Blog for March 2022: Broadening the Landscape of Citizen Science

Posted by: Dr. Heather A. Fischer and Dr. Martin Storksdieck on February 22, 2022

Participation in citizen science is growing rapidly as an informal STEM engagement activity, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, during a NASA Citizen Science Leaders listening session, Zooniverse, an online platform that hosts virtual citizen science projects, reported that since March 2020 (when many pandemic restrictions were initiated in the United States), they consistently recorded two times more participants than before COVID restrictions were enacted., an online citizen science hub where potential participants can find all types of projects to engage in, saw a 375% increase in participation in April 2020. GLOBE, an international program with students and the public collecting earth science data, saw a 16% increase in participation during COVID. Even before the pandemic, citizen science participation has been climbing steadily, as evidenced by the increasing success of projects like Cornell Ornithology Lab’s Backyard Bird Count, which started in the mid-1990s. Readily accessible technology, such as mobile phone-based applications and web platforms, has contributed to this increase in participation. While these technologies expand access to citizen science, and we have seen an uptick in citizen science participation during the COVID-19 pandemic, we do not see a significant shift in the demographics of those engaging in citizen science which, across many projects, attract predominantly well-educated, white, male-tending participants. 


Citizen science exemplifies many of the positive attributes of an impactful STEM engagement activity, including positive STEM learning outcomes, self-efficacy for doing science, and increases in social well-being. Learning processes and practices in citizen science are grounded in theories of informal science education. By participating directly in the scientific process, citizen science participants may gain an understanding of something as specific as a species or ecosystem or something as foundational as the scientific process and required skills for doing science. Engaging in fundamental science practices in citizen science programs can promote a positive attitude toward science and behavior changes, as well as motivate participants for actions that are often designed to benefit communities and/or the environment. Through participation in citizen science, volunteer scientists may gain self-efficacy for science - a person’s belief in their ability to “do” science by actively (and successfully) contributing to scientific research. It is time to leverage the increased interest in citizen science and extend the benefits of citizen science to a broader audience. As stated in the Center for Advancing Informal STEM Education (CAISE) Broadening Participation toolkit, “For too long, non-dominant populations in the US have been significantly underrepresented in STEM academics, professions, and civic decision-making. The situation indicates a system-level failure to recognize, nurture, and channel all young people’s early interests in STEM into longer-term pursuits or to adopt inclusive approaches for adults participating in STEM events or learning experiences.” (


Researchers have identified the characteristics of citizen science programs that have the potential to broaden participation in science in the United States (Pandya, 2012); these include project designs that bridge the specific needs of science and the participating public and that utilize particular strategies such as strategic partnerships with relevant community groups to recruit those participants from underrepresented groups who might be interested in, attentive to, and willing to participate in scientific research,. By leveraging these strategies, citizen science programs are poised to engage more individuals underrepresented in science in authentic science pursuits. 


However, while engagement at the community level can be highly impactful in bringing more diverse voices into citizen science, it is not a feasible strategy for all citizen science project types. Projects that conduct large-scale global monitoring or ones focused on specific disciplines like planetary science typically do not operate at community scales—but there is still a need to reflect on diversity, inclusion, equity, and access in these types of projects in order to encourage and invite equitable participation. Projects of different scales and types may also face different barriers and challenges to implementing broadening participation strategies. Projects with strict scientific protocols may not be able to adjust research objectives or data collection methods that might be necessary for a fully co-created project. Thus, we must consider the practices necessary for broadening participation strategies across various citizen science projects that work at different scales, in other scientific disciplines, and with varying outcomes in mind. 

The webinar will explore various strategies for broadening participation in citizen science across project types, focused on what seems to have worked well, as well as reflecting on things that did not. The webinar panel is uniquely qualified to discuss these issues: Dr. Sparrow has experience connecting Alaska native communities with NASA citizen science projects to explore their local communities Dr. Ferrell has worked with NASA educational programs for a number of years and is actively working on DEIA efforts in at NASA. Blake McGhghy is the program manager for the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange and has years of experience in building relationships between science and communities. The webinar moderator, Dr. Fischer, is working on evaluating citizen science programs through a culturally responsive evaluation lens. Dr. Storksdieck will join the webinar as a respondent to the panel and has a broad perspective of informal science engagement.


We curated a playlist of videos that highlight promising practices of broadening participation in citizen science. You will notice that many of these videos highlight the importance of partnerships between the citizen science program and organizations which represent the audiences the project wishes to serve. Many of these videos also showcase the importance of citizen scientists having a personal connection with the science issues they are helping to solve. 


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