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.