What is Citizen Science?

Lab Note #5
Mar 08, 2015

Citizen science initiatives are programs that engage the public in scientific research. Citizens can participate in the scientific process in a variety of ways—project involvement ranges from playing video games to identifying birds or tagging butterflies. Simply put, citizen science projects are projects that involve public volunteers to help collect data.

For my project in South Africa, I want to work with citizens to collect plant and soil samples for discovering Phytophthora species—a group of microorganisms that frequently cause plant diseases (plant pathogens).

This photo was adapted from wikimediacommons user Andrew Shiva


I was first introduced to citizen science through a discussion for Inspiration Dissemination—a radio program that features graduate students to share their stories. One of our guests early on, Michelle Fournet, had helped organize a citizen science initiative to track individual whales in Alaska with the help of citizens! Apparently you can distinguish individual whales by their tail (more technically referred to as flukes)—sort of like a fingerprint. Michelle and her friend teamed up with whale watching guides to take pictures of whale flukes and track individual whales. How cool is that? Imagine a whale watching guide who spends all of their time on the water taking tourists to see whales, now being able to contribute to research!

Alaska Whale Foundation

Here is a link to more information about citizen science opportunities for studying whales in Alaska.You can listen to Michelle Fournet share her story and hear us talk about citizen science here (we cover it in the first ten minutes of the episode). The episode was recorded on April 29th, 2012.

Before I even knew what citizen science was, I had been a citizen scientist. In 5th and 6th grade, I was in a class led by Mr. Gibson at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School in Manhattan, KS. Mr. Gibson encouraged us to participate in a citizen science program for tracking Monarch Butterfly migrations.We would catch Monarch butterflies during recess, tag their wings if they weren't tagged already, or take note of the tag number for submission to track the migration route of the butterfly.

Katja Schulz, www.flickr.com Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Here is a link to more information about the citizen science Monarch butterfly migration program. Also, a more recent project, Journey North is another way to help track Monarch migrations: http://www.learner.org/jnorth/

The Journey North program hosts many citizen science projects, but appears to focus on monitoring organism migrations. The program has different monitoring projects every season. Currently, spring 2015, they offer an outlet to report sightings and participate in the following projects:

Currently my favorite example of a citizen science initiative is the SOD BLITZ program in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. SOD = Sudden Oak Death. The purpose of this initiative is to track the spread of Sudden Oak Death, but it also provides landowners with a diagnosis of whether their tree was killed by Phytophthora ramorum—the water mold that causes Sudden Oak Death.

The SOD BLITZ program has existed for several years. During an annual BLITZ period, the program provides numerous workshops to teach citizen scientists about identifying the symptoms of Sudden Oak Death and allows them to submit samples of symptomatic trees or plants for free diagnosis.

I hope to implement a similar system in South Africa. The Symptom Guide found on the website is a good example of material fitting for the handbook I would like to make and provide to citizen scientists.

I want to use citizen science for my project in South Africa because I enjoy engaging others and hope to inspire involvement in scientific research. Citizen science programs allow everyone to contribute to science.

The point that "you don't have to be an expert to participate in science" is well made in the following video that discusses the history of Citizen Science.

There are tons of citizen science projects out there (maybe as many as a hundred). Since there are so many projects, it is overwhelming to try to discuss them all. Therefore, I am only going to provide links to a few projects that I think are neat. However, I invite you to list examples of your favorite projects in the comments below.


The Great Sunflower Project is an opportunity for citizen scientists to help monitor pollinator populations. The project has existed since 2008. http://www.greatsunflower.org/

Galaxy Zoo is a project where you can help astronomers classify galaxies by answering questions about images. You can help right from where you are! Click here to help classify galaxies now: http://www.galaxyzoo.org

Jellywatch is a project where citizens can submit pictures or sightings of jellyfish or other marine organisms. Check it out here: http://jellywatch.org/ Aurorasaurus is a citizen science project that attempts to create a real-time map of auroral visibility. Citizens can post or verify sightings to be instantly incorporated into the following map. You can also sign up to receive notifications when you should be able to see it. http://aurorasaurus.org/ Citizens helping citizens have phenomenal experiences!


Another excellent resource for citizen science projects are listed in the above blog by Lisa Feldkamp from The Nature Conservatory. In this post, she lists ten popular citizen science projects: http://blog.nature.org/science/2015/02/17/citizen-...


Thanks for checking out this lab note! I hope you discovered something that interests you! Please comment and share if any of this inspired you to become a citizen scientist!


0 Comments
Please wait...