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

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