Friday, September 1, 2017

Citizen Science: Children Help Crowdsource Vital Data

By Sheon Wilson
Publications Coordinator

Undaunted by drizzle, 13 teens and preteens scurried outside, umbrellas, clipboards and data sheets in hand.

Raindrops fell on blooming water lilies, lotuses and other aquatic plants floating on a pond wrapped in flagstone and populated by frogs, turtles and a wide variety of insects at all stages of their life cycle.

In their T-shirts, shorts, sneakers and sandals, the teens and preteens looked like students enjoying a summer break. But their mission was bigger. They were citizen scientists, collecting data on dragonflies.

Citizen science, which involves members of the public in gathering and analyzing data to aid professional researchers, helps to advance global scientific knowledge. People of all ages and identities can participate in scientific research from anywhere in the world, sometimes providing crucial local data unavailable in laboratories.

At Duke Gardens, these young “dragonfly detectives” were enjoying a weeklong citizen science workshop, one of a wide array of programs that Duke Gardens offers to introduce children and families to the wonder and complexity of the natural world.

On the first day of “Dragonfly Detectives,” participants learned the five dragonfly species they would observe during the week. In the next few days, students also learned about dragonfly behavior, life cycle, and how to differentiate dragonfly nymphs from other aquatic insects.

Sheya, a rising sixth-grader, recorded tips for spotting common whitetail dragonflies in her field journal. They’re shorter than other dragonflies, she wrote. The females have brown abdomens, and all have blackish-brown bands on their wings. “This makes me feel needed because this stuff is going into real research,” she wrote about being a citizen scientist.

Like professional scientists, the children made hypotheses about dragonflies before they ventured out the next day. “I believe the worst weather for a dragonfly will be rain, even though they have muscles on each wing,” Jeremiah wrote in his “Dragonfly Detectives” journal.

Day two was drizzly, but the children headed outdoors with data sheets and simple devices. They recorded the number and types of dragonflies observed, wind direction and speed, humidity, amount of sunlight and more. Sixth-grader Alexander, carefully inspecting the pond’s edge, retrieved a dragonfly exuvia, the inflexible exoskeleton that the insect molts, or sheds, several times in its short life.

The rain seemed to discourage dragonflies from gathering en masse around the pond. But the children’s newly trained eyes caught a few.

“That one looks like a green darner,” sixth-grader Jeremiah said, “but I think it’s a look-alike.”

Campers identified a wandering glider early in the day. But they did not see any dragonflies during their official three-minute count, one of two data collection exercises they did that day.

Students were initially dismayed with their official counts of “0,” but Anderson brought them back to the scientific process and their hypotheses about dragonfly behavior in the rain. Even seeing nothing is data to report. What did their data teach them?

By seeing no dragonflies in the dismal weather, Jeremiah had gathered evidence to support his hypothesis that the worst weather for dragonflies is rain. This and other results uncovered by the “dragonfly detectives” would be sent on to the statewide project to contribute to large-scale scientific research.

That resonated with the students. “I feel good because people are actually listening to children and collecting information from them,” said Freya, a sixth-grader. “I feel honored!”

Students continued questioning, exploring, and discovering over the rest of their week as citizen scientists. They formally presented their findings, and left with even more questions.

Inquiry based outdoor exploration plays a role in all classes and workshops on Duke Gardens’ fall/winter roster, from Nature for Sprouts (for children ages 3 to 5) to the Artists in the Gardens series (ages 9-12) and the Naturalist series (ages 5-6 or 7-9). Please see Duke Gardens’ website for a full schedule of children and family offerings and programs for school groups, and to register online.

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