Isn’t ‘citizen science’an oxymoron?

Science is the realm of trained experts, not amateurs. And aren’t schoolchildren both too young and inexpert to contribute seriously to genuine scientific research? No, and no, writes Will Brodie.

The organisers of the BioBlitz, which calls on schoolchildren to help gather information about Australia’s biodiversity, says citizen science is good for research and students.

The BioBlitz takes place in schools during National Biodiversity Month which culminates in National Threatened Species Day on 22 September.

BioBlitz co-convenor Judy Friedlander from the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, said citizen science “ticks so many boxes for education”.

“Citizen science involves indoor and outdoor education, generates skills in a vast range of areas including maths, science, geography, information and communication technology – and importantly, contributes to important biodiversity research which empowers the younger generation who are making a difference to environmental outcomes,” Judy said.

Judy said only 30 per cent of Australian species are formally identified.

“Citizen science observations are now generally regarded as being as accurate as a professional’s, and our scientific authorities are crying out for more citizen science data. It’s a no-brainer that makes our country brainier!”

Student BioBlitz

Last year, 60 schools across Australian participated in the BioBlitz, with students taking images of plant and animal species in their school grounds and recording information such as the time, date, and location of the photo. Designated teachers then uploaded the photos and data to iNaturalist, a global biodiversity citizen science platform.

IEU Victorian Tasmania Organiser Jack Bock, a science teacher until December 2022, said citizen science can engage students who don’t consider themselves interested in science, imparting important lessons about scientific method and data collection.

He said it’s becoming “common practice” for big projects to enlist the help of citizens, and especially students. He cites eBird, the world’s largest birding community, which gathers, archives and shares information about birds from enthusiasts all over the globe, contributing 100 million sightings per year.

The best citizen science programs enable “reflection and review” of observations and becoming “stepping stones” to further studies. They help to make experts of amateurs.

“Students who are active in such activities in Years 7 to 10 are much more likely to engage with science in later years,” Jack said.

BioBlitz co-organiser and PhD candidate Thomas Mesaglio said with species and ecosystems facing so many threats – think climate change, land clearing, invasive species – “it’s more crucial than ever that we get kids engaged in citizen science so that they can learn and become enthused about the natural world”.

“School kids across the country are the next generation of botanists, taxonomists, and conservationists, so helping them find that passion for biodiversity, and science more broadly early on is a really important launching pad.”

He said citizen science is great for “building on the theory learnt in the classroom, and then getting to implement that knowledge in practice”, because many of its initiatives require participants to get outside and actively engage with the natural world, whether it’s by snapping photographs of plants and bugs, recording frog calls, or collecting water samples.

Larissa Braz Sousa, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Sydney, said citizen science initiatives in schools allow students to “gain field experience, direct project scope, and contribute to broader research objectives while achieving educational goals”.

“Such initiatives can foster nature observation, science inquiry, environmental stewardship and problem-solving skills while connecting with their local communities.”

Hands on approach

Larissa said the “hands-on” approach of citizen science helps develop critical thinking skills, and reaches different types of learners, which can improve learning outcomes.

“When aligned with the Australian curriculum, citizen science can aid teaching through a project-based approach with meaningful applications to the entire community.”

Larissa led the citizen science project ‘Mozzie Monitors’ where people learned about the most common mosquito species in their backyards and changed how they managed them in their houses. One of the participants observed a new species.

Larissa is currently engaging schools in NSW to monitor mosquitoes for public health for the Learning By Doing project, a collaboration between researchers from the University of Sydney and Taronga Conservation Society Australia.

Learning by Doing enables students to experience “what it is like to be a real scientist”. They conduct observations, record measurements, and communicate their findings.

“Students will develop skills in scientific literacy, critical thinking and social and environmental awareness which will assist them throughout their school education and beyond.”

School students in SA, WA, and Queensland are helping the University of Adelaide complete a census of insect populations, one of the projects which led Cosmos magazine to ask if 2022 was ‘the year of Citizen Science”.

Judy Friedlander hopes 2022 was the start of something bigger.

“We attracted 60 schools to the first National School B&B BioBlitz last year. We want to attract 600 this year! Just think of how all that data could help us fill in the gaps in our knowledge of our wonderful Australian species!”

She said many teachers and schools are pleasantly surprised how easy it is to engage with citizen science.

“BioBlitzes and citizen science are a new realm to many teachers who overestimate the time, assets and resources needed to implement these practices at schools.”

Key information can be communicated in 45-minute Zoom workshops, and to get involved, schools need only a lunch hour for observations – with students using a smart device which has reasonable photographic capabilities – and some time for the teacher to upload to the citizen science platforms.

Helping threatened species

She said once people understand how they can help threatened species by contributing to biodiversity research, “the light goes on and it becomes this extraordinary quest”.

“It’s such a great combination of technology, education and outdoor experiences.”

Judy said there is a “deep malaise” besetting many people who read “all these terrible stories of species going extinct and being threatened”.

Citizen science can help alleviate that despair – because it can really help ailing species.

“We need to know where our insects, birds, mammals, plants are; why some are thriving in certain areas; how we can encourage them in other areas.”

Overturning the usual perception, she said cities are actually “biodiversity hotspots”.

“But we need knowledge and data. Encouraging citizen science is a key recommendation of Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019-2030, the State of Environment report and Chief Scientist’s communications and papers.

“Each State Department of Education also needs to make it a priority.”

And a study has demonstrated that observations made by young people to iNaturalist are “research grade” – and therefore potentially useful to biodiversity research and monitoring.

Last year, 14-year-old Luke Downey, of Canberra, found a rare beetle, Castiarina testacea, last seen in the ACT in 1955. His observation was recorded in the Canberra Nature Map, an online repository of rare plants and animals.

Such stories inspire other kids to record and upload images to biodiversity databases.

Skills students exercise in citizen science projects:

•creating maps

•researching environmental issues

•discussing climate and weather and how they impactliving things

•identifying and investigating scientific questions

•taking part in sampling and data collections

•identifying species

•making predictions, and

•discussing probabilities.


Atlas of Living Australia’s classroom activities:


Projects at the Australian Citizen Science Association website:

To register your school for this year’s BioBlitz and Zoom training go to: