September 19, 2012

Unleashing Citizen Science

by Dan Puskar from National Park Foundation ' . get_the_title() . '' ); ?>

In an address to the national park community at the University of Texas at Austin in October 2007, Dr. John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, spoke about the power of using citizen science to better interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity. Dr. Fitzpatrick shared technological innovations that allowed his Lab to take data submitted by an army of thousands and thousands of people and turn it into graphical representations of nature unfolding on a global scale. Although people of all generations and backgrounds may find excitement in exploring their own backyards, the true promise of citizen science may be in fostering curiosity and engagement in youth. As Dr. Fitzpatrick noted, “six year olds love asking questions. They can actually help answer them now.”

In recent years, citizen science has found eager practitioners in the National Park Service – and partners have been integral to its success. The annual BioBlitz is a robust partnership from the National Park Service and the National Geographic Society, engaging thousands of students in a 24 hour investigation that captures a park’s biodiversity in a moment in time. At last year’s Bioblitz in Saguaro National Park, the Friends of Saguaro National Park raised nearly $120,000 to improve the park’s communications, transportation and equipment to prepare for and conduct the event. Every Board member participated by leading hikes and volunteering on wilderness experiences with participating middle school and high school students. The National Park Foundation’s Parks Climate Challenge program recently funded a program by the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont where teachers learned about opportunities to engage students in citizen science projects in the park and in their own backyard. A sixth grade glass from Gatlinburg, Tennessee participated in a project monitoring salamander diversity at Great Smoky Mountains and then developed a project to monitor 22 trees on their school grounds.

With opportunities building, the NPS laid a marker in the release of A Call to Action and recognized the importance of creating “a new generation of citizen scientists and future stewards of our parks by conducting fun, engaging, and educational biodiversity discovery activities in at least 100 national parks, including at least five urban parks.”

As the NPS and its partners continue to collaborate on growing citizen science projects within individual parks, they may also begin to think about how to use citizen science to achieve others goals related to technology and large landscape conservation. How might increases in web-based park technology increase opportunities for young park visitors to add to our scientific knowledge of the parks? How can NPS and partner efforts to preserve large landscapes be informed by citizen science that works inside and outside of park boundaries to inform the choices made by managers?


  1. Love the Great Smoky Mountains Institute example. How can we replicate these programs across parks? Wouldn’t it be great if there was an online repository for National Parks related curriculum for science, history, etc.?

  2. What a great idea to have an online repository for National Parks curriculum! I know many parks use state education curriculum in their programs, but it would be so nice to have a place where interpreters could come together from across the country to share programming ideas to enhance that curriculum. And if there was a single place to share citizen science programs and ideas – that would be awesome!

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