Participatory science and education: bringing both views into focus



Aligning the goals of scientists and participants becomes more challenging when citizen science moves into middle- and high-school classrooms. Here, we describe a logic model developed in association with the Acadia Learning Project, a collaboration among scientists, teachers, and students that successfully meets both research and educational needs. The logic model is intended to assist other classroom-based citizen-science initiatives with project design and evaluation.

Citizen science is often conceived and implemented in the context of informal science education (ISE). However, there are also compelling reasons to use citizen science within formal science education (FSE) programs in middle and high schools. For educators, these reasons include the preference of teachers and students to work with real data and scientific problems (Berkowitz 1997; Moss et al. 1998). For the scientists, advantages include the ability to gather preliminary data, to collect data over a large geographic area, and to undertake long-term monitoring studies cost-effectively (Tinker 1997).

Just as with citizen science in ISE settings, citizen science in FSE settings is a collaboration between scientists and non-scientists that has the potential to bring new resources – in the form of trained citizen participants – to bear on research problems while also producing a more scientifically literate citizenry. However, there are important differences between FSE and ISE settings.

ISE versus FSE: win–win or zero–sum?

ISE projects differ in the degree to which citizen participants are engaged. For example, Bonney et al. (2009) surveyed a variety of ISE projects that brought citizens and scientists together and suggested a classification scheme based on the degree to which non-scientist participants engage in activities like choosing research questions, interpreting data, drawing conclusions, and presenting findings. Higher levels of learning are associated with increased engagement. The important point is that engagement by both citizens and scientists is focused on shared goals: gathering and interpreting data that address the research question. This creates the potential for a “win–win” scenario, where increased citizen participation in all phases of a project might result in both improved learning and better research outcomes.

The situation is different when we move citizen science into schools and an FSE setting. Working from experience with a variety of school-based, “scientist–teacher–student partnerships” (STSPs), Berkowitz (1997) compared two hypothetical STSPs, each engaged in a stream monitoring program. Hypothetical program “A” focused on obtaining high-quality data with minimal investment of scientist time, constraining student activity to a carefully designed sampling protocol and limiting engagement to a few well-trained students. In hypothetical program “B”, all students in the class designed and carried out their own investigations, with input from scientists. Berkowitz argued that these alternative programs represent the two extreme instances in a continuum of tradeoffs between student learning benefit and scientific research benefit, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Hypothetical trade-off between student benefit and scientist benefit in STSP projects (adapted from Berkowitz 1997).

The relationship between the goals of scientists and non-scientist participants is very different in the ISE projects described in Bonney et al. (2009) and the FSE scenarios described in Berkowitz (1997). Why might we think in terms of win–win models in ISE projects but in terms of trade-offs when the projects are placed in a school setting? One likely reason is the additional constraints on time and logistics that are part of working with schools, but perhaps the most important factor is the need to achieve specific learning outcomes in FSE settings.

To date, evidence of participant learning in ISE projects is often anecdotal and obtained through surveys and other self-reporting measures (Trumbull et al. 2000). ISE projects that have attempted to identify science learning in the form of improved attitudes toward science or understanding of scientific practice have had difficulty in describing and quantifying the learning that occurred (Brossard et al. 2005; Jordan et al. 2011). This might be acceptable in an ISE setting where the participants are volunteers; if participants feel that they are learning something and continue to volunteer, then the project is successful. In an FSE setting, however, it is not possible to have an ongoing program that is supported by participating schools unless equal emphasis is placed on learning and research outcomes. This can lead to the kinds of trade-offs described in Berkowitz (1997). For example, the evaluation of an STSP within the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment program (GLOBE;, called GLOBE ONE, found that even though the program “focused initially on science goals to the exclusion of education goals” (Penuel et al. 2006), the education goals ultimately took precedence and the scientific research goals were not fully realized.

In 5 years of implementing an STSP project at Acadia National Park in the northeastern US, we have found that meeting the needs of scientists, teachers, and students requires a program design that recognizes that those needs are different.

Case study: mercury in macroinvertebrates

Since 2007, the Acadia Learning Project (an STSP in an FSE setting) has worked with 11 schools, more than 20 teachers, and thousands of students to investigate spatial variations in mercury (Hg) in macroinvertebrates and other biota (Figure 2). Together, we have created an extensive database that has been used to test models for landscape-scale patterns in Hg variability, developed new ways to use macroinvertebrates as biosentinels, presented associated work at scientific conferences (Nelson et al. 2011), and secured new research funding (Nelson et al. unpublished). The initial impetus for working with teachers and students was a need to undertake long-term sampling and a desire to engage students in authentic scientific research.

Figure 2.

A student and researcher working together to collect macroinvertebrates in the Acadia Learning Project. Students select dragonfly larvae and other small organisms from those collected during fieldwork for subsequent lab analysis to determine total mercury content. Decisions about which specimens to analyze are based on research questions developed by the students, but also follow guidelines to ensure that sampling satisfies the needs of the participating scientist.

Integrating outcomes and facilitating STSPs

From the outset, the project revealed a need for teacher professional development (PD) and student learning. For example, analysis of student work early in the project showed that students had difficulty making sense of the data. We developed an assessment instrument in which students were asked to use data to create graphs of the kind they would need for their own projects (involving two-group comparisons and/or bivariate relationships) and found that, across all schools and grades, students were generally unable to create or interpret such graphs. At the same time that we were encountering such limitations, interviews with teachers indicated that engagement with a scientist in an external research effort, where data would be used outside the school, was considered important for motivating students.

Thus, we had teachers and students who needed additional support to undertake basic scientific work but who valued the engagement with a real and complex project. This is not unusual in STSP projects (Houseal 2010) but is a potential source of tension. Some teachers assumed that, as would be the case in an ISE project, the research questions pursued by the scientists would be the questions that the students would pursue. However, the students had neither the training nor the knowledge to consider such questions.

Equally important, the questions of interest to the scientists were not aligned with student learning outcomes specified in state educational standards. For example, scientists focused on testing the validity of using measurement of total Hg in macroinvertebrate samples as a proxy for methylmercury, the form of Hg that biomagnifies through food webs. However, students in high-school sophomore biology classes are expected to learn about, among other things, food webs and the way that total energy requirements increase from one trophic level to another. These questions are connected but are not the same, and answering them requires different levels of understanding and training.

We addressed this tension during the school year through teacher PD, including regular online and occasional in-person access to scientists, to help in shaping questions aligned with student learning outcomes. PD also involved summer institutes for teachers, which focused on helping their students develop appropriate research-oriented questions and make sense of their data. Pre- and post-tests showed improvement in student ability to make two-group comparisons, with most students creating useable graphs after teacher PD. Analysis of student research posters over the course of the project showed that teachers were increasingly able to guide students toward productive research questions.

One concern that we had in separating student research questions from the scientist's questions was that students might devalue their own research. Teachers said that students were fully aware that the team's scientist was working on a different problem than they were and that providing service to the scientist motivated students to carefully follow field protocols to ensure that samples were useful. But teachers also reported that students pursued their own questions in ways that went beyond normal classroom science. In one school, where a teacher has focused on collecting samples in a nearby wildlife refuge, the accumulated years of student research have resulted in a body of student work that has value in its own right, apart from the scientist's initial research question. As evidence of students' ownership of their own questions, one student in this school intentionally took this course twice – the second time as an independent study – so that he could continue his research.

Bringing both views into focus

Here, we have outlined a logic model in which scientists and educators come to the STSP with different needs and inputs, collaborate during program design and implementation, and then diverge, focusing on different outputs and seeking different outcomes (Figure 3). Consistent with the experience of the GLOBE ONE project (Penuel et al. 2006) and with our own experience, the model suggests that it is useful for the STSP to incorporate a third party (eg a university) that understands the needs of both scientists and educators to facilitate collaboration (Houseal 2010). The third party takes a “whole project” view, remaining responsible for overall success even as the scientists and educators pursue separate outcomes. The model also suggests that program design and evaluation must place equal emphasis on scientific outcomes and learning outcomes. In most cases, each outcome will be evaluated differently.

Figure 3.

Logic model for school-based scientific research projects that place equal and separate emphasis on research outcomes and learning outcomes.

To date, the Acadia Learning Project has succeeding in producing useful scientific outcomes, including publications and new funding support. It has also achieved educational objectives, such as improving students' ability to work with data, program expansion through teacher recruitment, and new funding for teacher PD. An important element of this success is recognition that teachers, students, and scientists must accomplish different kinds of work during the collaboration.


This work was supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under grant NA10NMF 4690135, the Maine Department of Education, private donors, and the Davis Foundation.