Citizen Science: A Speedy Way to Support Wildlife and your Career?

Logo: OPAL

Dr Poppy Lakeman Fraser, OPAL Senior Programme Coordinator

Are you looking for volunteering opportunities which are quick, meaningful and enjoyable? Perhaps you’re looking for ideas about activities you could run with groups that you work with; activities that are fun and engaging, but also build skills and support conservation efforts? Or perhaps you are a land manager who wants to have a record of the biodiversity on your land and see whether your conservation interventions are making a difference? If so, ‘citizen science’ may be for you.

OPAL Project Officer and Citizen Scientist monitor pollinators and their habitats for the OPAL Polli:Nation Survey (OPAL)
OPAL Project Officer and Citizen Scientist monitor pollinators and their habitats for the OPAL Polli:Nation Survey (OPAL)

What is citizen science?

Citizen science is a contemporary branch of research that does what it says on the tin: citizens (no matter your level of expertise) get involved in science (partnering with professional researchers to answer questions about the world). There are a whole variety of options for taking part: from spending 10 minutes counting winged insects in your back garden with the Big Butterfly Count1 to longer-term studies monitoring Tree Health with Government initiatives such as Observatree2. Many projects enable citizens to collect data to help professional scientific research, but some groups (for example, the ExCiteS3 project) empower citizens to also take part in the design and analysis of collected data. The richest array of citizen science projects are in the field of ecology and conservation, however, on sites like you will find a whole host of projects, from monitoring litter4, searching for galaxies5 to the quest for a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease6.

One such programme that works across the science-learning spectrum to connect people, science and nature is the Open Air Laboratories (OPAL)7. With OPAL you can take part in nationalsurveys to monitor soil, water and air quality, track invasive species distribution, or record the impact that your habitat changes are having on populations under threat. 

Last year OPAL celebrated its 10th birthday. Now over one million people from a variety of ages, backgrounds and professions across the UK have taken part. Citizen science has touched people in different ways as we hear from OPAL participants below.

A student’s experience

Sam first came across OPAL at the Cheltenham Science Festival with his mum. He was inspired to use OPAL Surveys for his Duke of Edinburgh award and citizen science has influenced his learning journey since: 

"After doing the range of OPAL surveys I appreciated how my handful of results contributed to the big picture, and that however small my contribution, it provided another part of a large and complex jigsaw. For me, it has taken my interest into physics and is leading me towards a degree looking at the physics of biology. This would not have happened if I had not spent many hours doing OPAL surveys in a local woodland, where I started to question how a tree converts the suns electromagnetic radiation into carbohydrates. The

direction I have taken in my further studies is a direct influence of the time completing OPAL surveys and the opportunities I have had through the OPAL team. " 

A teacher’s perspective

Julie first discovered the potential of citizen science when she used OPAL resources to teach science outdoors with her primary school class. Since then, her class have created pollinator havens in their school grounds and campaigned their local MPs and businesses to plant wildlife friendly habitats under their student-led Polli:Promise campaign:

OPAL Community Champion Kiani volunteered as an OPAL citizen scientist while at University and is now working in her ‘dream job’ as an Environmental Consultant (OPAL)
OPAL Community Champion Kiani volunteered as an OPAL citizen scientist while at University and is now working in her ‘dream job’ as an Environmental Consultant (OPAL)

“With clear instructions and wonderfully resourced packs, OPAL enables the non-specialist to monitor the natural environment in their school grounds or local green space. We began by improving bumblebee nectar sources and then through the Polli:Nation Survey, we realised the lack of butterfly and solitary bee sightings in the school grounds. Repeating the survey (after making the changes) and observing the increased biodiversity gave pupils a sense of empowerment. Armed with the evidence that, although small, they had brought about positive change, ignited the Polli:Promise campaign. Working together on citizen science projects and campaigns, has made science relevant and developed our critical thinking. By directly learning about the state of the environment, it has, through the power of collaboration, brought about real-life change for pollinators and people.”  

A young professional’s thoughts

Kiani started volunteering with one of OPALs Community Scientists (who are local citizen science experts). Working with Iwan, set her on her career path as an Ecological Consultant:

“Working with and for OPAL has moulded me as a young professional. From the very beginning Iwan gave me a lot of respect and trust. This gave me the confidence to carry out surveys and motivated me to want to teach people about the nature directly around them. After a few years I became an OPAL Champion. In turn, I started to do better on my BSc Wildlife and Plant Biology course. Within a few months of finishing my masters I was lucky enough to become an OPAL Officer for the National History Museum Wales. I worked closely with the wider OPAL organisation to create a CPD course for teachers and a course for University students. The lessons I have learnt through OPAL are priceless and I will use them forever in my professional life. I have now started my dream job as an ecologist and I don’t think I would have got here without my years of OPAL experience.”

Get involved

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with TCV, the community volunteering charity on 17 September 2018

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