12 Ways to Channel Your Inner Citizen Scientist

GrizzlyprintsnowGrizzly print, and a notebook. Photo: Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

Rachel Carson earned a master's degree in zoology from John Hopkins University and spent most of her career working as a marine biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But after her fourth book, Silent Spring, garnered pesticide manufacturers some unwanted publicity, the pesticide industry attempted to discredit Carson by claiming she wasn’t a trained biologist, writes Paul Brooks in his biography Rachel Carson: The Writer at Work.

The irony here is that in Silent Spring, which turns 50 this month and is arguably responsible for starting the environmental movement, Carson championed the growing concerns of untrained biologists. She listened to backyard botanists who simply observed nature and were alarmed by the indiscriminant death that DDT appeared to be doling out to songbirds, bees and other non-target species around their homes. Armed with their anecdotes and her own rigorous scientific research, Carson raised many red flags and brought the word “ecology” into the general lexicon.

Today, these untrained biologists actually have a moniker: citizen scientists. They also have many more ways to contribute to our understanding of the health of our environment.

Citizen science demographics used to trend toward the close-to-retirement set who like to study water quality, or toward younger, tech-savvy male astronomers, says Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter, a hub for citizen science information and opportunities. But citizen science is becoming increasingly accessible and interesting to the general, outdoor-recreating public, thanks both to the connections between citizen science and climate change research and to the power of smartphones. 

“Smartphones are increasingly equipped with sensors that makes it so easy to become involved in citizen science,” says Cavalier. “It removes the fear of giving bad data and it makes it harder to say participating isn’t convenient. People can’t really say ‘I don’t have the tools or knowledge I need.’ The barriers are falling.”

Whether it’s collecting marine debris or chasing butterflies or tracking grizzly bears, there’s something for budding citizen scientists of every stripe and appetite for adventure.

Grab your waterproof-breathable pocket protector and check out these citizen science resources:

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