Investigating learning in Citizen Science/1 by Dr. Laure Kloetzer

Post by Dr. Laure Kloetzer

ipad-finger-600We know that public participation in scientific research (PPSR) and citizen science (CS) have become increasingly popular, thanks to technological and social changes (Haklay, 2013). Volunteers participate because they are intrinsically motivated (Rotman et al., 2012) to contribute to a scientific project by an interest in the topic, e.g. astronomy1, protein-folding2, brain-mapping3, theoretical physics4, volunteer computing5. It is commonly thought that Citizen Science projects also result in participants learning through observation and engagement about the subject of research and experiencing the process of scientific investigation. This learning could occur both informally (intentional informal learning or incidental learning), and formally whenever scientists provide formal teaching to train volunteers. However, investigating learning in Citizen Science is complex as learning appears to be mostly informal, scattered, social and unstructured. Therefore, to write a comprehensive literature review on learning in Citizen Science, we identified various related fields of research. Important, relevant papers deal:

(a) directly with reports and evaluations of learning outputs in Citizen Science, or methodologies to study learning in Citizen Science projects,

(b) more generally, with processes of informal learning or methodologies for studying informal learning, especially in the field of evaluation of informal education in museums,

(c) also with Informal Science Education,

(d) with learning by research / learning by discovery,

(e) with social learning and communities of practice,

(f) and lastly some papers deal with amateur learning / amateur experts and the role of amateurs in scientific research (therefore, opening to some sociology of science).

Here we will focus on type (a) papers, i.e. the papers dealing directly with the learning dimensions of some Citizen Science projects.

ExCiteS - Usability Testing - 3

Reports on learning in some Citizen Science projects

While the contribution of volunteers to scientific data collection and analysis has been well documented, there is still limited research on how participation in Citizen Science projects may affect learning: “The growth in citizen science programs over the past two decades suggests that we need to evaluate their effectiveness in meeting educational goals” (Crall et al., 2012). When available, results on learning focus on effects of participation on scientific literacy (Bonney et al., 2009; Cronje et al., 2011; Crall et al., 2012; Price & Lee, 2013) and on content-knowledge (Jordan et al., 2011). Some projects also advocate changes in everyday behaviour (Jordan et al., 2011). A lot of these studies deal with conservation projects, i.e. traditional citizen science as opposed to Virtual Citizen Science.

A look at their results shows that the effects of participation on scientific literacy are difficult to assess: “In our study, participant knowledge of the nature of science and science-process skills did not change, despite explicit instruction” (Jordan et al., 2011). Trumbull et al. (2000) found no effect on scientific literacy with quantitative measures, however, qualitative analyses of 750 letters revealed that 80% showed evidence of some scientific inquiry among participants. Crall et al. (2012) also found no changes in science literacy or overall attitudes between tests administered just before and after a one-day training program, matching results from other studies. However, they found improvements in science literacy and knowledge using context-specific measures and in self-reported intentions to engage in pro- environmental activities. Cronje et al. (2011) also assessed the effect of invasive species monitoring training on the scientific literacy of citizen volunteers thanks to contextual multi-item instruments and they were able to demonstrate significant increases in the scientific literacy of citizen scientists. The authors conclude that “there remains little published evidence that citizen science experiences can improve the scientific literacy of participants”, maybe due of the lack of specific evaluation tools, which would be able to detect the very specific learning at stake (p.136).

A recent paper from Price and Lee (2013) deals with Virtual Citizen Science and highlights the role of involvement into project communities in effective learning. Price and Lee (2013) report how volunteers’ attitudes towards science and epistemological beliefs about the nature of science changed after six months of participation in an astronomy VCS project called Citizen Sky. Analysis of pre- and post-test data of 333 volunteers who participated for at least six months in the project reveals a positive change in scientific attitudes. Correlating these data with the participation paths of the subjects in the project, the researchers conclude that improvement in scientific literacy is related to participation in the social components of the program but not to amount of contributed data.

Gains in content knowledge may be easier to detect (Brossard et al., 2005). Jordan et al. (2011) report 24% knowledge increase of invasive plants, but simultaneously state that participation was insufficient (too short) to increase understanding of how scientific research is conducted. Participants reported increased ability to recognize invasive plants and increased awareness of invasive plants’ effects on the environment, but this translated little into behaviour regarding invasive plants.


1 Galaxy Zoo.


2 Foldit.

3 Eyewire.

4 Test4Theory.


Key references on learning and education in Citizen Science

Bonney, R., H. Ballard, R. Jordan, E. McCallie,T. Phillips, J. Shirk, and C. C. Wilderman. (2009a). Public participation in scientific research: defining the field and assessing its potential for informal science education. Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education, Washington, D.C. Available from

Brossard D, Lewenstein B, and Bonney R. (2005). Scientific knowledge and attitude change: the impact of a citizen science project. International Journal of Science Education 27: 1099–1121.

Crall, AW, Jordan, R, Holfelder, K, Newman GJ, Graham, J and Waller, D (2012). The impacts of an invasive species citizen science raining program on participant attitudes, behavior and science literacy. Public Understanding of Science, 0(0), 1-20.

Cronje, R., Rohlinger, S., Crall, A., Newman, G. (2011) Does Participation in Citizen Science Improve Scientific Literacy? A Study to Compare Assessment Methods, Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 10:3, 135-145.

Haklay, M. (2013). Science for everyone by everyone – the re-emergence of citizen science. Public Lecture, University College London, retrieved from .

Jordan R.C., Gray S.A., Howe D.V., Brooks, W.R., Ehrenfeld J.G. (2011). Knowledge Gain and Behavioral Change in Citizen-Science Programs. Conservation Biology 25, 6, 1148–1154.

Price, C. A., & Lee, H. S. (2013). Changes in participants’ scientific attitudes and epistemological beliefs during an astronomical citizen science project. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 50 (7), 773–801.

Rotman, D., Preece, J., Hammock, J., Procita, K., Hansen, D.,  Parr, C., Lewis, D., & and Jacobs, D. (2012). Dynamic changes in motivation in collaborative citizen-science projects. Proceedings of the ACM 2012 conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW ’12). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 217-226.

Shirk, J.L., Ballard, H., Wilderman, C.C., Phillips, T., Wiggins, A., Jordan, R., McCallie, E., Minarchek, M., Lewenstein, B.V., Krasny, M.E., Bonney, R. (2012). Public Participation in Scientific Research: A Framework for Deliberate Design. Ecology and Society, 17(2): 29.

Trumbull, D.J., Bonney, R., Bascom K. & Cabrel A. (2000). Thinking scientifically during participation in a citizen-science project. Science Education, 84(2), 265–75.

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