Can we turn schoolchildren into citizen scientists?

Dr Bastien Castagneyrol (@BCastagneyrol) and Elena Valdes-Correcher (@ElenaValds2) from the INRAE/University of Bordeaux describe how effective school children are at collecting citizen science data.

Is ecology too important to be left in the hands of scientists alone? Is ecology too tricky to be left in the hands of the public? Is citizen science the solution to this conundrum, by getting the public and scientists to work together?

Citizen science brings together science to people

Citizen science is a way of collecting large amounts of data by capitalising on the amazing amateur (and more expert) recorders that can be found across the world. Together, the scientists and volunteers have a common goal: advancing knowledge through research and monitoring. Citizen science has become quite popular over the last decade(s), largely supported by the rise of communication tools and the impressive development of these pocket laboratory tools, or phones (e.g. iNaturalist). Scientists have developed thousands of projects which people can contribute to, in some cases needing no more than a camera or a smartphone. For instance the global citizen science project Pieris project has revealed how human activities contributed to the spread of the cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae), a serious crop pest worldwide.

Citizen science is usually seen as a win-win enterprise: scientists get a huge amount of data otherwise unreachable, and contributors learn more about what they have observed and in principle, about the process of science. Citizen science ‘in the wild’ can also have important positive side effects. Connection to nature tends to make people healthier and happier, to reduce anxiety and to favour learning. When implemented at school, ecology citizen science could be a way to collect data, while linking education with a good dose of nature.

Kids as scientists?

Wait. Does it mean that kids can do scientific research and that scientists will trust the data produced? Yes, but not blindly. Being trained as a scientist takes a long time, it can take years to become an expert in a particular field, and data quality is one of the main reasons that many scientists shy away from citizen science. But surprisingly, when it comes to citizen science programs in ecology, there are not many studies that have properly tested the assumption that ‘amateur recorders’ can’t do as well as scientists in acquiring basic ecological data.

This is something that we did. We developed a citizen science project that targeted schools in which we asked school children (and their teachers) and professional scientists in 16 European countries to help us characterize the role of birds as oak bodyguards. The idea is very simple: oaks are attacked by insect herbivores, insect herbivores are attacked by predatory birds, predatory birds protect oaks against insect herbivores. The more bird attacks, the less herbivory. This is what ecologists call a trophic cascade. And the methodology is even more simple: we asked the participants to make fake caterpillars with green modelling clay and to attach them to oak twigs, from Spain to Lithuania.

Clay caterpillar being attached to oak tree for experiment
Model caterpillar being attached to oak tree for experiment.

Birds attacked fake caterpillars as if they were real prey, and left beak marks in the clay. Kids and scientists counted the number of fake caterpillars with beak marks to evaluate the protective effect of birds. They also looked closely at oak leaves to estimate how much surface was attacked by herbivores. They were provided with field guides to help them identify the beak marks and estimate herbivory.

Model catepillar after being attached by a predator
Model catepillar after being attacked by a predator.

Although the methodology was simple, we wanted to check the quality of the data provided. We therefore asked our project partners to send us the caterpillars and oak leaves back so that we could double checked their observations. We found that kids did a very poor job with predation rate: they have been overenthusiastic and reported beak marks where there was none. But surprisingly, they were not so bad in estimating insect herbivory on oak leaves. At least, they did no worse that professional scientists who were not trained to do that!

So we concluded that yes, kids participation in citizen science programs is valuable and that they can support ecological research, as long as they are asked to do simple tasks, and that experts can double check their observations. The process was fun and valuable for the school children, and this doesn’t harm science, it can be used as a tool to harness large amounts of data from large geographic areas.

So if you are looking to occupy your kids during this lockdown period and beyond, here are some great citizen science projects that you can all take part in:

France

Sauvage de ma rue

Observatoire des papillons des jardins

UK

iNaturalist

British Trust for Ornithology Garden BirdWatch

Natural History Museum Project Plumage

Woodland Trust Nature’s Calender

Global

eBird

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