Allegheny College Receives Grant to Study Citizen Science

Allegheny College has received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to explore how citizen science can help people feel more connected to places in their local communities while developing science learning skills.

Benjamin K. Haywood, assistant professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability at Allegheny, will spearhead the research along with Julia K. Parrish, professor of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, as part of a project funded by a grant of $299,605 from NSF’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning Program. Allegheny, whose share of the grant will be $129,759, will be the lead institution for the collaborative two-year pilot project.

Benjamin K. Haywood, assistant professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability at Allegheny, will be one of the principal investigators on the research project.
Benjamin K. Haywood, assistant professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability at Allegheny, will be one of the lead investigators on the research project.

“Citizen science initiatives, which involve public participation in scientific investigations alongside professional researchers, have grown precipitously over the past decade,” says Haywood. “Given the global ecological challenges of our day, professional scientists simply can’t document phenomena fast enough or at large enough scales to keep up. This is where citizen scientists come in,” states Haywood, “who, with appropriate training, document valuable information ranging from cloud formations and craters on Mars, to the activity of the birds, bees, frogs and squirrels in a person’s backyard.”

Although the practice is an important mechanism for the collection of data over large areas, Haywood notes that citizen science is also an effective way to simultaneously support science and environmental education. Allegheny’s successful Creek Connections program is a prime local example of a citizen science effort that both collects important water quality data and supports learning among the middle and high school students who participate.

Haywood’s project is called “Critical Thinking and People-Place Relationships in Citizen Science.” The research will investigate whether citizen science fosters higher order critical thinking skills needed for science learning and the extent to which that is linked to the connections participants make to places in their communities. “In our fast-paced society, studies continue to reveal that people feel less and less connected to the natural world. We want to find out whether citizen science engagement can help one feel more connected to a place, and if so, does that person then feel compelled to learn more about that place, to come to understand the ecology in a deeper way,” says Haywood.

Allegheny students will serve as critical research team members throughout the effort, helping Haywood develop the research program, collecting and analyzing data, and communicating research findings. Two students will travel to the West Coast in the summers of 2020 and 2021 to work as research interns with the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) citizen science project. Housed at the University of Washington in Seattle, COASST citizen scientists survey West Coast beaches over four states for beach-bound seabirds to monitor local marine resources and ecosystem health. The two-year pilot phase of this research will focus on the experiences of participants in the COASST program.

“The ultimate goal of this research is to support well-designed, robust citizen science programs that mutually benefit participants and the planet,” Haywood adds. “The information assembled through citizen science will be essential in order for communities to find solutions to modern social and ecological challenges. I’m delighted that Allegheny will be a part of this partnership aimed at enhancing the practice.”

NSF’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program seeks to advance new approaches to and evidence-based understanding of the design and development of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) learning opportunities for the public in informal environments; provide multiple pathways for broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences; advance innovative research on and assessment of STEM learning in informal environments; and engage the public of all ages in learning STEM in informal environments.

Photo Caption: Allegheny researchers will be studying the efforts of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) citizen science project on the West Coast. Photo courtesy of the University of Washington.