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Citizen Science: A Window Into The World Around Us

Citizen Science
Sarah Styan
Kauai Community Science Center

Citizen science — even if you're unfamiliar with the term, you probably have a good guess as to what it means.

"Some people call it... people-powered discovery," said Ellen McCallie, a program director with the National Science Foundation. "Citizen science is a way that people, whether you're a trained scientist or not, can contribute to our understanding of the world. It's a way that you can volunteer your time, your energy, your expertise, to provide insight to science."

The NSF funds competitive citizen science proposals from across the country. But if you're just looking to dip your toes in, McCallie recommends the website SciStarter. It aggregates both local and global volunteer-based projects.

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Sarah Styan
Kauai Community Science Center
KCSC's latest citizen science project is propagating cornflowers.

Sarah Styan runs the Kauai Community Science Center. She turned to SciStarter last May for projects that people could do while they sheltered at home.

"There's so many choices," Styan said. "You can do projects on your computer at home, looking at data from NASA, looking at medical data... If you have an interest in anything, there's probably a citizen science project linked to that that could help you learn more about it."

As Kauaʻi reopened, KCSC started to offer citizen science projects at their in-person HOTSpot events. This summer, participants can propagate crown flowers and raise monarch butterflies.

Styan said the goal of the Kauai Community Science Center is to make science accessible and help people see it as part of their everyday lives.

“And I do think that’s an element of citizen science, it really makes it so that anybody can be a scientist. And in reality, if you ever ask a question, you’re a scientist,” Styan told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Interview with Ellen McCallie and Sarah Styan

Rich Downs had plenty of questions when he saw his first manu-o-Kū flying over the streets of Honolulu. In 2016, he started the citizen science organization Hui Manu-o-Kū to map the nesting sites of the native white tern.

Savannah Harriman-Pote
Hawai'i Public Radio
White terns nest all across the city of Honolulu. Volunteer Matthew Saunter surveys a nest in the middle a crowded parking lot.

"As common as they are, not a lot is known about them. This just seemed a great opportunity," Downs said. Five years later, Hui Manu-o-Kū has a rich data set about the white tern's breeding patterns.

"A scientific finding that we made based on our observations was that they do breed year-round, and that they have a higher than usual breeding success rate," Downs said.

Honolulu is the only place in the main Hawaiian Islands where white terns nest, and their population is growing. As a result, Hui Manu-o-Kū needs more manpower than ever.

"Hui Manu-o-Kū really relies on citizen scientists, which come and go," said Matt Saunter, one of the organization's volunteers. "It's going to be a challenge to maintain the data as the white tern population in Honolulu increases."

Interview with Matthew Saunter and Rich Downs

While some citizen science initiatives focus on one species, others collect data on an entire ecosystem.

Hawai'i Wai Ola, modeled after a similar initiative on Maui, works with ten partner organizations to take water quality measurements in Kona, Hilo, and South Kohala. They measure everything from salinity and temperature to bacteria and nutrient levels that can affect both our health and our reefs.

Hawaiʻi Wai Ola is taking its first cohort of volunteers this August.

Erica Perez is one of the heads of the program, and she hopes that it empowers people to take ownership of their coastlines. "I've seen our reefs change. And it is not just government laws that are going to fix it... I think that as community members, we can also make a difference," Perez said.

Interview with Erica Perez

Ellen McCallie says that researchers rely on these collective efforts by citizens.

"Citizen science is really important because it helps with a number of different kinds of questions that scientists cannot answer on their own."

But McCallie says that in order for citizen science to really have an impact, you have be in it for the long haul.

"If people are watching birds, or collecting water data, or monitoring what's blooming where, doing it just for a year doesn't work in terms of really understanding the system," McCallie said. "You have to do it for decades. Hundreds of years is even better."

It sounds like there's no better time to get started.

These interviews originally aired on The Conversation.

Savannah Harriman-Pote is a producer for The Conversation and Manu Minute. Contact her at
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