In the next of our series of interviews pertaining to Dynamics of Self-Organizing Systems, I talked with Dr. Laura Guertin about her work in Citizen Science. Laura received her PhD in Marine Geology and Geophysics, from the University of Miami and is currently a professor at the PSU-Brandywine campus where she teaches a variety of Earth Science courses.
I interviewed Laura because I was interested in how she integrated Citizen Science into her pedagogy. In general, Laura stressed that she likes take her students out of the classroom and into the field as much as possible and one of the advantages she pointed out that comes with teaching at PSU-Brandywine is that most of the 100+ acre campus is undeveloped and therefore, a good area for doing applied science. Over the last few years, Laura has introduced her students to a number of different Citizen Science projects including, Picture Post, Smithsonian Tree Banding Project, Philly Tree Map, and World Water Day.
One project that has received considerable recognition is the Picture Post project. Funded by NASA, its general purpose is to foster awareness among both the general public and professional scientists of changes occurring in the natural environment. Consistent with the spirit of general accessibility that Citizen Science promotes, the Picture Post device itself is very basic: an 8-sided platform that takes a repeating series of photos of the surrounding landscape and sky. The Picture Post project represented one way for Laura’s students to both learn about the relevance of science in an applied, hands-on way and enhance the purposefulness of their work since they would be sharing data with the broader Citizen Science community (e.g., those accessing the data on the Picture Post website). Perhaps not surprisingly, Laura explained that the students have found the project to be a rewarding experience. In fact, one of the students became so involved with the project that it led to her receiving an award for excellence in student research from the Geosciences Division of the Council on Undergraduate Research (GeoCUR).
Another Citizen Science (CSP) project Laura introduced her students to was the Smithsonian Tree Banding (STB) project. Through participating in the STB, students had the opportunity to monitor the growth of trees in their local community, compare it to the tree growth rates of students from around the world and see how it related to broader scale research projects carried out by the Smithsonian. One important distinction that Laura pointed out was that generally the Smithsonian only asked that individuals measure tree growth (via the gap in the band) twice per year: once in the Fall and once in the Spring. However, Laura’s students went beyond this minimum requirement and collected measurements on a weekly basis. As a result, this gave them a much more extensive set of data points, which allowed them to better see trends and patterns of tree growth.
Laura’s students have also participated in World Water Day. In this CSP, her students collected data from a stream that runs through the entire Brandywine campus. What was useful here for this CSP-related exercise was that one end of the stream is situated near the main campus parking lot while the other end sits near an area that is generally undeveloped. Through collecting the data from these two locations of the stream, the students were able to see a small example of how development can impact their local environment. Since many of the students were commuters and were also born and raised in the local community, Laura explained that this sparked their thinking about broader impacts of development on where they live and work.
One last example of a CSP Laura’s students participated in was a geoscience wiki. Implemented in her Earth 100 course, Laura designed this as a semester-long project where students would write a wiki page for the Society for Exploration of Geophysicist (SEG) Wiki. What is distinctive about the SEG wiki is that one of its key goals is to function as a high-quality educational resource designed to promote science literacy, and so this gave students an opportunity to create educational resources that could be accessed and used by an audience that extended far beyond the classroom. While giving students the opportunity to participate in an authentic, knowledge-building project that moved beyond the classroom had solid pedagogical appeal, Laura also pointed out that since most of the students in this introductory geoscience course (Earth 100) were not science majors, the students were a little skeptical about whether they could contribute something that would be recognized and valued by users of the SEG wiki. Laura responded to this challenge by arranging for the students to meet with one of the wiki editors via Skype. The editor made a special point of emphasizing that their contributions to the SEG wiki would be welcomed and appreciated. In talking about this experience, Laura further explained that the students meeting with the editor proved hugely beneficial as their attitude towards the wiki project quickly changed; she saw them become more motivated and optimistic about the potential for adding real educational value to the SEG wiki. She also observed that this excitement for the project continued even after the students finished writing their respective wiki pages when they happily noticed the increasing number of page views that were being registered on the wiki’s analytics dashboard. This gave students the sense that their work was being publicly recognized and had an audience that extended beyond just the classroom. In fact, Laura noted that one student, who was a baseball player, was so excited about the number of page views that his wiki page on hurricanes was getting that he was constantly sharing it with his teammates. Now in its third semester, Laura considers it a success and plans to continue it as a regular project.
As my conversation with Laura shifted to the future of Citizen Science, one important gap that Laura has observed is insufficient attention paid to the relevance or significance of doing it. She pointed that while it’s great to engage the students (and the general public) with collecting data for real projects, that it’s also important for people to be aware of the science behind it – i.e., that demonstrates why it’s worth doing. For educators who may be considering integrating citizen science projects into their courses, they should consider strategies for making this aspect more clear to students.