**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>
Picture a kid, first or second grade, with his head buried in an unweildy bush seeking a picture of a beetle. He’s so excited about said beetle that he’s practically upside-down, branches reaching over his head and down his back. What a crazy outdoorsy kid, right? He’s not alone in the world of citizen science. Slug Watch proudly tweeted the photo to the right a couple days ago: “#CitizenScience focus yesterday for #Countryfile. The girls had no hesitation handling slugs with @tomheapmedia help.”
These images flow in waves from citizen science groups across the country in all kinds of environments. Bioblitzes ask participants to document and count every living organism in a designated space – be that a local park or a patch of city that nature has started to reclaim. The beauty of some of these programs is that they draw kids out to experience new things right around the corner from their homes and schools.
Talking to participants in one of these programs, I started to hear stories that the upside-down kid didn’t used to like beetles. In fact, bugs used to scare him. His school consists of a tall city building surrounded by blacktop that provides basketball courts for recess. His home also towers over the concrete of the city, in an apartment far from anything green. Bugs used to mean that he left a leftover sandwich under his bed or that the apartment building’s exterminator missed his stop this week.
But even in a city, there is urban wildlife that thrives – a fact that these bioblitzes clearly document. Really stopping to think about that wildlife quickly makes you realize that wildlife belongs in cities. There’s still an ecosystem there, where the lines aren’t so clear between nature and human culture – one that can be managed to thrive alongside a dense human population. Citizen science gets that human population out to literally stop and smell the roses, and perhaps even appreciate the little insect eyes that look back up at you when you do.
Citizen science also takes science off the unattainable pedestal that many place it on. Sure, scientists are experts and it took many years of training to establish their careers. Newspaper articles that begin “doctors and scientists agree” are meant to lend authority to the facts presented. Yet, just like the line between nature and culture, citizen science blurs the line between science and the public. At the very least, it demonstrates some relatively easy steps to get involved in science.
What the perceived pedestal image often leaves out is that there are many needed supports behind each authoritative, well-known scientist. These supports usually involve a lab of graduate and undergraduate students, lab managers and technicians, administrative support, technology developers, and many others. To someone hoping to launch a scientific career, participating in citizen science makes these support staff visible and gives people a start to grab on to.
In many ways, citizen science is really about education – about the topic at hand, the process of science, and the lives of scientists. To be the most inclusive, though, people’s other fears must be addressed first. In order to have students out counting invertebrates in tide pools, students should know how to swim or else standing knee-deep in water with increasingly encroaching waves will make them uncomfortable. Swim lessons could be a good fix – and then bouncing around tide pools becomes fun.
Spooky woods photo by Chris Rice
For others, the woods are scary. Stories of violence in Central Park don’t help forests gain a better reputation. Neither do children’s fairy tales like Hansel and Gretl, where likeable main characters get captured by a warty witch living in the woods who wants to eat them. But a few positive experiences under the leadership who knows both about the natural history and public safety practices could help immensely.
For citizen science to reach its real potential, as with efforts to increase diversity in science more generally, we should think about what makes participation scary. And as has been demonstrated with bugs in bioblitzes, there are ways to overcome these fears and make science more accessible.