Citizen science projects are designed to get everyday people involved in the world around them. But what if it could help students discover new interests, narrow down their focus in school, and – perhaps most importantly – set them apart in the university application process?
University professors believe this is exactly what they can do.
At their core, citizen science projects ask networks of non-scientific volunteers – also known as crowdsourcing – to examine scientific questions, collect information and create databases to help researchers make unusual and important discoveries that may be too challenging to accomplish alone.
"I work on a lot on endangered species – we call them species at risk – and they're very difficult to study because as you can imagine, they're rare and by definition, you're going to come across them infrequently," says Mark Poesch, a professor at the University of Alberta's department of renewable resources.
His citizen science project, the Report-a-Fish tool, allows people to upload to his website a photograph of a fish they've seen or caught. Dr. Poesch can then use this tool to create a more extensive database about what fish are located where and determine a more accurate picture of their quantities.
"It takes us a lot of effort to go out and understand where these species are, whether they're going up or down. By crowdsourcing, we can get a better sense of where these fish are in particular," he says.
Many of these projects are open to anyone, as the objective is to "break down the model of the ivory tower" and get the average observer involved, Poesch says. But students may get more out of the experience than they initially realize because it's this type of inquisitive, hands-on learning experience that allows these students to stand out in the competitive university application process.
"We want students to come in with some kind of on-the-ground knowledge and this is one opportunity for them to gain that knowledge," Poesch says.
Trekking through a swamp counting frogs or analyzing and identifying pictures of wildlife online may also open up new interests for high school students unsure of their postsecondary educational direction. But it's best to start sussing out projects early.
"Once you hit university, there's lots of opportunities that come your way, but for a high-school student it is better to get in early," Poesch says. "It's a very competitive atmosphere now, and so anything they could put on their résumé that would demonstrate to researchers or academics that they are really involved will help them."
Jean Polfus wishes these types of projects were around when she was in her formative educational years. This University of Manitoba PhD candidate in the Natural Resources Institute is at the beginning stages of starting her own citizen science project – the Caribou Diversity Project – used to help identify physical variations in caribou across the globe. She is eager to get students of all ages and from all areas of the country involved and they don't need to have a scientific background – just an interest in educating those around them.
"Ideally, First Nations and Métis and Inuit people would be excellent to try and engage in this project," she explains, adding that these groups have a specific connection to the caribou as a food source. "But we're hoping that it could also be used as an educational tool for all Canadians and interested people across the world."
And if getting hands-on with nature isn't appealing, there are projects that can be done from the comfort of home. Rod Dobell, public policy professor at the University of Victoria, is involved with a project called Digital Fishers, a game that allows players to identify deep-sea life through YouTube videos, helping researchers sift through the thousands of hours of footage they have gained.
With these at-home and in-the-classroom options, piquing a student's interest in science can be done at any age, Dr. Dobell explains, and it makes for more inquisitive students by the time they reach their postsecondary educational years.
"A science curriculum could be reformed in fascinating ways to give kids in elementary school a sense of how science is done. They're starting right at the point of observing the raw imagery and making observations. They can follow that through the questions: 'How do we make sense of that? What is it we're seeing?'
"Later on, they start to get the sense of real science because nothing is coming as a ready-made hypothesis.… In that sense, you get an experience of science that is very different from simply observing the instructor with a prestructured experiment in which everyone knows what's going to happen."