Citizen Science Academy: Bunny Slippers Optional

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Project BudBurst Citizen Science SciStarter
When I first became involved in online professional development (PD) courses about 10 years ago, the casual approach to participation in terms of time and attire were often noted as desirable features.  An often-touted advantage to online PD was that individuals could participate at 3 a.m. wearing pajamas and bunny slippers.  Over the years, as the boon in online PD has expanded, I sometimes wonder if the sale of bunny slippers has kept pace with the expansion of online PD opportunities for educators.

Online education has gone mainstream, as evidenced by the large number of colleges and universities providing accredited online courses as part of their degree programs.  Powerhouse universities like Stanford and Yale helped lead the way a few years back by offering their courses online and attracting hundreds of thousands of students.  The widespread acceptance of top-notch universities provided an endorsement of sorts for the effectiveness of online education.  The demand for online education continues to grow and this includes PD opportunities for educators.

Traditionally, PD for educators was synonymous with face-to-face classes, workshops, and seminars.  Face-to-face PD, while valuable, is generally location- and time-limited which can exclude many educators who have other obligations or do not have flexible schedules outside of teaching due to family, extracurricular obligations, or other time constraints.  Online PD courses that are self-paced are very appealing because individuals can chose when to participate based on their unique situation. One of the most appealing aspects of online PD is that it can be a great equalizer, providing PD for educators at all stages of their lives and careers.

As online PD has gained popularity, citizen science (CS) has also enjoyed a time of rapid growth.  In recent years, CS programs and activities have proliferated, and many are Internet-based.  Examples include Project BudBurstProject Feederwatch , and The Great Sunflower Project .  It is widely known that effective PD results in better implementation of programs and activities. In the case of CS, effective PD may also help with data quality.

CS programs that are entirely online — such as the NEON’ s Project BudBurst – may not have the opportunity to offer face-to-face PD or employ the old tried and true “Train the Trainer” model. We decided to test online PD using Project BudBurst and created our first course  Introduction to Plants and Climate Change for Educators.  In January, 2012, we informally put out the word that we had a pilot online PD course for educators hoping to register about 15 people.  Within a week, we had over 200 registrants and had to close registration as we could not meet demand.  That is when it became clear that online PD was needed and that NEON could fill this important niche through the development of an online academy devoted to citizen science professional development – the NEON Citizen Science Academy (CSA).

NEON’s Citizen Science Academy Mission Statement: Provide online professional development resources for educators to support effective implementation of Citizen Science projects and activities that focus on ecology and environmental sciences.

The NEON CSA is intended to be a complete online PD resource for educators and will include online courses, modules, tutorials, and a virtual community of practice.  Initially, I had been concerned that sharing and communication, a hallmark of face-to-face PD, would be sacrificed for the convenience of online courses.  I have been pleasantly surprised to observe the exchange of ideas and thoughts in our virtual classrooms via discussion forums.  Perhaps wearing bunny slippers encourages these informal exchanges.

As CSA develops, we intend to partner with other online CS programs and partner to offer a full suite of online courses and resources that support all aspects of CS for educators.  Further, through a partnership with the National Geographic FieldScope program, CSA will also include innovative, free online mapping, analysis and data visualization tools that facilitate data analysis.

In the case of Project BudBurst, we now offer several courses for a wide variety of educators.  One of our educators used her online PD participation to write a successful grant to engage her students in making observations of trees in their schoolyard.  Another educator shared her efforts to have students in her art class take photos of plants as the seasons change.  Several informal educators have designed exhibits and displays that feature Project BudBurst.

We hope you will join the growing CSA community by signing up for one of our online courses (citizenscienceacademy.org).  Bunny slippers optional.

This is a guest post from  Sandra Henderson, Director for Citizen Science at the  National Ecological Observatory Network. This post originally appeared on SciStarter.

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