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.