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 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.