Bridging the Gaps: Integrating Citizen Science Throughout an Institution

May 30th, 2014 - Posted in 2014, Dimensions by Alejandro Asin

By Christine L. Goforth, Julie M. Urban, and Julie E. Horvath

From Dimensions
May/June 2014

At the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS), Raleigh, we’ve made citizen science a priority, because we recognize its power to teach people about the natural world and the role of science in their daily lives. The value of the citizen scientist is apparent throughout our museum, including in our research and collections, educational programs, exhibits, and outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. We constantly improve our public science offerings to reach out to our visitors and engage them in scientific experiences.

Research and collections
The strength of our citizen science program lies largely in its integration with research conducted at NCMNS. For decades, our curators have conducted research on our geological and biological collections from North Carolina and beyond. With the opening of the Nature Research Center wing in 2012, we added four glass-walled research labs visible to our visitors to highlight museum research and allow scientists and the public to work together to solve scientific problems.

Researchers in the labs are dedicated to providing public science opportunities to our visitors and periodically open the labs to collect samples for the Meet Your (Face) Mites! or the Primate Armpit Microbiome projects, or to share the biodiversity discovered through the Arthropods in Your Home project. The researchers routinely give public talks in our three-story Daily Planet Theater to share the results of these citizen science projects and discuss their other research projects with visitors. Through these dialogues, visitors actively contribute to research in progress by sharing their hypotheses and interpretations of our research.

Exhibits
Citizen science is integrated throughout NCMNS’s exhibits. We have one of the first dedicated citizen science exhibitions, the Citizen Science Center, where we invite visitors to learn about citizen science and explain how to get involved. Citizen Science Center visitors participate in projects through computer stations, cart programs, and hands-on workshops. For example, visitors might classify whale calls, identify ladybugs, or go outside to document the biodiversity around the museum for our new Natural North Carolina project.

Visitors can browse hundreds of citizen science opportunities worldwide through our SciStarter kiosk, an exhibit-friendly version of the SciStarter website. SciStarter developed this kiosk for NCMNS and is now making it available to others.

NCMNS also houses public educational Investigate Labs that offer opportunities for visitors to get hands-on experience with scientific tools and techniques and to participate in citizen science projects. For example, our Visualization Investigate Lab currently features eMammal, a mammal-tracking project using camera traps. Visitors identify animals from camera trap footage collected at our outdoor Prairie Ridge Ecostation facility, and NCMNS researchers then analyze the results. To be sure they’re doing quality work, a trained technician later double-checks the identifications.

Educational programs
Our educational programs bring citizen science opportunities to students throughout North Carolina. For example, the Shad in the Classroom program engages students in ongoing conservation efforts by having them rear fish in their classrooms and release them into local rivers, while teaching them about conservation, ecology, and watersheds. The students collect basic data on the fish, such as survival rates, and the program will soon expand to include a genetic analysis component.

Visitors to our Prairie Ridge Ecostation participate in hands-on, nature-focused citizen science projects while enjoying a beautiful natural setting in the heart of an urban environment. For example, visitors can count and identify birds for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society’s eBird program or collect and identify water scorpions in the pond for our Wading for Water Sticks project.

Thanks to a $7 million (U.S.) National Science Foundation Math and Science Partnership grant (DRL-1319293) awarded in collaboration with North Carolina State University’s Your Wild Life program, we are improving our integration of scientific research and educational programming. The Students Discover project funds postdoctorates conducting original cutting-edge research in the museum’s labs and partners them with middle school teachers participating in the Kenan Fellows program, which provides research experience and professional development for K–12 teachers in North Carolina. Together, researchers and teachers will develop curriculum for new citizen science projects where middle school students will form hypotheses and collect data. These data will then be used by the researchers to support their research efforts. Once these programs have been piloted in North Carolina schools, we will offer them free of charge to schools worldwide through the Your Wild Life website. The first modules are expected to be available later this year, and more projects will be added as they’re developed.

Integrating strong research into a variety of educational opportunities throughout NCMNS has allowed us to bring real science to our visitors on site and online. Citizen science is a powerful tool that gives visitors an opportunity to learn by doing while supporting ongoing research efforts worldwide. We encourage everyone to take advantage of the benefits of citizen science.

Five tips for building an institution-wide citizen science program
There are many ways to integrate citizen science into your institution, from quick and simple to more involved and complex. For those interested in developing, building, and maintaining a strong institution-wide citizen science program, we offer these suggestions:

1. Make citizen science an institutional priority. You might even write it into your mission statement to keep everyone engaged.

2. Designate a citizen science contact for your facility. Integrating citizen science throughout a museum or science center requires cross-departmental communication. Having staff to bridge the gaps between departments will help you achieve your goals.

3. Provide a dedicated space within your facility where visitors can learn about and participate in citizen science. Consider offering a cart program if space is limited.

4. Play to your strengths. If you have researchers, encourage them to develop citizen science projects based on their research. If not, hundreds of citizen science projects are available for your educators or exhibits staff to use. For ideas, we recommend browsing the existing citizen science projects at SciStarter.com.

5. Collaborate with other organizations. Collaborations allow multiple facilities to bring together their individual strengths. Talk to other museums and science centers or local universities when you need help. Consider joining ASTC’s new Citizen Science Community of Practice to help get some of those conversations started.

Christine L. Goforth is senior manager of citizen science, Julie M. Urban is assistant director of the Microbiology and Genomics Lab, and Julie E. Horvath is director of the Microbiology and Genomics Lab, all at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh The museum will be hosting the 2014 ASTC Annual Conference in October.

About the image: Participants in a Properties of Matter class examine the relative densities of fresh and salt water in an Investigate Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Photo by Karen Swain

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