**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>
Why engage teens in citizen science? They are a diverse, moody bunch. The field of citizen science is already flush with seasoned and reliable adult enthusiast, birders, divers, nature photographers, and nature lovers.
But, I would argue that teenaged citizen scientists, mainly middle school, high school and college students, can and should become an important part of this growing field. Why? Well, there are a lot of them. And they can collect massive amounts of data over a large area. Most importantly, they are our best hope for ocean conservation in the decade(s) to come, the next generation of decision makers, coastal community members, policy makers and scientists.
Admittedly, students are not seasoned or experienced birders, divers, and nature enthusiasts. And so, they are often considered the derelict nieces and nephews of the citizen science community. As a result, scientists and managers of parks and marine protected areas have been extremely distrustful of the validity and accuracy of student data, until now.
Since 2010, high school jocks, geeks, skaters and punks in our communities have been amassing baseline data for California’s new network of marine protected areas (MPAs). It’s groundbreaking stuff, these MPAs. Currently, California is engaged in an historic effort to establish and maintain a system of marine protected areas (MPAs)—similar to national parks and forests on land—to protect and restore our ocean wilderness. Research and monitoring of the new MPAs has been and is a central part of the ongoing process.
Not familiar with citizen science? Take a moment and turn to Google. You will find a vast array of scientific research or data collection projects that you your star-watching mom, your bug-loving daughter or your bird-obsessed friend may get involved in right now. Local, regional, and global projects with real scientific and conservation goals? The ability to make a real difference and connect with your inner science geek? Such a fantastic concept.
Citizen science involves community members directly in scientific inquiry and with scientists themselves. For me, this is overwhelmingly awesome. You can collect a simple bit of data, enter it into an online database, and if the project has data visualizations or graphing features, which it should, you can immediately begin to understand the meaning and power of the collective data in a much broader sense.
Can regular citizens, even students, really contribute to the science involved with the protection of our oceans? A laudable and prudent decision by the state awarded a few citizen science programs funding to assist researchers in the initial ‘baseline’ monitoring of the new MPAs. Aside from being a much cheaper option, one of the state’s goals was to assess if citizens could produce meaningful results. Accordingly, volunteer divers, birders, fisherman and uniquely, students became part of the effort to increase the sum of knowledge about the ocean, and the new MPAs, in order to achieve better protection.
Because it is unique, I will describe a bit about the student work. Students involved in this process, thousands of them, collected data for the state MPA effort through a citizen science program called LiMPETS (Long-term Monitoring Program and Experiential Training for Students). LiMPETS is a regional, statewide effort. Enthusiastic teachers and a wide range of students (spanning entirely disinterested to ecstatic) are trained to monitor key species along sandy beaches and rocky intertidal areas along the California coast.
What do these students do exactly? They count and measure mole crabs, identify intertidal algae, measure limpets, count abalone and sea stars, shriek, shiver and laugh, and finally they enter their data into the online LiMPETS database. This past school year, 5000 students collected data at sites spanning 600 miles of California coastline.
The standard set of challenges for student-based citizen science programs e.g. students that vary in age, experience, and willingness to take off one’s shoes at the beach, among other things, are far outweighed by the vast amount of data being collected. The students have succeeded in a very direct sense by producing a lot of data at large, spatial and temporal scales. Keep in mind that these data are unique in that there is not enough money and/or willing graduate students or professional scientists who could collect such a data set. The data is controlled for quality and accuracy, as much as possible.
In April 2013, LiMPETS staff provided the state with a summary of the long-term data, collected by all participants (tens of thousands of students) over a 10+year period. The report focuses on ecological status and long-term trends along beaches and rocky intertidal areas between Bodega and Pigeon Point. Certainly the student data gave state agencies more knowledge about the species inhabiting our fragile coastal ocean communities. But the student data also revealed important patterns and trends as well. Collect repeated measurements over a long enough time period, and there will likely be patterns – no matter who does the data collection.
The LiMPETS report did indeed identify patterns, including long-term declines in key species of the rocky intertidal, highly variable boom and bust patterns in mole crab populations across the entire region and greater stability of community composition at sites that have been protected for a long time. Stability as opposed to volatility or degradation. A good thing and a good reason to protect our ocean spaces.
Done right, I believe that citizen science partnerships with state agencies, scientists and even students should become the norm. We’ll all be better off. Our oceans will certainly be better off. Even if citizen science cannot save California from the destructive human activities that harm our ocean – it sure has potential to help our understanding of what needs protection now and in the decades to come. Students and our communities gain something too, an intimate connection to their local coastal treasures. Even better, a deeper understanding of the life force that sustains us all our ocean.