A New Perspective on Doing Citizen Science

April 7, 2015

Verónica Urdaneta

April 6, 2015―Berkeley, CA. On February 27, 2015, The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) hosted its annual meeting at the San Jose Convention Center, in San José, CA. The meeting brought together as many as 8,000 attendees from 60 countries, making it one of the most widely recognized global science gatherings in the world that attracted broad U.S. and international media attention. A key feature of this particular meeting was the first-ever convening of the Citizen Science Association. The Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley was invited to be part of this large gathering of relevant organizations and individuals involved in science and science education. Its East Bay Academy for Young Scientist (EBAYS) played a key role by helping to define and illustrate a particular field within the Citizen Science field, namely youth engaged in Citizen Science.

The Citizen Science Association (CSA) was created earlier in the year. Its role in the conference was to provide a forum for national and international organizations working in Citizen Science to share their work and insights. CSA intends to continue providing such a forum on an annual basis, including the publication of a journal that will highlight current, nationally based Citizen Science projects and related research. “The CSA component of the AAAS conference is relevant to our organizations because it helps to amplify the importance of Citizen Science for the scientific world at large,” explained Kevin Cuff, director of the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists. EBAYS was approached by the CSA organizing committee, advised to submit a presentation proposal, and selected among many applicants to participate in two sessions that related to engaging underserved audiences in Citizen Science. “I was anxious to participate because we wanted to share what we have learned, and because I am very interested in contributing to making the world of Citizen Science more inclusive,” Cuff remarked. “I wanted to share ideas related to and approaches we have employed to getting more people of color involved in scientific research.”

EBAYS gives youth from underserved and marginalized communities in the East Bay Area access to hands-on science learning and research activities, which enable them to develop important science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills and understanding. Such skills and understanding are seen as being critical attributes of future community leaders. “We work a lot with local schools, and this allows us to include a more diverse population than other Citizen Science projects,” Cuff continued. “We intend that the opportunities we provide will enable young people to play a more active role in bringing about positive changes in their communities.” EBAYS student scientists engage in highly relevant research that addresses issues related to soil, water, and air quality within their communities, and in the process generate new knowledge through novel research that can be used in community struggles for environmental and social justice.

“Air and water quality are issues that most people can relate to, and because they are relevant to anyone, engagement comes naturally,” Cuff noted. Typically, to generate interest from the outset, EBAYS staff greet its students on the first day of a given program by asking questions such as “How many of you suffer from asthma or know someone who deals with asthma-related issues?” Said Cuff, “We are never surprised by the responses that we get, especially given that urban environments contain many areas where the incidence of asthma is extremely high. So our aim is to provide members of our target communities with the skills and understanding necessary to help address important issues in a measured, evidence-based manner. Also, we aim to impress upon youth the value of using scientific research methodology to address issues relevant to their lives.”

Approximately 150 Citizen Science organization leaders or representatives interested in learning more about EBAYS attended the two sessions in which its director participated. “Our presentations were quite unique in that they actually included ‘the citizens’ that are doing Citizen Science,” Cuff noted. In one presentation, Eliot Ahumada, a Latino UC Berkeley student majoring in biochemistry who participated in EBAYS from middle school through high school, spoke of the impact that EBAYS has had on his life and career aspirations. This student, now an EBAYS instructor, participated in water quality research that resulted in his group’s being invited to present at the United Nations. He explained: “My EBAYS experiences have changed my whole direction, helping me to be where I am now.” The same presentation included his brother, a high-school-age EBAYS student scientist, as well as their mother, who eloquently described how much growth and development she has witnessed in her sons as a result of their participation in EBAYS. In addition, the mother described how the experience that her sons have had with EBAYS has changed the way they think about science and how they feel scientific research can help change their community. “Personally, it made me feel that I wanted to do more to change my community,” she explained to the audience.

In another presentation, a young female student, Megan Torio, a Filipina from MetWest High School in Oakland, California, was featured. Torio had helped collect and analyze particulate matter concentration data that resulted in the discovery that air in certain Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) underground train stations is extremely hazardous. She also later participated in presenting findings generated through this research to local air quality management agencies, as well as to the union that represents BART transit workers. She explained to the audience that she had never considered scientific research as an interest until working on the BART project and seeing how impactful her research findings were.

EBAYS Director Kevin Cuff thinks that the presentations at the AAAS exposed a fair number of people to the EBAYS approach to including diverse audiences in Citizen Science research. “Based on conversations with attendees who approached me after our presentations, I became aware that there are many other programs that are interested in working with us in the future. As a conference attendee, I learned that in general there is very little diversity in the Citizen Science world and that more work has to be done to make this world more inclusive. Given the expressed interest in EBAYS’ work and the desire on the part of others to collaborate, I believe that we are in a great position to help the field of Citizen Science become a more welcoming and inclusive community.

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