Skip to main content

Post by Sarah Yelton

yeltonSarah Yelton is an Environmental Education Coordinator at the UNC Institute for the Environment.

As the days start to get longer, and I can sense spring around the corner, I get excited about looking for those first signs – the maple buds getting ready to pop open; the first call of the spring peeper in the ditches down the road; the first bloodroot flower in the woods. Marking those seasonal changes throughout the year is something anyone can do just by observing the world around them.

Some of those observations, collected over years—and even decades—by people who are not trained scientists, have led to some amazing scientific discoveries. I was recently fascinated by this story in The Atlantic, about Billy Barr, a Colorado man whose 40 years of notebooks detailing snow levels, animal sightings, and first flowers in the spring have led to new scientific understandings of how mountain ecosystems are adapting (or not) as climate changes.

Learning how to monitor stream quality by identifying aquatic insects that need clean water to survive. Photo courtesy of ERP.
Learning how to monitor stream quality by identifying aquatic insects that need clean water to survive. Photo courtesy of ERP.

Though Mr. Barr was not trained as a scientific researcher, he could be considered a “citizen scientist.” Citizen science – also known as public science, public participation in scientific research, community engaged research or even civic science, a relatively new term inclusive of those participants who may not be citizens – brings researchers and non-scientists together to answer a research question, deliberately involving the public in some aspect of authentic scientific research. Along the way, the public learns more about the process of doing science.

Prairie Ridge -CSI
Participants in the citizen science project Nestwatch check on active bird nests 2-3 times a week to monitor their progress. Photo courtesy of NC Museum of Natural Science.

These projects get started in a variety of ways – most often, it seems, with scientists asking a research question, then engaging the public to contribute their efforts to the research process through data collection or data analysis. Project FeederWatch, Galaxy Zoo and the NC Candid Critters project are all examples of this type.  Projects may also start from questions posed by the public, which they bring to the scientific community for help in answering. These projects are generally more collaborative in nature and may be more often termed “community-engaged research.” The GardenRoots program out of the University of Arizona is a nice example of this type of co-created project.  Using people power, scientists are able to collect more data in more places at low, or no, cost.  At the same time, they are providing volunteers with a way to make a significant contribution to science.

Here at the UNC Institute for the Environment, my colleague Grant Parkins and I are leading the Environmental Resource Program’s newest foray into citizen science, creating a citizen science project from the ground up in collaboration with Dr. Tamlin Pavelsky, in UNC’s Department of Geological Sciences.

Tracking Water Storage in Lakes: Citizens and Satellites is a new NASA-funded project that will combine volunteer-collected lake stage (or height) data with measurements of lake area derived from Landsat 8 satellite images to get a better picture of how much water a lake actually contains. This information will lead to a better understanding of the underlying hydrology of an area.

This project begins with a prototype phase on fifteen Carolina bays in eastern North Carolina, where we will install staff gauges on lakes and recruit volunteers to monitor them through a partnership with NC State Parks, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and others. Park rangers and others charged with managing these lakes will act as “lead” citizen scientists and site coordinators to help us both collect data and recruit other volunteers.

Throughout the prototype phase, we will evaluate different methods for collecting data from volunteers, among them a smartphone app that could alert volunteers when the Landsat 8 satellite flies overhead, to coordinate monitoring with a satellite image. We will also test the impact of signage and directions that enable passers-by to participate in the project by sending a text message with a gauge reading or even a photo.

Our next steps include meeting with a stakeholder advisory group and getting our chest waders on to test out installation of staff gauges!  Next year, we will compete for continued funding in a 3-year implementation phase.  If successful, we will launch the Tracking Water Storage in Lakes project in other regions of the U.S. and globally.

On a final note, if you are looking for a citizen science projects in which to get involved, there are a ton of resources out there to help you find a project that fits your passion: SciStarter,, and, for local projects, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, just to name a few. And for readers in the eastern part of North Carolina, we would love to have you participate in the Tracking Water Storage in Lakes project. Contact Grant Parkins or Sarah Yelton to find out how to get involved.

Comments are closed.