Citizen science programs can improve environmental knowledge and behaviors

Morales, P. K., Roslan, N. ., Haas, A. ., & Lykins, A. D. (2021). Citizen science engagement: Lessons learned from the ClimateWatch “Scientist for a Day” program. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 20, 393-405.

Citizen science (CS) programs contribute scientific data and information that help policymakers make more informed decisions. There have been several studies that evaluated CS programs and demonstrated their role and value in policymaking. However, there is not as much information on how these programs influence pro-environmental behavior (PEB) and attitudes in participants. The researchers in this study reviewed a CS program in Australia called Scientist for a Day (S4AD). This one-day CS event sponsored by Earthwatch gathers citizens to learn more about a specific research project. For this study, the researchers sought to learn about the participants' experience in the program, how knowledge increased as a result of the program, engagement with the organization after the program, and whether the PEBs participants learned in the program were reflected through community service in their local environment.

The ClimateWatch program was initiated in 2009 and sponsored by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the University of Melbourne. The program focuses on phenology, the study of different plant and animal species and they relate to the functioning of the climate. Through the program, members of the community have the opportunity to help scientists and policymakers with their data collection and organization, which improve understanding on how native Australian species are affected by climate change. The participants use the ClimateWatch phone application (app) to record seasonal events and their timings in animals and plants. The S4AD program incorporates ClimateWatch's overall programming goals into one-day corporate team building and educational events to teach businesses more about climate, species and how to use the app. At the end of the program, the participants are encouraged to continue using the app as well as make other changes to the lives to improve their PEBs. Some suggestions for doing so are provided in a toolkit, which is distributed by the team leader.

This study surveyed the participants who did the S4AD program in 2018 in Australia. Participants had completed the program and were from two companies within Earthwatch's corporate partnership network. To gather participants, the researchers sent emails to 120 past participants between the ages 23 to 46 years old. A total of 15 of these participants agreed to partake in a phone interview. The phone interviews took place in May 2019 and the interviews focused on three themes: 1) what participants liked and/or disliked about the S4AD program, 2) how they have engaged with the ClimateWatch phone app since the S4AD program, and 3) how overall behaviors have changed since the S4AD program. Some questions were open-ended while others asked participants to rate statements on how much they agreed or disagreed with a statement using a scale or yes or no answers. The interviews were transcribed and categorized for data analysis.

The interview data showed the participants overall liked the S4AD program and S4AD helped increase participant knowledge on climate change and other environmental issues through the presentations as well as speaking with others about their views on climate change. Participants shared they enjoyed the program because it was an exciting learning experience where they connected well with others and got more hands-on experiences with certain plants and animals. Additionally, participants noted they enjoyed sharing varying views about climate change and the program raised their overall awareness about climate change impacts. However, participants shared there were limitations of the ClimateWatch phone app, and some people felt there was a lack of follow-up from the event organizers after the S4AD ended. For these reasons, some participants mentioned they did not stay engaged as much as they would have if the phone application and follow-up were better.

In terms of PEBs, only 6 of the 15 interviewees mentioned they recalled receiving a toolkit after the S4AD program. Of those participants, only three adopted one of the actions that was suggested in the toolkit. These included recycling, riding their bike to work, turning off water or lights, or buying light bulbs that were more energy efficient. When asked if they engaged further in other activities outside of S4AD toolkit only one participant mentioned they had, and it was for a national event called “Clean Up Australia". Some participants said they watched some climate change videos but took no further action.

There were some limitations to this study. First, the researchers recognized most of the questions asked participants to generalize pro-environmental behaviors, meaning they may have been less specific to what they actually were doing. Second, because there was no pre- or post-survey, it was difficult to determine a single conclusion on whether behavior changed after the S4AD program. In addition, there was a small sample size which may have limited the results.

Overall, the researchers found the participants liked the S4AD program mostly because they gained new knowledge about climate change and other environmental issues. However, with regard to PEBs, CS programs should engage with participants prior to starting the program and following the program and monitor pro-environmental actions participants take. For example, the researchers recommended engagement can include planning virtual programs for participants to interact with others to influence and normalize PEBs in their community.

The Bottom Line

<p>Citizen science (CS) programs are great ways to engage the public on environmental issues as well as inform decision-making. This study examined ClimateWatch's Scientist for a Day Corporate Program (S4AD) in Australia to evaluate whether the program increased environmental knowledge and what pro-environmental behaviors resulted from the program. The researchers interviewed 15 participants from the 2018 S4AD on the phone in May 2019. Results showed that participants were satisfied with the program and that it increased their overall knowledge about climate change. However, participants were not very engaged with the organization after the program and did not demonstrate a significant increase in pro-environmental behaviors. The researchers recommended CS programs can establish a stronger engagement strategy with participants after the program through regular email updates and virtual sessions to allow people to connect with peers on environmental issues.</p>

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