The synergy of an educational game and citizen science project to improve invasive species detection and marine conservation

Skukan, R. ., Borrell, Y. J., Ordás, J. M. R., & Miralles, L. . (2020). Find invasive seaweed: An outdoor game to engage children in science activities that detect marine biological invasion. The Journal of Environmental Education, 51, 335-346.

As the world becomes more interconnected, invasive alien species (IAS) continue to threaten the health of many ecosystems. Because IAS can be widespread and require complex management strategies, informing and engaging the public is key to lessening its impact. Citizen science (CS), a participatory practice in which citizens work alongside scientists, is one way to mitigate the effects of IAS. However, CS related to the marine environment is much less widespread than terrestrial initiatives as logistical and safety concerns create obstacles for engagement. For that reason, this study introduced then evaluated an original educational game focused on identifying invasive marine algae to increase participation in marine CS activities.

The 'Find invasive seaweed' game was developed for children but could be adapted for any age. The primary materials included marine invasive seaweed cards (which displayed a photo of a real specimen, its scientific name, and a short description) and seaweed specimens (either dried or preserved in ethanol). Prior to the game, the leader hides invasive seaweed specimens in a designated playing area such as a playground or beach. Once the students arrive, the leader explains seaweed invasion, how it interacts with the environment, and its impacts. Student participants are then trained to properly handle IAS as to not accidentally disperse any specimens (i.e. checking shoes for seaweed fragments when leaving the beach) and to leave live specimens by only collecting detached specimens. Then the game begins, and students work individually or in teams to find specimens and identify them using the marine invasive seaweed cards. When a species is correctly identified, the game leader asks a question about the species, which when correctly answered earns one point. Incorrect identification or answer to a question earn no points. Participants continue to search for more species until the allotted time expires or all species are found. A ranking was developed with total points earned per team, and the winning team is who received the most points during the game.

The study to assess the 'Find invasive seaweed' game took place in Salinas, a coastal town in northern Spain, from April to June 2017. First, the researchers completed a pilot study with a marine environmental education program; 18 children aged 8-16 years old played the game and helped to refine guidelines for the case study. The case study, to further test the game, then took place at Salinas High School and involved 46 participants, ages 11-12 years, during a 50-minute biology class. In addition to playing the 'Find invasive seaweed' game, participants completed a short five-item pretest and posttest to assess their knowledge of invasive seaweed and self-report their awareness of IAS impacts. Three items assessed knowledge through multiple choice questions and two items assessed awareness using a 4-point scale, 4 being the highest level of awareness. For three months following the class session, as part of a marine CS project, students were encouraged to go to the beach on weekends, collect detached fragments of invasive seaweed, and bring these fragments to class on Mondays.

The researchers found that the awareness and knowledge of IAS increased from the participants' pretests to their posttests. Correct answers on the knowledge portion of the tests significantly increased while incorrect and “don't know” responses decreased between the two tests. The number of students who noted that conservation of marine ecosystems was “highly important” increased from 52% in the pretest to 89.13% in the posttest. Similarly, only 36.9% of students knew what to do if they found invasive seaweed before playing the game; this number increased to 91.3% after the game. The researchers concluded that the game helped students to notice and enact effective individual conservation actions based on this data. The game spurred emotion, attention, and concentration from students and was a mix of challenge and fun.

The game also prompted a valuable CS project. Four invasive species were identified from the samples students collected. This was a valuable result, because these four species had not previously been reported in the Salinas area. In addition, one of the species, Asparagopsis armata, is easily misidentified, so the collaboration of the students as specimen collectors and the researchers as identification experts led to a more accurate IAS inventory. The researchers are optimistic that the combination of a game and a CS project created a potential lead to beneficial data exchange between citizens and scientists. The benefits of such partnerships can increase participants' scientific knowledge, help develop positive attitudes toward science, and increase motivation to achieve conservation objectives, especially through future CS projects.

This study had limitations. Generalizability is limited due to the single geographic location of a coastal town in northern Spain. In addition, the small sampling size could affect the interpretation of the results.

The authors of this study recommend that interactive educational games be implemented in conjunction with CS projects to foster increased participation in and concern with environmental issues. Games can increase participant motivation and interest, while helping develop social and emotional competencies like collaboration and reflection. Future implementations of the “Find invasive seaweed” game could include larger sample sizes, different groups, and follow-up interviews to examine long-term engagement in marine conservation.

The Bottom Line

<p>The complex management of invasive alien species (IAS) is a significant challenge for scientists. In this study, researchers introduced and evaluated an original educational game focused on identifying invasive marine algae, with the goal of increasing participation in marine citizen science (CS) activities in Salinas, Spain. Forty-six students at Salinas High School, aged 11-12 years, played the “Find invasive seaweed” game, during which they found and identified hidden seaweed samples. Participants also completed a pretest and posttest measuring their IAS knowledge and awareness, then were encouraged to find seaweed samples on weekends and bring them to class. The researchers found that both knowledge and awareness increased after the game, and the CS project helped scientists to identify four previously unreported IAS. Researchers believe that the combination of a game and CS project can lead to beneficial data exchange between scientists and citizens, in addition to increases in participants' scientific knowledge and motivation to support marine conservation.</p>

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