What does it mean to incorporate citizen science into your life?

Citizen Science written in sand

When I began drafting this post, I was thinking loftily about this question, what does it mean to incorporate citizen science into your life? It’s a big question. Could there be an overarching meaning to it? A path to a citizen science life? What would it look like if there was? It’s an interesting question to ponder but certainly not one that I have an answer to. I feel pretty confident in saying that I’m certain there are many right answers to it. I’m still discovering what it means to incorporate citizen science into my life. And that’s the fun of this journey we’re on.

Not only does the answer to this question change from person to person I talk to, it also changes from moment to moment. If I rewind my life 10ish years when citizen science first came into my life and compare it to what citizen science means in my life now, well…let’s rewind the tape.

Ten years ago in the great state of Wisconsin…

I’m fresh out of grad school, single, starting a new job as the Citizen Science Director of Beaver Creek Reserve. I’m thinking about citizen science all the time – it’s my job after all – and most of what I’m thinking about is at the local, regional, and state scale. I’m thinking about partnerships with local community groups, writing grants for my team, and learning new protocols. I’m thinking about stream monitoring, bat monitoring, worm identification, mapping observations of plants and animals online. I’m learning about native bees because some of the citizen science volunteers are involved in bee keeping and have some cool ideas that eventually lead to a new project. I’m going out on local lakes to collect aquatic invasive plant data whenever I can, leading citizen science outings, doing field research alongside the volunteers. The citizen science projects I am thinking about and incorporating into my life are primarily outside, field-based, nature-related citizen science projects.

Incorporating citizen science into my life 10 years ago isn’t a question I’m thinking about because citizen science IS my life 10 years ago. And it’s great fun. I’m a part of the scientific process in different ways with different projects. I think about citizen science all day, then go home, eat, sleep (or go monitor some bats first), and do it again the next day.

A stream monitor training workshop I led in Wisconsin back in 2009.

Fast Forward…Today, in the great state of Colorado…

I’m married, I have twin boys under the age of 2, I work part-time, I volunteer, and (because why not) I’ve started a blog too. When I’m working, I’m thinking about citizen science differently. Much of what I work on currently involves tech support, database management, social media – I’m no longer setting up citizen science projects and going out in the field all the time. I’m thinking about how to support citizen science projects around the globe with the online platform CitSci.org. I spend most of my time behind the scenes and less time in the field. I’m asking different questions. I’m engaging with volunteers remotely, rather than in person.

During the days when I’m with my boys I’m thinking mostly about what we’re going to do for the day, what I’m going to give the boys for snack and lunch and how much I can get done around the house before they wake up from their nap. I’m definitely not thinking about citizen science all the time. I’d like to be thinking about it more, but the reality is my brain is often occupied with other priorities. So, sometime between when we put the boys to bed and when I fall asleep myself (a very short window, by the way) I might have a chance to think about citizen science without interruption. It was during one of those short windows of time one night when I started to ponder the question that sparked this blog.

What does it mean to incorporate citizen science into my life at this moment? It means being a part of projects that don’t have a major time commitment – projects that I can pick up or put down at a moment’s notice, when a little one decides eating sand is more fun than just playing with it or when someone gets a boo boo and needs a little extra love. It means being a part of projects that I can participate in with my kids, while we’re on a walk or playing outside in the yard, or from the comfort of my own home while my kids are napping, or in bed for the night.

The citizen science projects I’m learning to incorporate into my life now are mostly online, national or international projects, like iNaturalist, Project BudBurst*, the suite of Zooniverse projects, and CoCoRaHS. And let’s be honest, I have been a very sporadic participant in these projects. I just recently downloaded the iNaturalist app to my phone but I have yet to make an observation. It will happen soon though – maybe even today!

Kids in backyard in snow.
Backyard citizen science is where it’s at for us at this stage of life!

Different stages of life, Different meanings

What it means to incorporate citizen science into my life has changed with my life stages. And I suspect it will continue to change in the coming years. Maybe a better way to think about the question that started this all is, what does it mean to be a part of citizen science over the course of a lifetime? What can we participate in at different stages of our life if we want to be actively engaged with citizen science? How do we set our kids up for a lifetime of experiences with citizen science? What would/does it mean to grow-up with exposure to citizen science?

Clearly I have many more questions than I have answers. As this blog grows, I hope to introduce you to some wonderful people I’ve met over the years who incorporate citizen science into their lives too. Their diverse experiences have inspired my journey and may inspire you as well.

If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you’re already on a citizen science journey of your own – or thinking about starting one. What does incorporating citizen science look like in your everyday life? What kinds of projects are you a part of? When is your best citizen science time of day (or night)? Share your story in the comments below. I’d love to hear about your journey too.


*I worked for Project BudBurst for about 6 years when it was part of the National Ecological Observatory Network. It is now in the wonderful hands of a team at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

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