How citizen science changes the world

In 1994, Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act, designating Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday as a national day of service. It calls for Americans from all walks of life to work together to provide solutions to our most pressing national problems.

The National Science Foundation encourages people to help build a better, more informed society by participating in Citizen Science, or Public Participation in Scientific Research. This program is designed to engage the public in addressing societal needs and accelerating science, technology, and innovation.

Here are a few ways that citizens scientists are doing their part to serve their communities.

Conducting scientific experiments

Credit: Billion Oyster Project/CCERS

Students in Manhattan participate in scientific research by taking part in The River Project oyster restoration program. The project’s objective is to restore native oyster habitats in the Hudson River. To do this, volunteers help pull oyster traps from New York Harbor and conduct field research. This research allows participants opportunities to actively investigate natural settings and engage in problem-based learning.

Citizen scientists also serve their communities through The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program, which provides students and the public worldwide with the opportunity to participate in data collection, analysis, and the scientific process while contributing meaningfully to an understanding of the Earth’s systems and environments.

Collecting and analyzing data

Credit: Courtesy COASST

Surveyors involved in the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey (COASST) collect monthly data on seabird mortality, serving their community by helping monitor the health of marine ecosystems. About 600 “COASSTers” collect seabird data at more than 300 beaches in the northern Pacific, from California to Alaska.

COASST’s organizers recognize citizen scientists as essential partners for the research community, collecting data at a scale that would be impossible without their assistance. COASST works to translate long-term monitoring into effective marine conservation solutions by collaborating with the public, natural resource management agencies and environmental organizations.

Making new discoveries

Credit: Bruce Leventhal, Forest Lake High School, Forest Lake, Minn.

You can be a citizen scientist at any age! The young citizen scientists in this photo are participating in the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, examining a Mexican butterfly weed during a visit to the lab of Karen Oberhauser at the University of Minnesota.

Oberhauser, an professor at the Minnesota Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, is founder and director the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, which engages volunteers from across the U.S. and Canada in research. The project’s data helps explain geographical and temporal variations in North America’s monarch populations.

Solving complex problems

Credit: The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico

In the tropics of Puerto Rico, citizen scientists sort archaeological artifacts at Hacienda La Esperanza, a nature reserve belonging to the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico. The site is located in the Rio Grande de Manati watershed and covers more than 2,100 acres along the Northwestern Atlantic coast. The project, Tracing the Past, explores how human settlement patterns along the river have changed over time, and how these changes connect to the social idiosyncrasies of particular time periods.

The trust received its first NSF award in 2007. Over the course of that two-year grant, more 2,000 people participated during the life of that two-year grant, learning about scientific methods and the world around them. The project expanded its scope with another award in 2012, giving participants opportunities to take part in activities including monitoring insect populations, comparing bat colonies in a shopping mall and a natural cave, and exploring the cultural and historical use of natural resources through an archaeological dig.

Where to start?

Credit: Dennis Ward, Project BudBurst, National Ecological Observatory Network

Looking for a place to find citizen science projects locally, or projects you can participate in remotely or over the Internet? You’ve got lots of options for finding one. The NSF-supported SciStarter webpage offers a repository of over 1,500 citizen science projects from a variety of groups and organizations. And provides a catalog of federally supported projects and a toolkit for designing and maintaining projects..

Wherever you are, whatever you do, take the time to give back to your community by participating in citizen science. These projects rely on public participation to continue advancements in scientific discovery. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.”