Learning through Citizen Science: An Aspirational Vision and Ten Questions to Prompt Reflection on Practice

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February 2nd, 2017

Since the release of the 2009 CAISE white paper Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education, citizen science has become one of the fastest growing sectors of the informal STEM education (ISE) field. Experiences and settings that are designed for learning while participants play a role in the scientific process take many forms in a wide variety of contexts. As in other areas of informal STEM learning, the potential for measuring impacts and improving designs based on data is important for growing a knowledge base for the professional field. In order to address this rich area of inquiry the Citizen Science Association (CSA) Education Working group has developed a set of questions to inspire practitioners to reflect on as they design projects and programs in which transformative learning can occur. These thoughtful questions also provide a model for designers in other ISE sectors as they apply their vision and goals to practice.   

Citizen Science Association Education Working Group Poses Ten Questions to Prompt Reflection on Practice

As many of you probably know, the Citizen Science Association (CSA) was launched in 2012 with the goal of supporting excellence across the field of citizen science by networking practitioners and advancing evidence-based practices. One of the first groups to be chartered within the CSA was the Education Working Group. 

The CSA’s Education Working Group set for itself a mission to inspire, investigate, and facilitate effective integration of scientific and educational goals, practices, and outcomes in citizen science. This group shares a strong belief that citizen science offers a powerful opportunity for formal and informal education communities to engage students and participants in authentic learning and contributing to scientific knowledge.  

One of the first tasks that the Education Working Group took on was begin to articulate powerful aspirations for the educational applications of citizen science and a set of ideas to shape practice. One of the strategies used was an NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program AISL-funded workshop at the CSA’s inaugural meeting that allowed the working group to engage the broader CSA community in drafting and refining the aspirations and ideas. The community input at the conference and feedback on the subsequent draft informed the document shared here. 

This is an ongoing conversation, so we invite the informal STEM education community to please review the vision and questions here and then contribute your thoughts as comments.

Learning* through Citizen Science: An Aspirational Vision and Ten Questions to Prompt Reflection on Practice

[*] By “learning,” we mean learning that transforms the learner – that expands ideas, interests, sense of self, skills, etc. – not to the mastery of program protocols required for participation.

CSA’s Education Working Group has taken on as its mission to enable, inspire, investigate, and facilitate effective integration of scientific and educational goals, practices, and outcomes in citizen science. We offer the Citizen Science Association community the following vision for what learning, and benefit to learners, is possible through participation in citizen science.

Through participation in citizen science, people of all ages and backgrounds contribute to science while building passion for and understanding of scientific ways to investigate the natural world.

One of the powerful things about the citizen science community is the great diversity of projects. This diversity is visible in the topics being pursued and where, but also in how programs are designed and for what goals, the communities of people they engage, the protocols used – the list goes on. This extraordinary diversity serves the community well, encouraging innovation and invention. It also serves participants well: there is probably a perfect project for everyone.

The Education Working Group sees the potential of these diverse projects to reinvigorate civic engagement, broaden participation in all levels of science, awaken the curiosity and joy and caring in all kinds of people, ignite passions for looking and learning and questioning and discovering, and welcome diverse learners with diverse interests, knowledge, talents, and motivations. We see opportunity for citizen science to be used in formal and informal settings to achieve these outcomes while contributing to scientific knowledge. We see this as essential to engaging people in addressing the world’s wickedly complex problems.

We invite citizen science program designers and staff to reflect on their work through an aspirational lens. The following questions have no right answers. Our intention is explicitly not to encourage all citizen science programs to approach learning in the same way! We do hope to inspire citizen science programs to consider the many ways they do and might serve, inspire, and support current and future participants.


  1. How have you articulated your program’s learning objectives and made them visible?
  2. How have you articulated your program’s science objectives and made them visible?
  3. How have you helped your participants to see where their contributions fit in the scientific research enterprise?  
  4. By what mechanisms have you welcomed your participants into the scientific community?
  5. How have you provided opportunities for learners with diverse skills and interests to contribute to the research being done? How have you embraced diverse learning pathways and learning goals? How do diverse participants find role models? What are the ways that differently talented participants may contribute to the research effort?
  6. How have you supported participants’ growing identities as “scientists” and science-capable learners who see science as part of their lives?
  7. How does your program facilitate social interaction among diverse novices, learners, and experts to support their learning? How does your program leverage divergent perspectives to strengthen the science and learning outcomes?
  8. How do participants in your program use skills and knowledge from other disciplines or endeavors as part of their activities?
  9. How do participants in your program experience the unpredictable, sometimes messy nature of research and discovery?
  10. How do you share control over who poses research questions, who performs analysis, and who benefits from research?

Photo courtesy of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.