How to raise a volunteer scientist

Participating in crowd-sourced science projects isn’t just a learning experience—it can empower children to protect the planet.

During a family vacation last year, Sarah and Greg Newman took their kids to a butterfly garden in Wisconsin, where they learned about monarch butterflies, a vital but rapidly disappearing pollinator. They also learned about the garden’s monarch rearing program—known as the caterpillar lab—in which volunteers help caterpillars to grow, pupate, and emerge as butterflies.

The monarch rearing program is one example of a rapidly growing effort around the world to encourage everyday volunteers to contribute to the scientific process, which is collectively known as citizen science (or, sometimes, community science). And because it requires no scientific background, the activity is a perfect way for kids to explore the world around them and contribute to efforts that can help protect the planet and make other discoveries.

“Our kids, who are five and two, love all things nature,” says Sarah Newman, a research associate at Colorado State University and community engagement strategist at CitSci.org, a group that supports scientists who run these projects. “Apps like iNaturalist—or Seek, its kid-friendly offshoot—allow them to participate in the observation process.”

Enlisting the help of kids is now easier than ever, thanks to developments in mobile technology and virtual communication over the past decade. The benefit of participation goes both ways, however. “There is a recognition among scientists about the value of crowdsourcing,” says Greg Newman, a research scientist at Colorado State University and the director of CitSci.org. “They recognize the power of the masses.”

The benefits of volunteering for science

During the COVID-19 pandemic, opportunities for participating in real-world science have exploded as virtual solutions to foster problem-solving and collaboration skills even though kids aren’t physically face-to-face. Rather than just learning about scientific methods in a virtual classroom, these projects are a hands-on way to physically explore and question the world around them and learn how science applies to real life.

“The best way to learn is to be engaged in real-world problems and connected to your community, and the world beyond your community,” explains Mary Ford, director of professional learning at National Geographic Society and long-time citizen scientist. “Citizen science allows all of those things to happen naturally, organically—they are built into the process.”

Early involvement in science can help children forge an identity as scientific thinkers, with long-lasting effects. Research suggests that children who participate in science at an early age are more likely to feel a sense of responsibility toward the environment and support scientific endeavors later in life. Similarly, positive exposure to the environment as a child creates positive attitudes toward the environment as an adult.

This is true for Sarah Newman, who developed an early love for nature and later participated in a citizen science project in high school. “We tagged raccoons and followed them with radio telemetry,” she says. The project, which tracked the animals’ movements, taught her hands-on data-gathering skills—a formative experience that helped inspire her to pursue science as a career.          

Furthermore, engaging with these types of science-based projects is a great way for kids outside and moving. Time outdoors can reduce stress, build self-confidence, and promote creativity.

Finding the right activity

The growth of citizen science makes it easier than ever to match a child’s interest to a project. Kids can send photographs of clouds to NASA through the GLOBE cloud program, participate in a local bioblitz, or identify plants and animals with the Seek app. And if your child seems more interested in video games than science experiments, websites like FoldIt use online puzzle-solving games to help scientists study different protein structures and their role in diseases like HIV, cancer, and Alzheimers. 

The key to success is figuring out what’s going to hold your child’s interest.

“Think about how old your kid is and what their attention span is like,” Sarah Newman says. “Think about projects that fit their needs for time and energy.” Kids who are proficient in reading and writing will have more opportunities available, but younger children can still observe and help Mom and Dad as they participate in projects of their own.

“It’s equally important to ask, what is a good citizen science activity for parents?” Greg Newman adds. “The activity needs to be compatible with your circumstances.” For the Newmans, they look for activities that move quickly and can be abandoned at any moment to accommodate their young kids.

Safe and intuitive technology is also key. If you’re using electronic tools, like an app or website, parents should carefully review privacy controls to protect little ones before committing to the project.

Getting kids started—and staying engaged

Finding the right projects for families can be as easy as perusing websites like CitSci.org or Citizenscience.org, which offer extensive project lists. SciStarter.org has a filter that allows users to sort by topic or age appropriateness. Parents can also talk with teachers or after-school programs to find local engagement opportunities. (National Geographic supports educators by providing citizen science teaching materials).

Ford, who has worked in citizen science for over 20 years, says children tend to stick with it through competition and collaboration. Apps designed for kids are often gamified so that the user can collect rewards or digital badges that signify their accomplishments and help hold their attention.

“When you’re working with a class or your family, kids like to compete to see who can get the most badges,” she says. “Knowing that your data helps solve a problem and gets combined with other people’s data to create a huge database—that’s really motivating for kids, too.”

Another major incentive is finding something that truly impacts a kid’s life. A project measuring air quality from nearby traffic or cleaning up trash at the community beach can give them a sense of responsibility and agency on issues directly affecting their community. It’s also an opportunity for them to see how complex global issues—like climate change or plastic pollution—manifest at the local level.

And obviously the child’s interests are also a crucial piece of the puzzle, Sarah Newman says. What do the kids do with their time? What do they like to learn about? “The benefit of discovery and the unknown is fun for all of us, no matter what age we are.”

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