**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>

This is the first in a series of longer articles profiling the citizen science programs of the Central Coast based on our research efforts (see the introduction here). Stay tuned for others as we analyze the data we’ve collected and start to make sense of the many stories and experiences contributed by volunteers and group leaders.

The wind was blowing at 24 knots, so strong that students could lean over at a steep angle, almost gliding on the gusts. December ocean breezes worm their way through any layers of clothing, and the wind carried tufts of sea foam across the rocky outcropping onto clipboards, jackets, and sunglasses. Yet, students had their heads inches from the tidepool water, peeking under every crack and crevice, looking for the remnant sea stars on their long-term monitoring site. There used to be hundreds, and now there are 4. photo: Rocky intertidal monitoring at Pillar Point, photo by Amy Freitag

Sea star wasting disease, ravaging populations of sea stars across the west Coast of North America, is only the most recent motivation for keeping track of what’s going on in the intertidal. The mission of LiMPETS (Long-term Monitoring Program and Experiential Training for Students), is “to provide authentic, hands-on classroom and coastal field monitoring experiences that connect teachers, students, and community to the ocean”. This monitoring information reveals trends in ocean health that helps better understand long-term changes due to climate change or sudden events like sea star wasting disease.

As a reminder, LiMPETS is comprised of two main programs – sandy beach monitoring (focused on mole crabs as an indicator) and rocky intertidal monitoring. Mainly high school students, but also some younger and older students, take field trips to perform the monitoring when the tides are good and low during school hours (that’s not as often as you might believe). Their data set, now over 12 years in length, aids Marine Sanctuary management and now marine protected area (MPA) monitoring while simultaneously teaching kids about the scientific process, changing ecosystems, and coastal stewardship.

To gain a detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the LiMPETS program and what we can learn from their engagement with marine protected area monitoring, we have talked with program staff, held a focus group with participating teachers, and spent two days in the field with classes. Through these interactions, we’ve talked with people who serve different kinds of roles in the program. We’ve pooled information from all of these interactions and organized it into the categories that will help us strategically compare programs. Learn more about these categories and our overarching research questions here.

The Basics
LiMPETS is a long-running, cross-regional program pursuing goals related to education, high quality science, and relevance to coastal management. Unlike other programs we have investigated, LiMPETS works with and relies almost entirely on schools, both public and private, to accomplish its mission. This means great potential for scaling up the program, but high turnover rates of “volunteers” are built into the model. Both training requirements and equipment needs are relatively minimal. While independent of academic science institutions, LiMPETS has a science advisory panel, and has worked with a variety of investigators from academia as the program has evolved and expanded. Partnerships with National Marine Sanctuaries have also been important. photo: Sandy beach program at Ocean Beach, photo by Amy Freitag

LiMPETS is a unique kind of program with its integration into formal science education, so keep this in mind as we discuss other aspects of the program in more detail.

Program Participation
LiMPETS works with students and teachers, primarily at the high school level. This choice of focus comes with a variety of obvious pros and cons. To begin with, the potential volunteer pool is vast. But each student who participates has limited time, enters the program with minimal knowledge and training, and is guaranteed to exit the program soon after. The timing of the school day and school calendar can also pose challenges, given that rocky intertidal data must be collected at low or falling tides.

Teachers–also volunteers–are a crucial part of the LiMPETS model, providing for consistency amid the high turnover rates of students. The program works hard to support teachers by training them in LiMPETS methods and protocols and by meeting their needs with respect to science curriculum and other resources. While other citizen science programs may struggle with unreliable adult volunteers, a solid relationship with a teacher can virtually guarantee a steady stream of well-trained enthusiastic volunteers for as long as he/she sees fit to remain involved in the LiMPETS program.

Teachers reported that students take better data when they know that it will be used for something bigger than their classroom. And that improvement seems to last, showing up in students’ work on classroom-only assignments later in the term. This sense of ‘something bigger’ was recently demonstrated in one class that was accompanied by a visiting local assemblyman and past Coastal Commission member. Students got a chance to see him mentally draw the connections between their activities and his future policy decisions – teachers and LiMPETS staff expressed desire for more of this kind of interaction in the future.

Meeting the Mission by Balancing Goals

While LiMPETS is based in formal education and aims to create a stewardship ethic in the younger generation, it also aims to produce robust, useful science to keep track of changing coastal resources. According to program leaders, a changing funding profile shifts the balance of education and science goals from year to year, but these two goals are always important, and they are by no means mutually exclusive.

The balance and complementarity of science and education goals also vary from school to school or from teacher to teacher. From the perspective of some teachers, there is a hierarchy of values: education comes first; rigorous data second. Some teachers participate in the program but never input data to the online portal, concluding that their data are not good enough. But the lessons still help achieve curriculum goals.

But this hierarchy is not necessarily a constraint on the program’s science goals. There is a recent trend of students pushing the boundaries as they demand additional activities and means of getting more involved in science. LiMPETS staff and teachers are creating avenues to ask more advanced questions, analyze data, and present results. These students are rapidly crossing the boundary between citizen and scientist. They are pushing LiMPETS to rethink the various structured roles available to volunteers who wish to go above-and-beyond the standard classroom science experience. Capturing the energy of these students is a challenge from a program development standpoint, but it may lead to greater capacity as well.

Apart from the dynamics of teacher and student needs, LiMPETS staff think carefully about how they themselves balance education and scientific goals. They are the stewards of a long-running data set, the value of which increases with every passing year. They also want to take advantage of opportunities to demonstrate the rigor of LiMPETS data, and see it more widely applied. Both of these concerns mean making careful choices about which sites take priority, in terms of data collection intensity, and the skill level of the classes visiting those sites. For example, classes that have already proven themselves elsewhere are sent to these important sites or ones that are more challenging because of high biodiversity or tough terrain or may be asked to travel further to help ensure consistency of effort.

Data Uses

Data from the LiMPETS program is used to further both science and education goals.

Educational Uses
LiMPETS is one of the few programs we investigated wherein volunteers work extensively with their own data. Working with the data allows students to practice the evidence-based logic required by the Next Generation Science Standards and common core requirements. In addition, the program was originally structured to provide an engaging way to learn statistics using real, locally-relevant data. It matters that the students gather these data themselves.

Management Uses
LiMPETS was originally intended and funded to develop a baseline from which to better understand changes and disturbances in the environment such as climate and oil spills. Its data have indeed played a role in impact assessments from oil spills. More recently, the long-term dataset is viewed as documentation of coastal changes over time, as related to popular issues in the media such as climate change, ocean acidification, and most recently, sea star wasting disease. The dataset, covering a period of multiple decades for some sites, can yield a very rich ‘before’ picture when researchers or managers need a point of comparison.

LiMPETS has also participated in the North Central Coast MPA Baseline Monitoring program (read theirs and other project summaries) and the South Coast Baseline Program. These data provided information about the rocky intertidal and sandy beach ecosystem features in the overall assessment of ocean health, playing a key role in complex scientific inquiry that requires many data sources. This synthesis will inform the state’s 5-year review of marine protected area management, providing data to help decide if regulatory changes are needed and if so, which ones (see their reflections on citizen science on page 34 of the sandy beach final report).

Scientific Credibility
There are potentially infinite ways to gain scientific credibility. Through suggestions from published case studies of citizen science groups attempting to use their data for adaptive management, four general categories emerge of things that are critical for establishing scientific credibility – generally, showing the process taken to establish credibility and having something to show. Photo: San Francisco area coordinator Abby Nickels reminding students of methods in the field, photo by Amy Freitag

verification of data quality
Field days begin with time to explore the site before any recording official observations to ground-truth species identification learned in the classroom before those identifications must be certain on the data sheet. Asking clarifying questions of LiMPETS staff and taking pictures for later species verification by teachers and staff is highly encouraged. There are always enough informed adults around to field those questions (2 staff per class plus the teacher and any chaperones).

LiMPETS founder John Pearse (emeritus faculty at UC-Santa Cruz) has also directly compared the high school data to those collected by undergraduates and university staff, and the data sets showed equal variability. More recently, the sandy beach monitoring was performed alongside monitoring performed by Karina Nielsen’s lab in an academic setting, as a means of evaluating LiMPETS methods and data quality – and LiMPETS showed robustness overall and is now evaluating and addressing the results to make their program even stronger.

raw data transparency and access
LiMPETS data from any class that submits it to the database is available online. Their website also makes available the methods, data management and analysis protocols, and training materials.

clarity of communications
LiMPETS emphasizes clarity and transparency in all of their activities, both because clarity helps recruit more teachers to participate but also because clarity fits as part of the education mission. For example, one class added a film project focusing on messaging for sandy beach monitoring (results posted on YouTube) focusing on how to portray the importance of monitoring and how sand crab data can be used to say something about ocean health. As a result, it is easy to find out about their methods.

willingness and capability to adapt methods
LiMPETS is currently undergoing methods review to make sure that they strike the balance between the simplicity needed for reliable data and the complexity that will lead to a compelling lesson. For example, should they focus solely on a few species that are present in large enough numbers to calculate abundance and density, or continue to count the rarer species in order to measure biodiversity? Studies have indicated that, even if it is a useful lesson for classes to engage, the biodiversity measure is not as strong a scientific result as simpler measures such as abundance and density.

Program Sustainability
During the focus group, we discussed things that have helped LiMPETS last through the years and what they might tell younger programs who have an aspiration of longevity. One key suggestion is to plan for replacing the key people as the program rolls along. While the original LiMPETS thinkers are committed for their lifespan, they are thinking in a longer time frame and planning for the next generation.

Teacher longevity is also critical to maintaining program momentum. As one teacher stated “the first year was definitely the most challenging” but provided a learning experience for later years. Strong teachers and long-term teachers help take the program forward, provide new ideas and ways for students to engage with the material, and ultimately provide continuity at any given site or school. While LiMPETS staff expressed great appreciation for school administrators or groups of teachers who do take steps to ensure the program continues at that school, that ownership is often taken at the level of individual teachers.

Long-term planning also requires substantial resources in terms of time, money and equipment – and a commitment of those resources for longer than the typical scientific grant cycle (such as the sandy beach program first received from oil spill restoration funds). In addition to its own resource needs, LiMPETS must pay attention to the constraints facing teachers, students, and schools. For example, they actively work to support underfunded schools that require assistance to participate. So what resources are absolutely critical to program function?

  • financial support for needy schools, especially for computer access and transport
  • a professional science partner
  • public-facing results summaries, event calendars, and other communication tools
  • an updated data management system (and it would be nice to have a dedicated person in charge of it)
  • curriculum for teachers to make use of data in the classroom
  • training materials for data gathering protocols
  • salary and institutional support for regional coordinators

By combining this list with similar lists from other case studies we examine, we can begin to develop a picture of the unique needs of citizen science programs.

Looking Toward the Future
Both staff and teachers have some ideas for what LiMPETS might look like in the future. Collaboration with other similarly focused monitoring efforts such as the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) could help coordinate spatial coverage, share data, compare data for quality assurance, and coordinate data collection to be able to investigate more complex questions. Even within LiMPETS, staff are revisiting the protocol to make sure the data collected can answer contemporary questions while still addressing program objectives.

A number of students have also expressed interest in becoming more involved after they graduate or while still in high school. Staff are beginning to create some avenues for this by creating adult monitoring events and encouraging students to blog about their work and present at scientific conferences (the few at the American Geophysical Union this year were very professional). New, affordable smartphone technologies might also offer opportunities to easily take additional data should students pursue independent projects.

Changes in the state’s official curriculum are expected to increase demand for programs like LiMPETS, given that they address some of the cross-cutting goals of the common core standards. Teachers will be looking for a common experience that can tie lessons in science, english, math, and social studies – and LiMPETS can offer that. As one teacher pointed out, these lessons can also point out the many kinds of science careers, be they in a research lab, science policy, science communication, or data management, that students might pursue.

All of these future goals speak to the potential for increased capacity for student monitoring, especially if supported through new curriculum development efforts. LiMPETS also provides engaged students to the science and monitoring pipeline in undergraduate and graduate research at nearby universities, serving as a link between citizen science and professional science. Since LiMPETS is the only student-focused group in the Central Coast, they serve a unique role in this thriving scientific and citizen-scientific community.