Sharing the results – citizen science workshop

During the last 3 years the DRY Project has invited ‘citizen science’ volunteers to come and help project staff collect information about the growth of plants at our field site near UWE. ‘Citizen science’ (the involvement of non-scientists in collecting data for scientific research) can range from helping with projects online (for example Zooniverse) to large scale data collection in ecology and conservation (for example the RSPB’s ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’). Similar terms include ‘volunteer biological monitoring’ (see Lawrence 2006) and ‘community ecologists’ (see Wolkovich and Cleland 2010)

At the DRY Project fieldsite near UWE, we invited local people to work on an ecological field mesocosm experiment investigating the impact of drought on grassland plants and pollinators. Data collection protocols were designed and tested to be as simple as possible while also ensuring the data collected supported the main work of project scientists. In contrast to many citizen science projects where volunteers are invited to send in the data they collect in a location of their choice (such as their back garden in the example of the ‘Big Garden Bird Watch); in the DRY Project many different volunteers collected data in a single location across a long period of time (3 years).

S ayling pic5

From 2016/2017 grassland experiments: Frome catchment

(For more details on the mesocosm experiment see our previous blogs:
‘Setting up the grassland experiments’, ‘A busy time at the grassland sites’, ‘End of the growing season’, ‘Where the wild things are’ )
While some volunteers came once or twice, others had a more sustained involvement and came for a whole summer or across several seasons. Citizen scientist volunteers who came regularly worked with increasing independence, often collecting a set of data by themselves in addition to the data collected by project scientists.

Thanks to the hard work of the many volunteers who have taken part over the last three years, we have collectively spent more than 600 hours in the field over more than 70 individual dates, collecting hundreds of data points, capitalising on the efforts of our volunteers to create a rich and intensive dataset.

The project is now close to its finish and we only have a few more opportunities to collect data. In order to thank our citizen science volunteers and recognize their efforts, we invited them to a recent workshop where we shared some preliminary results. We wanted to show our volunteers how valuable their contribution has been, and that they had contributed more than just collecting data; having citizen scientist volunteers challenged us to think in new ways about the methods, species identification and practical elements of fieldwork, as well as being a lively social bunch! We also wanted to talk with volunteers about how the results matched up (or otherwise) with their own experiences and expectations of the experiment.

During the course of the workshop we shared many graphs of preliminary results. We took advantage of the small group size (7 people in total) to share results in a large, paper format spread across different tables. This format allowed a more informal conversational approach. Volunteers were invited to look at and think about the graphs and discuss or write on them. Comments were both on the presentation of the graphs themselves (what could be improved visually) as well as what other graphs could be plotted to further interrogate the data.

We discussed how results matched up with our own lived experiences in the field, as well as what might be driving particular differences in the patterns between treatments or across years. Our citizen science volunteers also had many useful observations on ways the methods may have affected the results and what could be adapted to create more rigorous data.

Volunteers were invited to write a short statement at the end of the workshop to summarise what they took from the results. One volunteer who had come towards the start of the data collection period enjoyed seeing the plots and using them to envisage how the site had changed (which they had not witnessed first-hand), another valued seeing the results and knowing they had contributed to them. The volunteers talked about how coming together to share the results made them feel valued and they appreciated being able to talk about the graphs individually and as a group.

This workshop worked well due to the small group size and informal method of presentation, and the long relationships between volunteers and project staff which allowed for free and easy conversations. The common experience of fieldwork and the experimental method allowed everyone to discuss the experiment and results on a level playing field.

Holding a workshop is more labour- and time-intensive than sending out a report or set of graphs, but can be one way to demonstrate to citizen science volunteers that their work is valued and their contribution is appreciated, as well as a way to collect more feedback on the volunteer experience, methodology, data collection and presentation of results.

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