Research Summary

Youth-focused citizen science: Examining the role of environmental science learning and agency for conservation

Youth-focused citizen science can build capacity for future conservation actions

Biological Conservation
2017

This study examined two youth-focused community and citizen science (CCS) programs, defined as “activities or programs in which members of the public collaborate with professional scientists on scientific research and monitoring in either scientist-led or community-led endeavors.” While citizen science by youth is growing rapidly, little research has examined how such programs meet the dual goals of rigorous conservation science and environmental science education.

Researchers examined three case studies of two different CCS programs -- one coastal and one water quality monitoring. The case studies reflected different implementation strategies: one in a school context, one in an out-of-school internship program at a natural history museum, and one in a summer out-of-school program with the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists. Each of these sites engaged youth in different aspects of the scientific process, including dissemination of findings to an external audience. While such dissemination is not necessarily typical of youth-focused CCS programs, the researchers believed it to be “a unique and crucial component of youth CCS for learning.” One of their goals in conducting this research was to gain an increased understanding of the learning processes and outcomes of CCS programs. This research also examined the conditions and mechanisms that might affect youth learning. Three specific questions framed the study: (1) How do youth involved in CCS participate in environmental science and decision-making? (2) What outcomes for conservation occur in the near-term? (3) In what ways might this participation involve science and environmental learning that will help youth contribute to environmental problem-solving into the future? Data collection involved intensive participant observations, interviews with participating youth and program coordinators, and an examination of program and student-produced artifacts.

Twenty-five youth participated in pre- and post-program semi-structured interviews, lasting 30-90 minutes each. The pre-program interviews focused on the interviewee’s perceptions and past experiences about science, scientists, civic engagement, environmental issues and actions and what they anticipated experiencing during the program. Post-program interviews focused on youth experiences during the program but also included some of the questions posed during the first interview. Interviews with the program coordinators included discussions about program structure and evidence of the program’s contribution to site and species management. Observational data was based on 70-100% of the program activities, dependent on the site, and included observations of training sessions, field trips, analysis discussions, interactions with scientists and others involved with the program, and presentations at scientific conferences and city meetings.

Findings showed that participating youth developed different aspects of environmental science agency (ESA) in each context. ESA, as defined by the researchers, includes ecological knowledge, expertise, and capacity to take action. Key processes through which many of the participants developed ESA include rigorous data collection, dissemination of scientific findings to authentic external audiences, and investigation of complex social-ecological systems. These findings indicate that youth-focused CCS programs can be effective in promoting conservation research and management goals while also building youth’s capacity for future conservation actions.