Blogger School-Age Programs and Service Committee

Wanted – Citizen Scientists!

We are born scientists.  Babyhood is one big science experiment after another. We test the limits of gravity (oopsy!), we identify and classify (a skunk is NOT a kitty) and we are constantly performing experiments (water plus dirt equals MUD!). Humankind is where we are because of the myriads of creatures before us that explored our surroundings and drove our knowledge forward.  After all, there could be no trip to Mars without discovering fire first! With all the STEAM push, you could be excused for thinking that learning about science is what all the kids want – but let’s be honest, learning how to Do science would be a much better way of getting kids on board. And what better way to learn about science than by doing science and collecting data that actually makes a real world difference!

Scientist as a full time occupation is a fairly new concept. Before there were scientists, there were ordinary people who were interested in the world around them. They collected data, performed experiments and then told other people what they found out. The Citizen Science (also known as Community Science) movement is bringing ordinary people of all ages in contact with ongoing scientific studies and letting them help by collecting or analyzing data, defining problems, etc. There are four features which help define a citizen scientist project: anyone can help; the same protocol is used by everyone; the data plus the scientist equals real conclusions; and the wide community of scientists and volunteers share the data in an open format. While it seems like a new concept, the Audubon Society has been managing the oldest and longest running project, ‘the Christmas Bird Count’, since 1900.

Photo taken by Depin for the Budburst project about how plants and ecosystems respond to climate change.
Photo taken for the Budburst project about how plants and ecosystems respond to climate change.

Even the U.S. government is promoting citizen science. Citizen Science is a dot Gov site for scientists and the public.  One side is to help researchers learn more on how to harness the energy of volunteers to help with their projects. Using tens to hundreds to tens of thousands gathering data can vastly reduce the time needed to reach conclusions AND lower their data collection costs. The website also contains a catalog of over 200 active federal projects that could use volunteers to help with their research. If you ever wanted to be part of NOAA, NASA, EPA or any other governmental alphabet soup – now’s your chance!

While there are many opportunities out there, how do you find a study that accepts data from children? One of the easiest digital resources to use is Scistarter employs a science project database designed to match you and yours with the right project to meet your programming needs. Using their Advanced Search option, you can search by age group, area of interest or even projects you can do while on a lunch break! Scistarter also has excellent resources for librarians.  They provide training, programming ideas and even kit building guides. You can even use video games to aid scientific research. One of my favorite projects is ‘The Great Sunflower Project’. I’ve used this project for the basis of a spring program, and it comes with multiple printable resources in several different languages as well. Another helpful resource on the website is the Partner Gateway section, which features various agencies and museums that may have projects within the database.  I was surprised to find that our local natural museum was not only a gateway partner, but also had a project onsite. (Another programming idea!) Once you sign up for an account, the website also has a section where you can advertise your citizen science events.

Using Citizen Science tools, kits and programming can spill into collection development and promotion. One can use the general fields of study within the projects to highlight areas of our collection that we might wish had more circulation. With the educational trend of STEAM programming, why not capture the imaginations and eagerness of our patrons by providing real world work that they can follow, or even deepen as they age?  Who knows? Maybe some future Nobel prize winner will credit their local library (and children’s librarian) for their deep love of science! 

For more information, check out these resources:


The Field Guide to Citizen Science — How You Can Contribute to Scientific Research and Make a Difference by Darlene Cavalier, Catherine Hoffman and Caren Cooper.

Exploring Environmental Science with children and teens by Eileen G. Harrington


National Aeronautics and Space Administration Projects

National Park Service Citizen Scientist Projects

Kelly Depin has been both a certified school librarian and a children’s librarian. When she’s not working, she’s reading and being a scientist!

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