What do young volunteers learn from participation in online crowdsourced citizen science? Environmental science learning through Zooniverse

Herodotou, Christothea; Papathoma, Tina; Aristeidou, Maria; Miller, Grant; Ghadiri, Maryam; Lorke, Julia and Ballard, Heidi (2020). What do young volunteers learn from participation in online crowdsourced citizen science? Environmental science learning through Zooniverse. In: ECSA conference 2020, 7-10 Sep 2020, Trieste, Italy.

URL: https://www.ecsa-conference.eu/


Volunteers in Citizen Science (CS) programmes are mainly adults, often scientifically educated middle-aged individuals (Eveleigh, Jennett, Lynn, & Cox, 2013; Brossard et al., 2005; Price & Lee, 2013). Their participation in CS has been viewed as an opportunity for learning; by opening up the work of scientists to the public, CS volunteers can gain a better understanding of science and the scientific method, appreciate nature, and support conservation initiatives (Freitag & Pfeffer, 2013; Bonney, Phillips, Ballard, & Enck, 2016; Herodotou, Sharples, & Scanlon, 2018). Some learning research has been conducted on young people participating in field-based CS (Ballard, Dixon and Harris, 2017) yet, very little is known about the participation and learning of young volunteers in online settings, e.g., Do young people participate in the same ways, and report similar learning benefits from CS participation in online settings? For the first, initial research suggests that young people's participation in online CS programmes is rather random and non-systematic, mainly described as "visiting" those spaces (Herodotou, Aristeidou et al., accepted).

In this study, we sought to capture whether and what young volunteers report they learn from their participation specifically in the online CS projects on the Zooniverse platform. We interviewed 10 self-selected young volunteers aged 8-13 years old (n=4) and 16-19 years old (n=6) (Male= 3; Female= 7), who participated in CS projects hosted on the Zooniverse platform, one of the largest web-based CS platforms hosting more than 50 active CS projects, such as Project Plumage. We used the framework of Environmental Science Agency (ESA) (Ballard et al., 2017), an adaptation from Basu and Calabrese Barton’s (2009) concept of Critical Science Agency, for conceptualizing learning. ESA frames learning as the development agency manifested in three components: (a) deepening understanding of environmental science content and practice; (b) identifying an area of one’s own expertise in environmental science; and (c) using experiences in community and citizen science as a foundation for change.

Thematic analysis of interviews (Braun & Clarke, 2006) resulted in evidence primarily for the first aspects of ESA; participants reported increased project-specific content knowledge after joining specific projects (e.g., awareness of and identification of animals), development of scientific skills such as identifying/transcribing tasks. With regards to identifying their own scientific expertise,we found participants primarily identified with the role of "classifier" or "transcriber"; others described the same role as mostly "following"and responding to certain tasks set by scientists. Many participants also reported an overall increased confidence in understanding and doing science. Evidence of ESA as foundation for change (ESA c) was rather limited; one participant mentioned: "[I am] more passionate about pursuing a more research-oriented career [or] profession because I think [...] the research aspect of all this is really interesting" (female, 17). Another participant planned to apply what they learnt to be more effective in their future career as a teacher: "It was useful. I use it in my degree currently in the university. I was learning the different kinds of animals out there. That’s broadening my knowledge of what I can teach to children."(female, 19)

These insights suggest that participation in Zooniverse results in certain science learning gains for young volunteers aged 8-19 years old. Participation by young volunteers enhanced their content knowledge and development of scientific skills. The limited roles reported by young volunteers suggests that a broader range of Zooniverse activities or tasks could allow for more diverse roles to potentially support young people better in developing environmental agency.

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