Thursday, 31 March 2016 14:55

Using citizen science to engage students

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Published in mBiosphere
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This student wants to applying new concepts to an active project!

A long-standing innate curiosity can drive students to explore their world through observation, and may lead to a career in science for some people. But more commonly, students enjoy learning about science as elementary students and that interest wanes with time. There are many factors involved in keeping students engaged with learning, but participation in citizen science projects is a movement underway to introduce science as a dynamic, evolving field with many questions left to explore.

Scientists and science educators now recognize the value in explaining what fields don’t understand, in addition to facts supported by years of experimental data. Citizen science projects, which emphasize accessibility of scientific technologies and methods for everyone, allow people without years of scientific training to participate in data gathering and analyses to answer scientific questions. The experiences aren’t limited to school-aged students, but opportunities to work with students in their formative years gives scientists the opportunity to both spark students’ interest and showcase science as a career option.

Noting the growing interest in citizen science as a teaching and awareness-raising tool, ASM gathered the best citizen science ideas under one roof – the roof of the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education. The latest issue is centered around the theme of citizen science – as a teaching method, as a public outreach method, and as a data-gathering method. An editorial from Jack Gilbert, Karen Klyczek, and Samantha Elliott summarizes the articles covered within the issue and emphasizes the role of citizen science in engaging broad audiences.

Microbiology is a field ripe for citizen-science involvement. Applications of microbiology relate to wellness, disease, food, and environment of all people, and everyone benefits from learning about these applications. While citizen scientists can safely work with non-pathogenic bacteria or fungi (preferably with instruction and supervision), advances in sequencing technologies facilitate culture-free experiments, relinquishing worry of accidental exposure to potential pathogens. From searching for new antimicrobial agents to contributing microbiome-related project samples, participants learn by doing. A few of the over 40 articles in the issue are highlighted below.

Citizen science as a teaching method

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Everyone likes microscopes!

Albert Barberán and his coauthors make a strong argument for microbial ecology as play a central part in scientific education from a young age. The authors point out the multiple definitions of ‘ecosystem,’ and the ecosystem of the human body is one way to draw attention to the microbiome and its role in human health. Introducing the various roles microbes play as part of the human microbiome can both define different relationship types (commensal, mutualist, parasite) and also dissociate microbes from having a wholly negative association concentrated on disease. Younger and more self-centered students can be engaged by swabbing exercises, where the students examine the microbes of the self. As students mature/progress, they can broaden ecosystem concepts beyond the self to the role microbes play in global nutrient cycles and how global warming may affect/be affected by these cycles. Several exercises are suggested in the article for different stages of students.

Integrating citizen science into educational methods is long overdue, write Robert Dunn and his coauthors. The work done by citizen scientist students not only engages students in the scientific process but also gives students a sense of accomplishment as they contribute observations, be it cataloging new species or collecting data on routine dissections. The authors argue that even these routine dissections, performed annually by students, offer an opportunity to collect data and expand our knowledge of anatomy, genetics, and congenital disease. Active examination, rather than passive observation, can engage school-aged children, with the focus of their designed curricula being middle school. This is a valuable age to involve students in active science, since students at this age start to fall away from science. Participation in the scientific process can help sustain the natural curiosity at this age.

Citizen science as a public outreach method

Jeanne Garbarino and Chris Mason cover the reach of citizen science project, from in silico programming projects like FoldIt to microbiome sampling kits that allow self-quantification. These projects help the scientifically interested public participate in projects that have real value to basic and applied science. Taking part in earth microbiome sampling also raises awareness of the important role microbes play, and can deter general germaphobia. Gathering data can teach an appreciation for the pace of scientific discovery as participants learn the importance of differentiating fact from artifact.

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Belly Button Biodiversity plates on display at the American Museum of Natural History

Financing citizen science projects can be tricky, since few grants cover costs for public education (though these grants do exist). Because of the relatively low cost of sequencing reagents, garnering support through crowd-sourced funding has been successful for a number of projects. Katherine Dahlhausen and her coauthors discuss several crowd-sourced projects, and how the projects won both public funds and public support by using crowd-sourcing platforms. These crowd-funding platforms aren’t a means to replace traditional research grants, but can go a long way for public engagement projects, such as the kittybiome project. Dahlhausen and coauthors lay out pros and cons for several different platform options, as well as keys to generating a strong statement and compelling video (hint: give a summary, not a seminar).

Citizen science as a data-gathering method

The benefits of citizen science projects aren’t unidirectional; the data collected can inform surveillance and test hypotheses. Trained scientists, working hand-in-hand with the interested public, can generate important data sets that would otherwise be impossible for one team to collect. Citizens, perhaps interested in monitoring their own health, can contribute deidentified data, such as the composition of their gut microbiota. This is the example Justine Debelius and her coauthors make from their experience working on the American Gut Project. Debelius places emphasis on participant recruitment and retention, sample collection and quality, and data dissemination and communication as vital tripartite stages to generate useful information. Recruitment and high-quality sample collection require clear communication between organizers and participants, and having transparent Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocols will help address privacy concerns.

As always, the JMBE issue is entirely free to read; you can find all 40 articles online here. For further insight from the authors involved, you may want to check out the #CitSciChat, which was held recently and focused on the current JMBE issue.

Have you worked with citizen scientists? Will you initiate your own crowd-funding research project? Leave your thoughts in the comments if you have additional tips or experiences on this exciting frontier of public research!

Photo credits: Student bored in lectureStudents with scopes

Last modified on Monday, 19 September 2016 15:02
Julie Wolf

ASM Communications Social Media Specialist Julie Wolf spent her research career focused on medical mycology and infectious disease. Broadly interested in microbiology and scientific communication, she has taught at Long Island University and the community biolab Genspace and has written for the Scientista Foundation and Scholastic’s Science World magazine. Follow her on Twitter for more ASM and Microbiology highlights at @JulieMarieWolf.