Last summer my friend Henry Gargan became obsessed with birds. Everywhere I went with it – on a walk in the park, downtown or even in a car – became a birding expedition. The bird on the sign must have been spotted. That strange call – a wood thrush or a hermit thrush? You had to listen and see. It was as if Henry’s very world had sprouted wings and started to take flight.
What started out as an occasional distraction from Henry’s job has turned into a complete fixation. And he liked it. Being around him when his eyes lit up with a flash of brown feathers, you couldn’t help but love him too. But where does this interest come from?
According to Henry, this was from a mobile phone app called eBird. He first downloaded the app last summer to help identify birds he saw through his window as he suffered from a Zoom meeting after a Zoom meeting during the COVID lockdown. At the time, he didn’t think much about it. But soon Henry wondered about bird calls, proudly adding new species to his “life list” and meeting eBirder friends in the woods to find the first spring migrants.
Henry Gargan listens to bird calls on his phone via eBird. (Credit: Bradley Allf)
eBird is one of many citizen science projects that involve volunteers, including people with no scientific background, to explore their world and collect observations. These projects clearly have a profound impact on the lives of people like Henry. I’m part of a research team trying to understand this impact through a new citizen science project called SciQuest.
Connect to our planet with citizen science
Henry’s life changed in a positive and fundamental way last year thanks to a citizen science project. This drastic transition raises fascinating questions for me as a researcher studying the phenomenon of citizen science. For decades, we’ve known that data shared with scientists by members of the public can be a huge boon to researchers. Less is known about what citizen science does for the volunteers.
That’s why we launched SciQuest, a citizen science project on citizen science. The aim of the project is to assess the exact impact of citizen science on the lives of people like Henry. What we are discovering through SciQuest will help us make better decisions about the next steps for citizen science as it becomes a truly global phenomenon.
A screenshot of the SciQuest project.
One of my main interests as a scientist is how our experiments shape the way we tackle environmental problems. For example, we know that astronauts, upon seeing Earth from space surrounded by a vast black sea – a stark reminder that “there is no planet B” – become dedicated to the protection of this planet when they get home.
Could citizen science have a similar impact on people? After all, citizen science activities also encourage people to take a closer look at Earth, take a step back from their daily lives, and watch, measure, listen, and record. But even though few of us will be lucky enough to get on a space shuttle, citizen science can be done by just about anyone.
Some studies seem to suggest that citizen science does indeed have an effect on how participants interact with their world. For example, joining biodiversity-focused projects like eBird or “The large number of butterflies”Is linked to learning something new about wildlife, gaining a better appreciation of nature and becoming more involved in conservation activities. But there is still a lot to learn about how important these changes are to people, and how they might happen.
Understand the why
Take Henry, for example. How did her experience on eBird turn birdwatching from a weekend fad into a lifelong passion?
One hypothesis concerns motivations. According to social science theory, the things we do mean more to us if we are “internally” motivated to do them. It means doing something because we think it’s fun or important, whether it’s reading a book or exercising. Conversely, when we go, say, run just because a trainer told us to or because we want to impress someone else, we are unlikely to keep in the habit when this external pressure will disappear.
So how do we help people develop internal motivations? Research shows that when three basic needs are met – when we feel empowered, connected to others, and in control of our own decision-making – our motivations can shift from “external” to “internal”.
This is exactly what happened to Henry. After all, he started doing citizen science before he became interested in birds. Yet through eBird he had the opportunity to improve his bird identification skills, meet more experienced bird watchers who were happy to share their knowledge with him, and make his own decisions about how he wanted to explore the world of birds. In other words, Henry’s three basic needs have been met. As a result, he switched from eBird because he was bored at work to doing it because he was really passionate about birds.
Even law school graduation couldn’t stop Henry from a quick birding jaunt when he heard there were pollock in a field in Chapel Hill. (Credit: Bradley Allf)
But are these changes in motivation happening among citizen scientists besides Henry?
This is where SciQuest comes in. SciQuest uses a series of quizzes to track attitudes, knowledge, motivations, and other things that may be affected by their citizen science experience. It is important to note that SciQuest measures both if people are changing and How? ‘Or’ What these changes could occur.
The project is designed to be an immersive experience that uses engaging quiz ‘modules’ that participants complete several times a year. In addition to helping us answer our research questions, these quizzes are a resource for citizen scientists themselves to better understand and reflect on their experiences.
Rather than bombarding volunteers with a bubble question sheet, SciQuest uses videos, sliders, and graphics, and allows participants to respond to fictional stories. There are even fun Buzzfeed-inspired quizzes to test participants’ knowledge on various topics.
We combine the answers to these quiz modules with data on the types of projects volunteers join, especially on SciStarter. This will help us to assess how combinations of projects, or certain types of projects, relate to different outcomes.
We also plan to promote SciQuest to new audiences, such as volunteer groups with schools, churches, and businesses that are trying citizen science for the first time. This will help us better understand the value of citizen science for new users, who might react to a project differently than more experienced users.
If we find that citizen science is indeed causing some kind of change (i.e., increased interest in the environment), it could inform the way we make decisions about promoting citizen science to the wider world. public. Maybe citizen science should be used in college science classes as a kind of hands-on learning. Or maybe it can reduce partisan divisions between conservatives and liberals over collective issues like loss of local habitat? These are questions that SciQuest is equipped to tackle.
Citizen science has certainly had a profound impact on my friend Henry. He spends more time outdoors than before. His knowledge of birds has exploded. And he bonded in new ways with a whole community of people he had never interacted with before.
SciQuest is a way to quantify and understand this impact, multiplied by the millions of people who participate in projects each year. It is an attempt to document the downstream effects of making science a collective quest and a personalized journey.
Tackling global problems like climate change or the education divide requires new solutions. Citizen science, a concept that is both accessible and engaging, could play a role in solving some of these problems. SciQuest can help us assess this potential.
If you would like to join SciQuest, go to https://scistarter.org/SciQuest and complete the “Travel preparation” module. We will send you new quiz modules as they are released. We especially encourage people to join the project who are just starting their citizen science journey, or who have never participated at all!
About the Author
Bradley Allf is a doctoral candidate in the Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology program at North Carolina State University. His research focuses on the environmental value of citizen science. You can find him on Twitter @bradleyallf.