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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Anyone can be a scientist: the role and importance of citizen science

Many students come to college wanting to major, do research and pursue a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. Despite all of this interest, it can be difficult to know how to start getting involved with science — what classes to take, how to apply to a research lab or how to integrate science into our extracurriculars. We also tend to place a lot of value on large research projects with lofty goals and fancy technology. It can be very easy to see people doing “better” or “cooler” things than you and to feel like you don’t belong, you aren’t a scientist or that you don’t have what it takes to become a scientist in the future. While this feeling of impostor syndrome is common, we must push back against such narratives. Science can be accessible at a variety of different levels to people of very different backgrounds. 

Citizen science” refers broadly to projects with data that can be collected by anyone, no matter their educational level or job status. Citizen science is extremely important because it encourages exploration and learning and because it allows us to create a more diverse scientific community. It is being carried out in the United States and all over the world. Citizen science allows us to connect with the world around us and to work towards a common goal. It can be enriching for researchers with advanced degrees, kindergartners and everyone in between. It can be a way that people with different identities, backgrounds and skill sets can connect. Citizen science allows the public, as well as people who would already consider themselves to be scientists, to integrate scientific exploration into their daily lives. 

A common example of citizen science is the platform eBird . In eBird, users input data about their own bird sightings and can view the data that other people have already submitted. You can explore pictures, videos, sound recordings, checklists and much more. With eBird and similar platforms, anyone can go out and collect data anywhere, whether that be in their backyard, in a local park, on a vacation or even while waiting for the bus. Users can learn about the birds that other people have seen in the same area, make hypotheses about what they’ll see next and compare their findings with other birders. eBird shows how accessible science can be and emphasizes the importance of exploration. 

Citizen science reminds us that it is important to build upon bodies of knowledge both at home and away. It is just as worthwhile to count and catalog the birds that you see when you are on campus as when you’re traveling somewhere exciting. Increased participation in citizen science efforts such as eBird, especially in underrepresented communities, can help to fill in the gaps where we might not have bird biodiversity records, which may be impacting conservation efforts.

As students at a competitive, academically rigorous institution, it is essential to not get stuck in the mindset that the only science worth doing is the kind of science that takes place in labs or through big grants. We also need to remember that anyone can be a scientist, no matter how old they are or if they went to college or not. Anyone can be a scientist, and everyone can contribute in a meaningful way to science.

Whether or not you are pursuing a major or career in the sciences, I encourage you to look into citizen science projects happening on campus, around Northfield or in your home towns. It can be really fun, and you can help to advance a communal body of knowledge! 

If you’re interested in participating in citizen science, there are a lot of options out there. The University of Minnesota has some interesting citizen science projects available on their website. At the time of this writing, there are a wide variety of projects in the fields of astronomy, history and nature. A lot of their projects can be completed online from anywhere!

If you want to get involved with citizen science on campus, I recommend checking out the events page on the Cowling Arboretum website. A really cool upcoming event is the Spring Bird Count on May 11. I hope I’ll see you there!

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