Citizen Science for schools: What teachers need
Citizen Science for schools: What teachers need
by Katherine Mathieson, Director of Education at the British Science Association.
Citizen Science projects, where members of the public play an active role in collecting or analysing scientific data, are on the rise at the moment. Many of the researchers involved would love more schools to get involved. But schools are busy places – are Citizen Science projects really giving teachers what they need?
There’s a growing number of sources offering advice for researchers about how to approach a Citizen Science project. It’s cropping up in conferences, like the Science Communication Conference, the World Future Society conference and the Royal Geographical Society conference. Researchers are increasingly realising the power of Citizen Science to provide huge datasets across wide geographical areas, as well as to engage & educate public audiences.
The Biological Records Centre & the Natural History Museum have joined forces to produce an excellent guide for researchers working on nature-based projects. However, there’s currently little advice about what schools would like from Citizen Science projects.
The British Science Association convened a roundtable discussion on this topic (detailed notes here). It involved researchers, teachers and several organisations who work with both communities. We heard the views of speakers from a range of organisations: the Zooniverse, Zooteach, the National Science Learning Centre, Cancer Research UK, CEH’s Conker Tree Science and The Warwick School in Redhill, Surrey. The focus of the meeting was a set of small group discussions which came up with a list of the things that teachers need from Citizen Science projects, listed below.
Plan for schools engagement
Schools have distinctive needs as an audience, so it’s better to include them in the planning stages rather than try to engage them once the project has been designed. For example, asking a teacher to be a member of the planning/advisory team from the beginning will help ensure decisions take teachers’ needs into account. Asking a teacher, or a small group of teachers, to lead the development of guidance materials for teachers and students will help ensure they’re relevant & helpful for their intended audience. Various organisations exist to facilitate links between researchers and schools, so it’s worth asking if they can advise on how to go about this (e.g. STEMNET, British Science Association, professional membership organisations such as the Institute of Physics).
Be clear about who the audience is
There’s evidence that most of the existing Citizen Science volunteers are motivated by a desire to contribute to scientific research. Of course, teachers might also want to contribute to scientific research – but that alone is unlikely to make Citizen Science workable for most schools.
In a school setting, teachers are acting as facilitators or gatekeepers on behalf of their students. It’s the students who are being sought as ‘Citizen Scientists’ – but it’s their teachers who’ll make the decision about whether they take part. Students may be motivated by the opportunity to contribute to real research, but the motivations of their teachers may well be different. This means that a Citizen Science project to be used in schools needs to recognise and connect with the motivations of both students and teachers as slightly distinct audiences.
Primary school classrooms are very different from secondary school ones. If a single project is intended to reach children of different ages or studying different subjects, then it should offer a range of levels of engagement. Most projects would work better if they identified a narrow target audience and concentrated on meeting their needs really well.
Most Citizen Science projects set ‘tasks’ for their volunteers to undertake. For schools, it’s important that these tasks are suited to classroom use, either in lessons or outside them, such as in a STEM club.
Be clear about the benefits to schools
There are already a great many demands on a teacher’s time. So like any STEM engagement activity, a Citizen Science project needs to be clear & specific about what the benefits are. To be popular with teachers, a Citizen Science project needs to help support pupils’ learning and achievement, which means it should link to the curriculum, especially how science works, or to the school’s wider goals.
Case studies are a useful way for teachers to see how a project has benefited others in similar circumstances. There are currently very few case studies, though hopefully this will change. This report by American student Rashika Verma shows how engaging in ‘real’ research transformed her understanding of what science was.
Dedicate resource to recruiting & communicating with schools
The Conker Tree Science project found that phoning up local schools was a much more effective way of getting them involved compared with advertising the project on a website aimed at science teachers. Like most of us, teachers respond well to a tailored approach from a real person, so investing resource in building relationships with individual teachers will pay off, though it can be time-consuming. Mass marketing can work well as a way to draw in teachers who already have an interest in the subject.
Once teachers are involved, more resource is needed to support them to continue with the project. Someone needs to answer any questions, provide encouragement and help celebrate successes. Much of this communication might be online. Teachers also place great value on researchers visiting their school to meet the pupils face-to-face.
Teachers also want their students to see what happens with the research data they’ve contributed. This means that Citizen Science projects will need to keep teachers up to date about what’s happening with the research – even after the project is no longer actively working with Citizen Scientists.
Don’t make assumptions about school IT!
During the roundtable discussion, we heard a range of experiences: some researchers had struggled with old, out-dated IT facilities or overly stringent firewalls while others had been pleasantly surprised by how straightforward it was. It seems safest to make no assumptions and instead, to carefully pilot draft materials in actual schools, with real students, teachers and equipment.
The suggestions that emerged from the workshop offer just some ways on how researchers and communicators, can design Citizen Science projects to meet schools’ needs. Of course, every teacher is different so what works well for one may not suit another. There is still a great deal to learn in this area. The British Science Association, with other partners, plans to do more in this area, so if you’re interested, please get in touch. We believe that Citizen Science has tremendous potential, both for research but also to inspire & educate teachers and young people by giving them an opportunity to experience being a scientist first-hand.