects and synthesise these experiences to be representative of Australian school citizen science.

Focus groups provided a wonderful opportunity for project leaders to share and compare their experiences working on citizen science in schools. Key themes were identified from these discussions ascribing to the many learning opportunities of implementing citizen science in schools.  Two key elements discussed by project leaders, were the advantages they observed and challenges experienced from engaging students in their citizen science project.

Advantages for citizen science in schools

The advantages for citizen science participation for students is represented in the image below. We classified these as enablers, engagers or enactors. The categories flow on from each other where enablers can support engagers which can promote enactors.

An enabler is a factor that supports student participation in citizen science. An example of an enabler is the ability for students to participate in authentic research, that can make an impact. This was mentioned as a motivator for both students and teachers to get involved in citizen science.

Engages are aspects of participation that increase student engagement. The most frequently mentioned advantage for students in our focus groups was learning. Project leaders said that through citizen science participation, students can learn both sciences and areas beyond science (depending on the project, this could be in areas like art or mathematics). This increased learning opportunity is a primary motivator for Learning By Doing, as we look to expand our programs and involvement of students in citizen science.

The final category of enactors, describes factors that empower students beyond their current citizen science participation. A powerful example is the ability for students to create change – project leaders often mentioned this was accomplished through communication of their scientific findings to create more awareness within their communities. 

Challenges for citizen science in schools

We found a number of advantages for citizen science, but during our discussions with project leaders they also mentioned a number of challenges they faced when running their projects in schools. Challenges range from the more personal challenges for project leaders and/or teachers to broader systemic challenges for the implementation of citizen science within the education system. Personal challenges for project leaders or schools are indicated in the specific circles in the image below (orange for projects; blue for schools), with joint challenges represented in the shared area.

This image describes the following themes we identified during the analysis of project leader focus groups.

  • Citizen science project leaders may not have the necessary resources and knowledge to run school projects
  • Balancing the science and education goals of citizen science projects may result in compromises in school settings
  • Connecting and collaborating with teachers can be difficult when teachers are unfamiliar with citizen science, or project leaders are unfamiliar with schools
  • Citizen science projects do not always align well with formal curriculum
  • Student online and physical safety is an important consideration for projects, as it can impact the scope of projects
  • Time is a scare resource for teachers
  • Varied teacher confidence in science means teachers may require extra assistance to run projects.

It’s been extremely rewarding to hear about the advantages of citizen science participation for students, and really supports why we’re running this project. However, our work here at LBD is only beginning. As we’ve identified several challenges for citizen science implementation, it is now time to work with projects and teachers to overcome these. Both factors will be investigated further during the scoping stages of our research with other key stakeholders like teachers and educational designers, to achieve a greater understanding of how we can overcome them.

These findings have recently been presented at the Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA) conference, and are summarised in a participant report. I’d like to say a huge thank you to all of the participants involved in this research, who gave up their very valuable time to help us with our project.

*image details- ‘Group work‘ by Eldan Goldenberg, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Citizen Science – a hook to engage students in ‘real’ science at school

“For me the appeal of being involved in citizen science is that I was doing science. I got a ‘kick’ out of knowing that my time was helping scientists with their research project, and the Marine Park with their monitoring of marine protected zones”

By Dr Christine Preston

I’m Dr Christine Preston, the pedagogical lead on the Learning By Doing team. I developed a love of biology in high school which led to me first training as a secondary science teacher and teaching years 7-10 science, senior biology (years 11-12) and marine studies. I love teaching so much that I decided to pivot my career and start to teach future teachers, becoming a university lecturer in secondary science education. Following two years as a primary school science specialist, I realised that I wanted to focus on working with teachers and students in the early stages of their formal education. I’ve been teaching and researching in primary science education and curriculum studies at the University of Sydney for 16 years now, while teaching kindergarten science for 2 hours a week to keep me grounded.

2009 Reef Life Survey team Lord Howe Island (the latest RLS was conducted in 2020), Moorish Idols LHI

As part of the Learning By Doing team I’m now fascinated by opportunities to engage young students in science through participation in authentic research and have been reflecting on the impact of my first personal involvement participating in citizen science. I’m an avid scuba diver and instructor and have enjoyed introducing many people to the underwater world. I have also been lucky enough to use my scuba skills on research field trips for Australian National University and the University of Western Australia contributing to the quest to help save the Great Barrier Reef from ocean acidification. 

The first time that I put my diving skills to use along with biological knowledge from my science degree, underwater photography, and enjoyment of species identification was to help conduct Reef Life Surveys (RLS – see website below). The photo above shows the Reef life survey team that I was part of on Lord Howe Island in 2009. That year we surveyed 29 sites, recorded around 230 species of fish and an estimated 130 species of invertebrates or cryptic fish! I have also conducted Reef Life Surveys at Terrigal, NSW Central Coast, and in Sydney harbour.

So how do RLS volunteer scuba divers conduct underwater surveys of shallow reefs? We started with an initiation training of the survey technique after which pairs of divers could complete their own surveys or join a team in a predetermined location. In pairs we laid a 50m tape measure to define our transect. Swimming slowly along the tape in one direction, we tallied all the fish species we saw and collected data on the size range of fish species, using a pencil and waterproof paper. Fish that we did not recognise were photographed or sketched to be described later back in the research station lab. On the return trip we focused on tallying invertebrate species and cryptic fish that hide amongst the reef structure and its covering. We also took photographic quadrats of the macro-algae and other marine life attached to the reef. After the dive we went to the Research Station lab where we compared our data for consistency and used reference books and the internet to identify unfamiliar species along with the Reef Life scientist, Rick and Graeme Edgar . Once we were satisfied that our data was accurate, we entered the information into the RLS database. This research helped us broaden our knowledge of local species and would sometimes lead to identification of a new species for the location.

As a recreational diver I love to take photographs, observe and identify species of marine life. Participating in a RLS dive allowed me to do the same thing, but at the same time contribute to scientific research. For me the appeal of being involved in RLS is that I was doing science. I got a ‘kick’ out of knowing that my time was helping scientists from the University of Tasmania with their research project and the Lord Howe Island Marine Park with their monitoring of marine protected zones. RLS stretched me to learn to identify more fish species in the areas in which I dive, which means I could learn by doing something I love. I hope I am able to convey this love to fellow learners, as we progress and expand our Learning By Doing project.

*RLS is a continuing Citizen Science project, with biennial surveys on Lord Howe and many other sites around Australia. Check out the website and the an interactive tool for tracking the health of vital reef ecosystems all around the world.

Citizen Science provides an opportunity for Connection To Nature

While citizen science often relies on technology, it also asks us to focus on the natural world, including plants, animals, weather, air quality, and water quality

By Dr. John Martin

Nature-deficit disorder has become a buzzword, driving concerns about adults and children’s well-being and our ability to understand and care for the natural world. Modern lifestyles appear to be full of indoor and digital distractions from the natural world: tv, social media, computer games, shopping malls, offices, and transportation (cars, buses, trams, trains, planes). While citizen science predominantly relies upon technology to participate, it often also asks us to focus on the natural world, including plants, animals, weather, air quality, and water quality to name but a few examples. Other citizen science projects focus on a range of topics, including human health, space, and mapping roads and facilities.

Given the wide concern about nature-deficit there has been surprisingly little research directly testing whether a disconnect exists – and if it does, how this might affect our environmental behaviours. Recent research, by one of the Learning By Doing team, sought to address this knowledge gap, with a focus on Australian children aged 8-14 years in urban areas of Sydney, Australia’s largest city. This research found that most younger children, especially girls, reported strong connections to nature. But by their teenage years, many children were less connected with nature. Understanding and reversing this trend is vital to addressing global environmental problems.

Over 1,000 students, attending 16 public schools across Sydney, Australia, answered the questionnaire in-class under the supervision of their teachers (thanks!). This research measured the students’ connections to nature, asking about their: enjoyment of nature; empathy for creatures; sense of oneness with nature; and sense of responsibility towards nature.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom about nature-deficit disorder, we found that one in two children aged 8 to 11 felt strongly connected to nature, despite living in the city. However, only one in five teenagers reported strong nature connections. Children in the younger age group were also more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviours. For example, one in two were committed to saving water and energy, and two in three recycled each day.

The research found that girls generally formed closer emotional connections to nature than boys did – a difference especially apparent in the final stage of primary school. Importantly, girls differed from boys in their responses to questions about sensory stimulation – girls particularly liked to see wildflowers, hear nature sounds, and touch animals and plants. This finding echoes previous research which found motivation for sensory connection to nature was greater in women than men.

Overall, these findings suggest that parents, educators, and others seeking to “reconnect” youth with nature should focus on the transition between childhood and the teenage years.

As many of us know, especially teachers and parents, adolescence is a period of great change. Children move from primary to high school, often switching peer groups, and struggling with puberty. Teenagers gain greater independence and must adapt to a maturing brain. Arguably, relationships with nature easily fall by the wayside when teens prioritise other aspects of their busy lives. This ‘adolescent dip’ (compared to younger children) is being observed across different cultures and disciplines, including nature connection. Perhaps participating as a citizen scientist can help some individuals maintain their connection with nature.

Though cities often appear to be concrete jungles, they still contain urban wildlife, parks, and other green elements; these provide opportunities to connect to nature, including through citizen science projects. In our everyday lives – including all age groups – we can easily contribute to a range of citizen science projects. A highly accessible global project is iNaturalist; the aim of this project is to document when and where species occur – including finding species that are new to science; that is, species that have never been documented or identified. All you have to do is submit photos of the plants, fungi, and animals you observe, from your backyard or anywhere in the world.

Urban creek storm water_Wade Kelly

The iNaturalist project and community of participants assist with identifying the species in the photo(s). By participating in the iNaturalist project, individuals, teachers, and community groups can survey the biodiversity in their local area, known as a BioBlitz. Engaging in this way often opens our eyes to the diversity of species sharing our backyards, schools, and suburbs. Conducting a BioBlitz has become a tool to engage people with the species in their local areas. This practice has expanded to include cities occasionally competing either nationally or globally; individuals and groups (including schools) are welcome to participate.

A different way to connect with the nature around you is to write a short story about it, contributing to the Urban Field Naturalist Project. Stories can be accompanied with photos, videos, or your artwork (drawing, painting, zene, etc.). An example is ‘Lockdown Backyard’ – …it made us notice so many more animals living in the gardens than we would have previously noticed. Looking up and around us really showed us how many different species of animals the gardens housed. Slowing down and observing can help you to connect with nature, reporting or writing about your observations can enhance your level of connection.

Lastly, there are a range of citizen science projects aiming to work with schools, including Birdlife Australis’s Birds in Schools project, The University of Sydney’s Breaking Good project; see the Australian Citizen Science Association website for more information.

This Blog was adapted from the article about this study in The Conversation.

You can read the original research mentioned above:

Keith RJ, Given LM, Martin JM, Hochuli DF (2021). Urban children’s connections to nature and environmental behaviors differ with age and gender. PLoS ONE 16(7): e0255421.

Learning By Doing’s holistic approach to learning

We believe that the best way to learn science is by doing science

By Dr. Yaela Golumbic

Learning is a lifelong process – beginning at birth through young age, schooling and well into adulthood. Learning takes different forms at different stages, and indeed learning within a school or university environment is substantially different from self-guided everyday learning of adults.

But what if we could replicate the experience?

The great education philosopher John Dewey (1859 –1952) claimed, “education is not preparation for life, education is life itself”. Considering learning opportunities in every path of life, Deweys’ approach to education was a social one. He believed in experiential education which posits effective learning as happening when learners are actively involved, and that abstract notions can be best understood when they are related to specific life experiences. From these experiences, new meaning is created, which put plainly, is the process of learning.

Much like John Dewey, Learning By Doing takes a holistic approach to learning. We perceive learning as incorporating cognitive, behavioural and affective dimensions. Or in simple words the content one learns (cognitive), their actions and activities (behavioural), and how this process and knowledge makes them feel (affective) are all aspects of learning. Together these dimensions create an experience, which allows us to grow as people and learners. 

Cognitive - What you learn 
Behavioural - What you do
Affective - How you feel
Three Learning Dimensions

Citizen science is an authentic way to engage people in scientific research. Ranging from environmental data collection to geolocation mapping and through open drug discovery initiatives, citizen scientists are actively engaged in the scientific process. We aim to couple participation in citizen science initiatives for increased science learning in schools. Infusing the formal curriculum with meaningful contexts to drive learning organically lead, with intended goals and outcomes.

Citizen science offers students an opportunity to engage with hands-on science in a natural context with a relevant prospect, as part of their science education. Research on implementing citizen science in schools has taught us that participating in citizen science can foster scientific literacy, critical thinking, social and environmental awareness, and develop student inquiry skills such as making observations, recording measurements and communicating findings. These outcomes align with several curriculum goals and support the three dimensions of the Australian curriculum: science understanding, science inquiry and science as a human endeavour.

To achieve this goal, Learning By Doing is using an evidence-based co-created approach. We position ourselves firstly as learners to better understand current relationships between citizen science and schools, intended and observed learning outcomes in addition to the perceived benefit and challenges of incorporating citizen science in schools. We are conducting a series of studies examining and integrating perspectives of teachers, students and citizen science project leaders. These include investigating current use of citizen science within school environments, identifying the needs of teachers and project leaders, and exploring how and what learning takes place through citizen science. This process will inform our future work in creating resources and guidelines for incorporating citizen science into the formal school curriculum.

By involving students in citizen science, we are encouraging self-guided, everyday learning to occur. We believe this will assist students in developing essential skills and knowledge to engage fruitfully in scientific discussion which are an inherent part of our society and culture.

*Image is courtesy of the Australian Citizen Science Association photo library

References and further reading

Australian curriculum, available at-

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience    and    education    (Vol.    no.    10).    New    York:    The    Macmillan    company.

Jenkins, L.L., (2011). Using citizen science beyond teaching science content: A strategy for making science relevant to students’ lives. Cultural Studies of Science Education. 6(2): 501–508.

Stylinski, C. D., Peterman, K., Phillips, T., Linhart, J., & Becker-Klein, R. (2020). Assessing science inquiry skills of citizen science volunteers: a snapshot of the field. International Journal of Science Education, Part B. 1–16.

Learning By Doing – Who we are and what we’re trying to achieve

What better way is there to learn science than by doing science? In the new research project Learning By Doing, researchers are working to bring more authentic science learning experiences to classrooms across Australia

By A/Prof. Alice Motion

We’re an interdisciplinary group of researchers from The University of Sydney and Taronga Conservation Society with a shared enthusiasm for citizen science and its potential benefits for education. 

Towards the end of 2020 we were thrilled to be awarded a grant by the NSW Education Strategic Fund and we’ve recently launched our website and Twitter account to start sharing our progress, and to build even stronger connections with schools, teachers and people working in citizen science so that we can work to embed citizen science in schools. 

See full blog here –

*Image is courtesy of the Australian Citizen Science Association photo library