Citizen Science: What Makes a Good Project?

August 8, 2011   |   Brett Amy Thelen
A citizen scientist documents a road-stream crossing in the Ashuelot watershed.

Conservation That’s Local, Personal, and Collaborative

When the good news about AVEO joining the Harris Center was first announced, I received a flurry of enthusiastic emails & phone calls from folks with ideas for new citizen science projects in the Monadnock region: water quality! honeybees! Chytrid fungus! Japanese knotweed! It seems that everyone has a favorite species, environmental issue, or special place that they’re eager to view through the lens of scientific study. Citizen science projects, however, are more than mere trainings – a well-executed project with the ability to collect meaningful data requires significant planning, ongoing communication with our network of volunteers, and substantial follow-up data analysis and communication of our findings. As with any endeavor, our resources are finite, and we need to be selective about where we devote our energies. So, what makes for a good citizen science project, in our eyes?

The Citizens

We seek projects that are approachable, meaningful and fun for our volunteers.  The best projects involve field methods than can be taught in one or two short training sessions, have concretely defined goals & objectives, and are undertaken in reasonably pleasant field conditions – not too early in the morning (unless you’re a crazy birder) or late at night (unless you’re a crazy amphibian lover) or mosquito-infested. (Confession: I fully admit that, as a wimpy biologist who gets very grouchy, very quickly in the presence of black flies, I am biased. However, I also know that our volunteers will be more acutely focused on collecting sound data, and more likely to return for another year of fieldwork, if they are not being besieged by swarms of blood-thirsty mosquitoes while they are citizen science-ing.)

The Scientists

I am trained as a scientist, but – try as I might – I am not an expert in all things ecological. When possible, I like to partner with other scientific experts, who can vet our field methods and make sense of all the data once the citizen science fieldwork is done. Are you a biologist or ecologist that could use some extra hands for your (volunteer-friendly, conservation-focused) data collection in the Monadnock Region? If so, let’s talk!

The Potential for Applied Conservation

People choose to participate in citizen science projects because they want their nature observations to make a difference, so we seek citizen science projects with real-world conservation implications.

What does this look like on the ground? Here are some recent examples:

  • Over the last two years, AVEO volunteers and Keene State College students trained by AVEO have documented over 25 vernal pools in Keene, including one pool on conserved land that might have been seriously impacted by nearby road construction if not for the citizen science collaboration between AVEO and  the Keene Conservation Commission.
  • Our invasive plant survey data have been included in the management plan for New Hampshire’s largest state park, with an eye toward ensuring that invasive plants remain relatively rare in the Pisgah wilderness.
  • In 2008, the Keene City Council voted unanimously in favor of purchasing a 7.6-acre parcel of conservation land — previously slated for development — to protect a migratory amphibian corridor; their decision to protect this land was based in large part on AVEO’s data from that year’s Big Night, when our Salamander Crossing Brigade volunteers recorded over 830 amphibians crossing into that parcel of (wet)land in the span of just four hours!

Local Science for Local Communities

Many successful citizen science projects take place on continent-wide scales (for example, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Great Backyard Bird Count collected 11.4 million bird observations from over 60,000 volunteers in nearly every US state & Canadian province in 2011 alone!) and AVEO occasionally supports these nationwide efforts to track complex, long-term trends related to bird migration, climate change and other large-scale natural phenomena. At the same time, we think that local, place-based science holds the greatest potential for informing on-the-ground conservation in our communities.  Dr. Susan Whittemore, Chair of the Keene Conservation Commission, agrees:

“AVEO’s work to document vernal pools on City lands is invaluable to Keene’s Natural Resource Inventory, an important component of our developing conservation plan. The AVEO presentations and field training program have also educated Conservation Commission members and kept this important topic “on our radar.” We now know to ask whether a proposed project might impact a vernal pool.

Ideally, we’ll work with the folks who will be using our data (conservation commissions, planning boards, land managers, biologists) from the very beginning, so we can craft the most effective research design for their particular needs.

Collaboration is Key

Lastly, the ideal citizen science project will be a partnership with one or more local or statewide agencies, town boards or organizations, as it is these local & regional conservation decision-makers who give our data life beyond the Harris Center.  Keene State College, the Keene Conservation Commission, Antioch University New England, the Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, New Hampshire Fish & Game, New Hampshire Audubon, the UNH Cooperative Extension, and the Monadnock Conservancy have all been key partners in our volunteer-based conservation science initiatives. We don’t live in a vacuum, and we don’t want to work in one either!

Contact Us

Have an idea for a new citizen science project? Contact Brett Amy Thelen at (603) 358-2065 or by email.