Research Summary

Scientific Value and Educational Goals: Balancing Priorities and Increasing Adult Engagement in a Citizen Science Project

Increasing Adult Engagement in Citizen Science

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Citizen science projects engage participants as active members of scientific research. They offer opportunities for education, as well as the potential for enabling the collection of robust data sets that may otherwise be infeasible for the professional scientific community to gather alone. The Lost Lady Bug Project builds upon this understanding and engages adult participants in research about ever-changing ladybug populations across North America. Through this project, the authors of this study investigated the dual purpose of citizen science projects to motivate, engage, and increase learning among citizen science volunteers, while also advancing scientific research. Through evaluation and testing of various learning outcomes, the authors of this paper suggest these educational and scientific goals are mutually supported. They also identify some of the challenges of citizen science while proposing goals for improvements.

The study consisted of online pre- and post-tests assessing knowledge, skills, and attitude gains. The tests were administered through different means—the pre-test through an online pop-up on the project’s website (49 participants total), and the post-test through emails to the participant database (353 participants total). The pretest survey consisted of 10 forced-choice questions (i.e., there were no “no opinion” or “I don’t know” answer selections) regarding ladybug biology, as well as eight attitude statements about citizen science. The post-test survey included identical questions to the pre-test survey, as well as additional measures of self-reported learning, motivation, and use of the website as a learning resource. As participants were a self-selected sample, which increases the potential of bias, the authors of the paper interpreted the results conservatively.

Respondents from the Lost Lady Bug Project reported gains in knowledge, skills, motivation, and attitudes. The 10 forced-choice questions measured knowledge about ladybugs and included topics on biodiversity, regional differences in ladybug populations, invasive versus native species, and the ecological benefits of ladybugs. The mean knowledge score of these questions on the pre-test was 6.65, which increased to 7.99 on the post-test, suggesting a greater awareness and understanding about ladybugs, the diversity of the species, and ecological problems they face. Rating motivational statements demonstrated that respondents mainly enjoyed contributing to a scientific study (80%) and learning about ladybugs (71%). Other important motivational factors to note included contributing to conservation (69%) and being in nature (56%). These findings suggest an interest in the scientific process, demonstrating the great potential of citizen science projects to engage the public in science.

Respondents’ motivation to contribute to scientific research also aligns with their perception that scientists value their work and deem it important. However, they reported low confidence about their individual ability to contribute to science. This low confidence was remedied somewhat through experience; Lost Lady Bug Project participants with multiple years of involvement reported more positive attitudes regarding their contribution than those with only one year of involvement. This suggests a relationship between ongoing participation and sense of value of one’s contribution. More research in this area is needed in order to understand the relationship and then structure citizen science programs accordingly.

The results of the study also highlight some important trends about the benefits and limitations of citizen science. For example, while nearly all participants reported using the provided online resources to read about ladybugs (94%), far fewer reported using online resources to learn more in-depth information about the data collected. For example, 63% reported using the interactive map showing locations of reported ladybug populations, and only 54% reported looking at the list of submitted ladybug data. These results suggest a limit to the type of science practices citizen science participants are willing to engage in. Along the same line, respondents reported wanting additional resources to improve their ladybug identification skills, again demonstrating participants’ interest in their role as data collectors, as opposed to data interpreters.

The findings of this study align with current citizen science research and demonstrate a strong feedback loop between the goals of science and education: participants engage in scientific processes, and increase their understanding, interest, and motivation in science, while also contributing scientific data. Similar research on ladybug citizen science projects suggests that it is a more effective and cost-effective means for data collection, as compared to traditional data collection methods. Furthermore, these citizen science projects have led to several scientific discoveries already, such as the existence of rare ladybug populations, changes in ladybug size resulting from environmental factors, and the sudden decline of native ladybug populations in some areas.

Based on the importance of citizen science participant contributions, it is important to find ways to increase participant engagement. To that end, staff of the Lost Lady Bug Project noted the participation of “super-spotters,” participants who engage in the project at higher levels than average. These super-spotters may provide insight regarding how to develop skills and motivation with other participants. These understandings align with two project goals: (1) encourage minimum-level participants to expand their contributions, and (2) attract more super-spotters. Current work on these goals includes a ladder-like engagement and development plan where participant involvement is supported by increasingly higher-level tasks. The first task, for example, may be to make a first submission of data to the citizen science database; the second, to plan and conduct a planned ladybug search; and third, to replicate the search over time.

The Bottom Line

Citizen science projects have shown to be an effective and powerful means to engage the public in scientific practices. Additionally, citizen scientists make meaningful and important contributions to the field of science. This dual benefit makes clear the importance of further engagement in citizen science projects by involving more high-skilled participants while also developing the skills of all participants. Connecting local citizen scientists with each other, or creating online forums for citizen scientists to communicate and share knowledge with each other, can help foster a learning community. These connections could also provide opportunities for more experienced citizen scientists to mentor and engage beginner participants.