Posted on February 18, 2016 by The Wilson Center’s Commons Lab
A few years ago, the term “citizen science” barely turned any heads. In the past few months, however, citizen science has been receiving increasing national recognition, culminating with the introduction of the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act to Congress in September 2015 and the creation of the Citizen Science Association.
In response to this drastic growth, researchers now aim to determine what exactly incentivizes individuals to contribute to citizen science, despite the lack of formal recognition.
A recent paper by an international group of researchers finds a mutually beneficial payoff of incorporating citizen science in an academic curriculum. On the one hand, students are able to solidify their understanding of the theoretical knowledge they gain in the classroom by engaging directly with the project and researchers vis-à-vis citizen science projects, according to the paper published in the January issue of the Journal of Science Communication. On the other hand, researchers directing these projects would generally not be able to afford the comprehensive data sets citizen science can provide. The widespread engagement of citizen science taps an avenue that would otherwise pose as a logistical obstacle to researchers.
The study focused specifically on the educational and motivational outcomes of citizen science, looking at hundreds of high school students from Spain and Portugal who participated in Cell Spotting, a project that focuses on discovering new treatments for cancer. The students were asked to observe and subsequently report on thousands of images of cancer cells that have been subjected to various forms of potential drugs.
Ultimately, the study found that students, allowed to witness the concrete impact of their contribution to the project, were better engaged and motivated to participate in citizen science. Teachers also said that engaging in the citizen science project increased students’ general enthusiasm for the discipline and improved their scientific literacy, particularly for students who previously demonstrated low interest in the subject area. Driving motivation is critical—not only because citizen science enriches students’ academic experience, but also because these projects depend on citizen science as a major provider of comprehensive data.
It seems motivation is an important component of citizen science. Without formal recognition, individuals typically feel no inherent incentive to contribute to the projects. As seen in this study, the ability to contribute to a project with real-world impacts not only encouraged the students to participate in citizen science, but also solidified the students’ understanding of the concepts they learned in the classroom. While the benefits of citizen science for data collection and scientific discourse were already recognized, the researchers addressed the key prerequisite of citizen science—motivation—by identifying what inspires the participants in the first place.
This study, “Cell Spotting: educational and motivational outcomes of cell biology citizen science project in the classroom,” was published in January 2016 the Journal of Science Communication’s Citizen Science Special Issue. A second issue is coming out in April 2016. Papers submitted came from more than fifteen different countries, highlighting the growing importance of citizen science projects. The full issue is a must-read for citizen scientists and can be found here.