By Ruby Pap
My dad once told me I don’t suffer fools gladly. After getting over the initial blow to my ego and the realization I am actually not the most patient person in the world, I dusted myself off and reflected about what perhaps he was really trying to say: That at my core, I am driven by knowledge seeking. And ignorance, especially within myself, makes me extremely queasy. Thanks, dad!
As such, the scientific topics I often pick for this column are motivated by a desire to dispel the spread of misinformation through the coconut wireless (as examples, see ‘Fukushima’ June 2015 and ‘Coral Disease’ June 2014). This often involves interviewing the professional scientists in the academic community. But recently, I realized it is time to give specific credit to the growing cohort of citizen scientists.
According to Dickinson and Bonney, in their book Citizen Science: Public Participation in Environmental Research, the term, ‘citizen science’ simply means public participation in organized research efforts. By that definition, there are thousands of them across the globe. This is by no means new. Some of the earliest documented efforts include volunteer bird surveys conducted in Europe in the 18th century and the famous Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, which started in 1900 and still takes place today.
With the onset of the Internet in the last few decades, there has been a dramatic increase in citizen science opportunities. Just a few examples from Kaua‘i include water quality monitoring with Surfrider Foundation, humpback whale counts with the marine sanctuary, and seasonal beach monitoring with Kaua‘i Community College.
From my general observations and reading of the literature, citizen science can have the dual benefit of providing scientific data and valuable education to the individual.
Just how reliable is the data from citizen science efforts when tackling complex scientific questions? This is an issue that many programs address head on. Here I take the liberty of plugging the OPIHI project, led by fellow UH Sea Grant colleague, Dr. Kanesa Duncan Seraphin and Joanna Philippoff.,
Our Project in Hawai‘i’s Intertidal (OPIHI) is investigating how the Hawaiian rocky intertidal community has changed over the last 10 years, in the face of threats from pollution, overharvesting, species invasions and climate change. It is an ideal project to utilize citizen scientists, in this case secondary school students, due to the expense of traditional means of data collection.
According to project literature, citizen scientists have the potential to provide data on biodiversity and species distribution at global scales, yet the adoption of such datasets to examine conservation issues is hindered by a perception that the data have low reliability. However, data can be verified by following citizen science “best practices guidelines,” including adequate volunteer training and supervision, clear sampling protocols and filtering suspect data.
Indeed, a validity assessment of OPIHI demonstrated that students’ data quality is similar to professional researchers and that students can successfully identify and describe the distribution and abundance of common species from diverse intertidal habitats with more than 60 species.
Ten years ago, the OPIHI student data resulted in the first description of community level intertidal species patterns at sites across Hawai‘i. The current project, which has just received funding from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will begin next fall by training secondary school teachers to teach their students monitoring techniques.
There will be a cohort of Kaua‘i teachers, and organizers are currently scouting an intertidal monitoring location. So, if you are a teacher looking to train future scientists, this opportunity is ripe for you. Contact Joanna Philippoff at email@example.com for more details.
- Ruby Pap is a Coastal Land Use Extension Agent at University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.