When most people think about citizen scientists, they tend to think of them as data collectors, volunteering their time to report wildlife sightings, gather microbe samples, or transcribe old weather reports. It’s true that data collection is the primary task of most citizen scientists, but many volunteers take their participation a step further by designing experiments, analyzing data, and conducting education and outreach. The last task is the one that I think is the most interesting and accessible to citizen scientists.
Citizen science volunteers have the potential to play a significant role in outreach and education. Many citizen scientists are truly passionate about the projects with which they volunteer, and that passion leads them to share their project’s mission, key questions, and recent findings with others. Even participants who only dabble with a project can describe their experiences to friends and family.
Some citizen scientists go well beyond sharing what they’ve learned to the people around them. They become involved with more formal education and outreach activities on their project’s behalf by hosting informational tables at community events, giving public talks, writing articles, or contacting the media.
The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, a citizen science project based out of the University of Minnesota, and the subject of much of my PhD dissertation, has many volunteers who educate others about the drastic decline in the monarch population, the reasons for dwindling population numbers, and what people can do to help monarchs.
These volunteers give presentations to local naturalist organizations about the importance of planting native milkweed and nectar plants, contact the media with stories about the latest monarch population numbers, and share research findings on social media. I am incredibly grateful for the outreach work done by our citizen scientists; having individuals across the country share up-to-date results and educate others about how to protect monarchs enables us to reach a much larger and broader audience than we would otherwise be able to.
How Projects can Help Volunteers
So, what does it take for citizen scientists to become actively involved in a project’s education and outreach activities?
A project that wants to leverage the power of its volunteers for education and outreach needs to make sure that those volunteers have the knowledge and resources they need. Projects need to produce easy-to-understand print and online materials that explain the significance of their mission and what it is they are studying. They need to share up-to-date results with citizen scientists and help their participants understand the broader context of those findings. They can provide figures and images to use during presentations and handouts for public events.
Projects can also give volunteers tips and advice on conducting outreach. For instance, the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project has a factsheet with tips about how volunteers can contact the media about monarchs. Above all else, project staff need to be available to answer questions from their citizen scientists; volunteers who don’t receive assistance when they need it are less likely to continue sharing project results with others.
Citizen scientists who want to share what they have learned should contact their project first. Projects might have tasks with which they need help, messages they are trying to spread, or tools and resources to help volunteers educate others. Citizen scientists should also make known any special skills or connections they have; educators, naturalists, writers, and publicists are particularly well-suited to outreach work, but the only real requirements are knowledge and enthusiasm.
Citizen science is often hailed as a way to collect large quantities of data across a vast geographical area, but the same potential is there for widespread outreach and dissemination of project findings. Some citizen scientists find that they enjoy telling others about their project as much, if not more, than actually collecting data!
Eva Lewandowski is the Citizen-based Monitoring Coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. She holds a PhD in Conservation Biology from the University of Minnesota. Find her on twitter as @LewandowskiEva.