March Attendees Learn About Backyard Science

Catherine Hoffman offers suggestions for citizen science projects to March for Science attendees on April 22. | Jenifer Morris/EPNAC

Opportunities to get involved in citizen science are everywhere, including your own backyard, according to speakers at the AAAS teach-in tent that was part of the March for Science festivities in Washington, D.C. on April 22.

AAAS, a March for Science partner, was one of more than a dozen organizations that offered a sold-out slate of lectures and activities for those of all ages on the National Mall the morning of the march. From the start, sign-toting, lab-coat-clad children and adults streamed into the tent, quickly filling all the spaces, to hear speakers from SciStarter, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Audubon Naturalist Society discuss topics focused around a “Diversity of Life” theme.

“Citizen science is the way for the general public to get involved in the inquiry and discovery of new scientific knowledge,” said Catherine Hoffman, managing director of SciStarter, an online hub for finding and joining citizen science projects. “This can be both asking and answering new scientific questions,” she said.

Contributing to citizen science by observing your environment and collecting data for existing scientific projects usually requires a limited commitment on an individual level, Hoffman said. Yet, much like voting or signing a petition, Hoffman said, “We see that bigger impact” upon bringing together everyone’s efforts.

Citizen science projects do not require extensive equipment and often can be accomplished with everyday objects such as light bulbs and juice bottles to collect data on insects, said Hoffman, pointing to existing projects.

Sam Droege, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, told attendees how to transform their backyards into more hospitable venues for native bees, which don’t sting like yellow jackets, Droege clarified. Bees need native plants to help them find other members of their hive – “They don’t have an app” to connect, Droege joked.

Bee species are highly specialized to the plants they pollinate, so if a willow, for instance, disappears, all of the willow specialists disappear, too, he said. “I emphasize your responsibilities in this,” Droege said. Add native plants to your yard, like bluets, shrubby dogwoods or evening primroses, or do not remove existing plants from your lawn, Droege suggested. Lawn mowing, after all, contributes to 5 percent of all pollution in the United States, he said.

Paula Wang, a volunteer naturalist with the Audubon Naturalist Society, affirmed how easy it is to promote a healthy environment. The society has created the Creek Critters smartphone app to track invertebrates living in streams in order to monitor water quality. “Anybody can go into their local stream and get involved,” Wang said.

Marchers pose with the AAAS photo-booth frames on the National Mall. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

“The activities build upon AAAS educational and engagement goals in reaching beyond the professional science community to engage with the public at large, showing them how science affects their lives, and how they can participate in meaningful science themselves,” said Bob Hirshon, AAAS program director for technology and learning and host of the daily AAAS radio program Science Update. “There’s no better way to get someone to appreciate science than to have them do it and experience it themselves.”

AAAS volunteers also roamed the areas around the tent carrying several large, cardboard photo-booth frames emblazoned with titles like “I am a FORCE for science!!!” March attendees could choose from an array of adjectives to add to the title on the frame, including “fierce,” “fly,” “feathered,” and “ferocious,” or write their own and then position themselves inside and then have their photo taken. Kids and adults alike were free to dress up like an animal or a scientist before taking their photo, choosing from a selection of animal hats, bird wings, bug glasses, lab coats and more.

Sharing the tent with AAAS was the American Geophysical Union, which set up a station with postcards, pens and a ZIP code-sorted listing of congressional offices to allow visitors to easily write to their elected representatives about why science matters to them. AGU volunteers collected the postcards to mail to the designated Capitol Hill offices.

“Our only hope for eliminating the need for marches like this is education— not only school-based education, but also science experiences, both for kids and adults,” Hirshon added. "When people understand and appreciate science, there’ll be no need to defend it.”