Citizen Science Synthesis: Observations from Science Online 2013.

This is a guest post from Dr. Holly Menninger, the Director of Public Science for Your Wild Life, a citizen science and outreach program based at NC State University. An entomologist by training, she’s a science communicator by passion and practice. Follow her on Twitter @DrHolly.

Science Online 2013 Mite Sampling

#Scio13 participants respond with ENTHUSIASM to our new #citizenscience project studying the evolution and biodiversity of Demodex face mites. Credit: Mindy Weisberger

During the last week of January, 450 science communicators converged in Raleigh, NC, for Science Online 2013 (#Scio13). We were a diverse groupthat included established and new-on-the-scene journalists, students (grad, undergrad and even a few high school), artists, post-docs, bloggers, scientists, professors, web geeks, community organizers, radio and tv producers and personalities, government employees, university flacks, retired persons, early career professionals, and outreach aficionados. Most persons attending could be tagged with multiple labels.

All had in common a love for science and an incredible passion for sharing it with others.

From this passion emerged a common thematic strand that wove through many conversations held in the hallways and meeting rooms of #Scio13: How can we do a better job sharing (and doing!) science with public audiences?

Let’s be frank. This really isn’t a new question. It’s one that scientists and science communicators have wrestled with for years. But it’s an important one, so much so that it continued to pervade the sessions of Science Online 2013 (see a list of relevant sessions and links to their wikis at the end of this post), as it has the past few years, and is becoming an increasingly popular topic at more traditional scientific conferences including the upcoming AAAS meeting in Boston.

Yet what made the familiar, recurring discussions a bit different for me at Science Online 2013, compared to years past, was the growing contributions and insights shared by practitioners (and participants) of citizen science.

Rather than give you a rundown of each session, I thought I’d share a handful of observations I took away from these discussions:

Citizen science continues to grow and innovate as a means to engage the public in science. A number of new projects employ play and gaming as a means to inject some fun into science. Play with Your Dog, a project from the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab, asks citizen scientists to record short videos while they play with their dogs and then upload these videos to contribute to research about dog behavior and cognition. EyeWire seeks participants to play an online game that helps map the brain’s neurons. Other projects are seeking to do science in (or about) unusual places – microbiologist Jonathan Eisen and the Science Cheerleaders are making plans to implement a new project on the International Space Station as well as in a football stadium near you. Even my own Your Wild Life team got in on the act, launching our new project on face mites at the Scio13 Opening Reception. Nearly 50 über-enthusiastic science communicators lined up to let us scrape the pores near their noses in quest of the microscopic Demodex mites that live, eat and breed in our sebaceous glands.

While many citizen science projects are implemented at continental scales, other projects intentionally stick closer to home, successfully engaging participants at local scales. For example, Karen James and colleagues are leading a new effort in Maine to engage citizen scientists in the documentation and DNA-assisted identification (“barcoding”) of the biodiversity of Acadia National Park. Chris Goforth at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences hosts regular citizen science workshops at the Museum’s field station where she guides visitors in explorations of the forest and fields, with smartphones and citizen science apps in hand.

Citizen science is moving beyond the model where participants contribute only as data collectors. The growing popularity of the Hacker and DIY movements means many citizen scientist-types are eager to jump in and build something – whether that’s designing a new piece of scientific equipment or developing software to aid data visualization. Many projects are openly sharing data and asking citizens to lend a hand in data analysis, interpretation, and the generation of new hypotheses. Increasingly, citizen scientists are becoming scientific collaborators.

Ultimately, citizen science is about the people, the citizens, who contribute to the science, and project coordinators are seeking ways to more directly and personally engage participants. As attendees of Science Online 2013 could attest, we benefit greatly from our online interactions, yet there’s something extra special about the face-to-face, in-person interactions we had at the meeting. To that end, CosmoQuest has harnessed the power of Google hangouts to bring together an international community of citizen astronomers for regular, virtual star parties. I was challenged by their example to think about how we can create more opportunities to better connect our citizen scientists to one another and to their professional partners.

The beauty of Science Online is that the conversation never stops when the meeting ends. It continues on in the meeting wiki (a site that hosts dynamic docs for each session with links, notes and wrap-up materials from the sessions, storifies, and sometimes video), on the comment threads of related blog posts, and most certainly via Twitter (hashtag #scio13).
And now, the planning wiki for Science Online 2014 has launched so you can chime in your ideas for next year.

As promised, here’s a link fest of sessions related to citizen science and outreach:Three #Scio13 sessions focused entirely on citizen science topics:

What’s news in citizen science? Perspectives, people, projects and platforms
Citizen scientists and ethical research
Sticking with it for the long-haul: Building community and maintaining long-term engagement in citizen science

Other related #Scio13 sessions where citizen science, while not explicitly the theme, came up in conversation:
Why should scientists ‘do’ outreach?
Helping scientists ‘do’ outreach
Why won’t the science deficit model die?
Opening doors: Science communication for those who don’t care/don’t like science
Outreach in unusual places

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