Citizens as scientists: Locals, including students, playing key role in mammal, plant tracking


For the Gazette

Published: 05-30-2023 5:13 PM

HATFIELD — On a recent spring day, Smith Academy students trek through a nature trail behind their school to check a camera mounted to a tree, strategically positioned to capture images of wildlife that may happen by.

The students pop out the camera’s memory card, download the images and then review them for signs of black bears, bobcats, deer, foxes and more. Some days aren’t that exciting, as is this day when the only images that came back were squirrels. But there has been a bobcat, plenty of deer and, even on one occasion, their principal posing in a special falcon mascot outfit.

It’s all in a day’s work for these students who, whether they realize it or not, are playing a role as citizen scientists while enrolled in a class at the school that has partnered with MassMammals, an program at Amherst College in which volunteers across the state contribute valuable information used to track mammal populations.

Along the way, the program educates and involves classrooms of elementary to high school students, who are able to learn and contribute to the scientific community.

Citizen science, also called community science, is a growing research method that involves members of the public in gathering and analyzing scientific information. Typically, citizen scientists focus on data collection, while professional scientists take the data a step further in the lab or elsewhere for deeper analysis and discussion.

“Giving people that opportunity to engage with science in an accessible way, and to welcome them into the community is huge,” said Thea Kristensen, biology laboratory coordinator at Amherst College who runs MassMammals, which reaches around 500 volunteers. “I think it’s empowering for people who get to participate in the program.”

While MassMammals does collect data from volunteers across the state (mainly through trail cameras, photo/video submissions, and hair samples), the program takes data collection a step further by going into classrooms and teaching elementary, middle and high school students.

“The goal is essentially to go into classrooms and just teach kids about anything related to ecology… with the intention of boosting students’ scientific literacy, their competency, and their engagement with science,” said Fariya Farah, a junior at Amherst College involved in running MassMammals.

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In addition to Smith Academy, the program currently works with teachers from Northampton Public Schools, Amherst Public Schools, Tantasqua High School, and several others. In exchange for lessons created by student and faculty leaders of MassMammals, teachers are given a trail camera to which they must regularly upload photos, ultimately contributing to the MassMammals dataset.

“What we get out of it is data and the fun of going into classrooms and teaching kids, and they have us showing what research can look like in a college setting,” said Farah.

Kristensen said that she has seen her undergraduate students’s communication skills improve as young scientists and has observed the K-12 students grow in their understanding of the scientific process.

UMass and iNaturalist

Over at UMass Amherst, education and citizen science are also intertwined. Many professors encourage their students to use a free app called iNaturalist, a citizen science platform where people can identify and record plants, fungi and animals to a large dataset.

“Part of what you wanted students to learn in that class was how to identify species, and this was something that not only got them the practice, but also created something useful to the research community,” said Melanie Radik, science and engineering librarian at UMass Amherst.

In 2020, Radik spearheaded Western Massachusetts’ involvement in City Nature Challenge (CNC), an international citizen science “bioblitz” held annually between April and May, where cities engage in a collaborative-yet-competitive effort to identify as many species as possible over just a few days using iNaturalist.

“Ordinary citizens can begin to understand what is biodiversity, what’s out there, what is wild versus cultivated,” said Melanie Radik.

Like MassMammals, CNC goes beyond data collection. Radik said there are two main goals of CNC: to gather data that is useful for science and, more importantly, to connect people with nature.

“There’s documented research that just going on and interacting with nature is good for your health as an individual,” said Radik. “And meeting other people that are excited about this app and building a community on it is also good for your health.”

As part of CNC, each year UMass Libraries hosts nature walks, workshops, and other activities where people can get outside, meet fellow nature appreciators, and contribute findings to the iNaturalist dataset. This year, western Massachusetts alone gathered around 3,000 observations of over 800 species.

“You start beginning to understand in detail the impact that humans have had on their local environment, and you start doing things like planting native plants in your own yard, voting for candidates who support and really encourage environmental causes, donating to your local land trust, [and] becoming a scientist yourself,” said Lynn Harper, retiree from the Massachusetts’ Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, also called MassWildlife, who is involved in Western Mass CNC.

All data gathered from iNaturalist — whether from CNC, classroom projects, or just people using the app for their own interests — is then shared with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, from which scientists around the world can pull data for research purposes.

“I worked in the endangered species program [at MassWildlife], and one of the things we would do, we would collect data on where the rare species are across the state… And the biologists at MassWildlife can’t be everywhere all the time, so they would keep an eye on the iNaturalist data,” said Harper.

On a larger scale, Harper added, scientists use data gathered from citizen science sources like iNaturalist to understand the ranges of species in areas that aren’t well studied.

“If you’re in the middle of somewhere where it’s not highly populated and there aren’t… highly trained biologists, this is a great way to get more data on obscure little organisms, for example.”

“Years from now, we’re going to have much better data on what was here now,” said Harper as she recalled looking back 100 years at plants in the town of Concord. “You’ll be able to watch the range of species move north from global warming, for example, or completely go extinct on a local level, and that’s a very powerful thing.”