People and Community Research

Citizen science: No lab coat required

A course offered as part of the Master of Professional Science program introduces students to the importance of data gathered through volunteer contributions.
Citizen science
A volunteer participates in a coral restoration project with the Rescue a Reef program at the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science. Photo: Hannah Heath for the University of Miami

Fingertips chipped away at large salt flakes that accumulated on a waterproof sensor attached to a surfboard. The mounting bracket is carefully adjusted to ensure an accurate temperature reading. 

In addition to navigating shifting waves, you collected valuable sea surface data that will be crucial in aiding researchers’ understanding of historic ocean temperatures. 

It is usually difficult to picture how a member of the public fits into a high-budget research project with trained scientists who have years of education and experience. Thanks to citizen science—the process of working with nontraditional volunteer participants who aid in scientific research—collaborations between traditional scientists and members of the community have increased in popularity and have helped answer important scientific questions. 

Citizen science has expanded to environmental and computational science fields where technology, funds, and resources alone are insufficient to reach research goals. And graduate students at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science can learn more about the topic by taking the course, Introduction to Citizen Science. 

Taught by Keene Haywood at the Rosenstiel School, the class was developed 10 years ago as a part of the exploration science track in the Master of Professional Science (MPS) program. Haywood noticed citizen science was becoming more mainstream and was developing into a formalized academic discipline, with great potential to interface with the public. 

“Citizen science is also where a lot of exciting discoveries and exploration is being done. I thought it would benefit students in our program to get some formal training on how citizen science projects work and how to develop them,” said Haywood, a senior lecturer and MPS exploration science track coordinator. 

The course objectives extend beyond knowing how citizen science is employed. 

“The goals for the class are for students to develop a deeper appreciation for what citizen science is and, more importantly, to develop the skills to conceive, plan, and manage a citizen science project so they can potentially be leaders in these efforts versus just being a participant,” he added. 

The course has two core assignments: an annotated bibliography, where students conduct a deep dive on topics relating to citizen science, and a final group project that teams students to create a conceptual citizen science project. Past students have used the structure of the final project as a guide for creating their own start-ups. 

Weekly lectures discuss how to implement a citizen science project, maintain healthy participant and researcher relations, and the benefits associated with participant data, such as lowered costs and highly scalable data. Lectures also cover how to approach the shortcomings of citizen science such as volunteer credibility and costs associated with marketing and participant retention. 

Multiple guest speakers who have either developed or worked with citizen science projects are invited throughout the semester to share firsthand testimonials of their experience. 

Anna Bakker, the most recent guest lecturer, summarized her role as a data intern working for Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) from 2015-2017. COASST is a citizen science program that works closely with volunteers along the Pacific coast from California to Alaska who help monitor seabird populations. Developed in 1999, COASST has an average of 1,000 volunteers per month surveying 450 beaches along the West Coast of the United States. 

Volunteers are trained on how to conduct a beach survey, use a bird identification book, and fill out basic measurements. The purpose of the data collected by COASST volunteers is to create environmental status reports for governments, non-governmental organizations, tribal communities, and other interested groups. Bakker highlighted the growth she witnessed from volunteers throughout her time at COASST. 

“I would notice the volunteers sometimes took a while to understand how to do a survey, but after going out to the beach month after month [and especially after bringing their friends or dogs with them], they became more excited about surveying for beached seabirds,” she said. 

The growth of citizen science suggests that years of schooling, formal lab training, and technical certifications are no longer the only requirements to be a part of novel research. The role of the public in scientific research continues to support ongoing data collection, lower research costs, and increased public awareness of scientific topics.

Researchers also have increased volunteer numbers through a concept known as gamification, where participants collect valuable data through processes that mimic reward systems found in video games.

There are various platforms for interested individuals to get a start with citizen science, including Rescue a Reef at the Rosenstiel School. Rescue a Reef brings together researchers, students, and community members to participate in coral research and restoration.

Another option, iNaturalist, is a citizen science platform designed to help people identify plants and animal species. And Zooniverse hosts a vast array of citizen science projects for anyone to explore and get involved.