Athol Daily News – Local researchers advocate for increased role of citizen science

Amidst the lush hardwoods of Massachusetts forests and babbling streams, volunteers with a keen interest in science pass by to check their trail cameras.

These researchers review the footage for signs of black bears, which are used to track their whereabouts across the state. It’s all in a day’s work for residents involved in citizen science

Citizen science, also known as community science, refers to the involvement of the public in scientific research, specifically the collection and analysis of data. Citizen science projects include collecting water samples, counting butterflies or classifying galaxies.

Research projects that use volunteers have traditionally limited amateur scientists to data collection work, while professionals plan procedures, ask probing questions, and guide data analysis and discussions. However, scholars who study the social impacts of science and technology see this separation as a missed opportunity.

Improving scientific literacy

Environmental conservation and research projects in western Massachusetts practice citizen science with varying levels of community involvement. While large organizations like the Native Plant Trust use community science to rigorously collect data, smaller nonprofits like the Greenfield-based Connecticut River Conservancy and Amherst College’s MassMammals are experimenting with community engagement throughout the scientific process.

The Native Plant Trust is a non-profit conservation organization that focuses on native plants in New England. The organization’s database documents more than 800 plant species in Franklin County alone. With thousands of plants from every state to monitor, its Plant Conservation Volunteer Program recruits volunteers to find, analyze and map rare species.

“By significantly increasing our impact on the landscape, [surveyors] contribute thousands of hours of timely support to collect this data to understand and protect these rare plant species,” said Native Plant Trust Botanic Coordinator Mika Jasni.

Surveyors record species-specific diagnostic information, the number and physical characteristics of plants present and any threats. They take pictures, organize notes and create maps. All this data is sent to the Native Plant Trust for compilation and later shared with state governments to inform conservation policies and decisions. Like many citizen science programs, volunteers cannot analyze or access data unless they are acting as a research scientist.

Volunteers include students, home gardeners interested in native plant species, hobbyists who are passionate about native plants, and professional botanists. Yasni noted the passion of the surveyors, citing how volunteers have walked miles into the White Mountains to survey a species.

However, the Connecticut River Conservancy publishes citizen science data online. The organization offers five volunteer-based programs, but only water quality and migratory fish monitoring fall under community science, not conservation work.

“We’re doing our best to involve the community as much as possible by bringing them with us and helping them essentially lead the effort, making this a volunteer-driven community science program,” said Aliki Fornier, Connecticut River Ecology Planner . “And then there are others that are more based on, you know, applied science that involves data collection.”

Scientists studying science and technology note that volunteer involvement limits the involvement of community members, as only people with extra time in their work schedules can commit to training and data collection. Fornier, who recruits volunteers for community science projects, noted that most of the volunteers are retired elders, students from schools in affluent communities and people with existing knowledge and experience with the Connecticut River.

Investigative opportunities

While the River Conservancy deals with who conducts citizen science, a mammal documentation program at Amherst College explores how to conduct citizen science. MassMammals tracks the distribution and population density of foxes, deer, bobcats and other mammals across the state using citizen-reported sightings and trail cameras.

Amherst College’s Department of Biology developed the program as an offshoot of MassBears, a research project that identifies and locates black bears. Project data can range from animal tracks, hair samples, and photos or videos of the animals.

Thea Christensen, a biology lab coordinator at Amherst College, started MassMammals after the pandemic halted lab work and data collection. Previously, Christensen and her students collected hair samples to analyze each bear’s DNA and document the black bear population. Students in the MassMammals project subsequently turned to citizen science to supplement the hair data and continue working on the project from home.

Since its founding, MassMammals has expanded citizen science beyond data collection. Christensen said students in the research project set up tracking cameras with elementary, middle and high school students. K-12 students monitor the cameras and send their data back to Amherst College’s MassMammals Lab to organize it. But young students and teachers are the ones drawing conclusions from wildlife data, not professional scientists. Schools they have worked with include: Northampton Public Schools, Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools, Tantasqua Regional High School, Mohawk Trail Regional School, Leverett Elementary School, Lander Grinspoon Academy, Quabbin Regional High School, and Hatfield Elementary School.

“My students felt a really wonderful relationship with the teachers,” Christensen said, “and the teachers were able to help us understand what the teachers were looking for, what would be helpful so that we could come up with lessons that were connected to the state standards … but also giving [younger] students have the opportunity to do science and be scientists.”

Christensen has found that the MassMammals program’s collaboration with schools has improved her students’ scientific communication and confidence as scientists. However, the project also effectively engages K-12 students in the scientific process.

The next step for the MassMammals project involves community members asking inquiry questions and then working to find answers.

“I think one of the central components of community science is being able to make science accessible to everyone and invite them into the process,” Christensen said. “So now that we have that kind of traction and success in making these partnerships with our community, it gives us an opportunity to say, ‘Okay, let’s work with you and figure out what your questions are and try to pursue them.’

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