Beyond Gloom and Doom: Young Citizen Scientists Address Climate Change

By June 30th, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Comment

How are museums getting young people involved with citizen science? Guest blogger Katie Levedahl tells the story of how her museum, the Sciencenter in Ithaca, NY, is helping kids become citizen scientists while they learn about climate change.

It is becoming more apparent that people of all ages want to learn more than just the facts about climate change—they want to know what they can DO to address this problem.

Students at Ithaca's Sciencenter built nestboxes and installed them around their school and homes. (Courtesy of Katie Levedahl)

Students at Ithaca's Sciencenter built nestboxes and installed them around their school and homes. (Courtesy of Katie Levedahl)

The Sciencenter in Ithaca, New York, has been working on projects that go beyond learning the facts about climate change, empowering children to use science to shape a better future. Sure, we still encourage kids to save energy by turning the lights off and riding their bikes whenever possible, but a recent collaboration with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO) has allowed us to start exploring citizen science as an avenue of climate change education.

Three years ago we embarked on a project to engage middle school students in CLO’s NestWatch program, which contributes to our understanding of how climate change affects nesting birds. Studies have already shown that some bird species are nesting earlier in the year, which impacts important timing considerations such as food availability. With funding from the National Science Foundation, great support from scientists at CLO, and a group of middle school volunteers, we began using citizen science to explore the link between climate change and nesting birds.

After building and installing our nestboxes around school grounds and in our backyards, we waited for the birds to arrive. Within days, the middle school volunteers were observing and recording bird behavior, including adhering to NestWatch data collection protocols such as discretely sneaking up on the nestboxes. We recorded our observations on the NestWatch data sheet and entered them online into the growing continent-wide database. We also completed activities and research that helped us understand our own local ecosystem and its vulnerability to climate change.

In general, citizen science, or “regular, normal, average people helping with science” as our middle school participants would say, involves people of all ages learning how to collect data, make observations, and contribute to research projects. There are many citizen science projects with implications for understanding climate change — from monitoring frogs through FrogWatch to observing the timing of plant behavior with Project Budburst.

Our NestWatch project made it easier to have some of the tough conversations about the impacts of climate change. The middle school volunteers felt like they were actually doing something to help scientists understand the problem—an important first step considering the many uncertainties that surround the impacts of climate change. Participating in a project much larger than just our group was encouraging and made learning the often-gloomy aspects of climate change much easier. I often heard our middle school citizen scientists remark that “at least we are doing something to help.”

Volunteers observed and recorded bird behavior for NestWatch. (Courtesy of Katie Levedahl)

Volunteers observed and recorded bird behavior for NestWatch. (Courtesy of Katie Levedahl)

One of the great things about citizen science, especially when working with young people, is that it levels the playing field for people to be involved with the scientific process. After spending the spring season watching nests, the group was on their way to identifying themselves as scientists. In their words they, “observe, collect, and share data — and learn about birds too.” When asked about her project, Amy, a 7th grader, said that the citizen science project allowed her to practice for when she becomes a “real” scientist. By the end of the project, not only had the group installed and was monitoring nestboxes both at home and school, but the participants had shown an increased interest in understanding how climate change is affecting birds and other animals.

The project is part of the Sciencenter’s role with the Communicating Climate Change network, a group of science museums using citizen science projects to contribute to an understanding of how climate change is affecting our regions. From monitoring monarch larvae to participating in a BioBlitz, visitors to science museums all around the country are contributing to scientific research. Even if you don’t live near a science museum there are tons of ways can get involved with citizen science.

Although it is a small step to understanding the impacts of climate change, the data that we collected through NestWatch will help scientists develop a better understanding of how climate change is affecting our local bird populations. And, perhaps more importantly, the middle school students are empowered to participate in this complex issue, whether it is through contributing to citizen science projects, making personal choices that reduce their carbon footprint, or becoming scientists themselves.

Katie Levedahl is the Director of Education at the Sciencenter in Ithaca, NY. Her current interests include public engagement with science, especially as it relates to issues with strong societal implications.

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