Nov. 1, 2018


New Report Says ‘Citizen Science’ Can Support Both Science Learning and Research Goals; Inequities in Education, Opportunities, and Resources Must be Addressed to Meet Participants’ Learning Demands

WASHINGTON – Scientific research that involves nonscientists contributing to research processes – also known as ‘citizen science’ – supports participants’ learning, engages the public in science, contributes to community scientific literacy, and can serve as a valuable tool to facilitate larger scale research, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  If one of the goals of a citizen science project is to advance learning, designers should plan for it by defining intended learning outcomes and using evidence-based strategies to reach those outcomes.

“This report affirms that citizen science projects can help participants learn scientific practices and content, but most likely only if the projects are designed to support learning,” says Rajul Pandya, chair of the committee that wrote the report and director, Thriving Earth Exchange, AGU.  

The term “citizen science” can be applied to a wide variety of projects that invite nonscientists to engage in doing science with the intended goal of advancing scientific knowledge or application. For example, a citizen science project might engage community members in collecting data to monitor the health of a local stream. As another example, among the oldest continuous organized datasets in the United States are records kept by farmers and agricultural organizations that document the timing of important events, such as sowing, harvests, and pest outbreaks.

Citizen science can support science learning in several ways, the report says. It offers people the opportunity to participate in authentic scientific endeavors, encourages learning through projects conducted in real-world contexts, supports rich social interaction that deepens learning, and engages participants with real data. Citizen science also includes projects that grow out of a community’s desire to address an inequity or advance a priority. For example, the West-Oakland Indicators Project, a community group in Oakland, Calif., self-organizes to collect and analyze air quality data and uses that data to address trucking in and around schools to reduce local children’s exposure to air pollution. When communities can work alongside scientists to advance their priorities, enhanced community science literacy is one possible outcome.

Because citizen science is built around interaction between scientists and nonscientists, it offers an opportunity to welcome beliefs, practices, and skills that all people bring to citizen science, the report says. However, this opportunity can only be realized if diversity, equity, and inclusion are included as goals in the design and implementation of citizen science.  Inequities in education, experience, opportunities, and resources must be addressed to provide effective learning pathways for all participants, and failing to consider these aspects in the design of citizen science projects can lead to the perpetuation of inequity, the report says.  In addition, people learn more when learning is connected to their previous experiences and draws on all of their cultural and intellectual capacity, so project designers should offer participants the chance to connect their participation in the project to existing knowledge and experience.

Given the potential for citizen science to engage traditionally underrepresented individuals and communities, stakeholders in citizen science -- such as project designers, researchers, and participants -- should carefully consider and address issues of equity and power throughout all phases of project design and implementation, the report says. Intentional design of citizen science projects that include underrepresented groups helps to challenge limiting assumptions and creates programming where all participants can learn.

In order to maximize learning outcomes, the report recommends that designers and practitioners of citizen science projects should intentionally build them for learning. This involves knowing the audience; intentionally designing for diversity; engaging stakeholders in the design; supporting multiple kinds of participant engagement; encouraging social interaction; building learning supports into the project; and iteratively improving projects through evaluation and refinement.  Engaging stakeholders and participants in design and implementation results in more learning for all participants, which can support other project goals. 

The report also lays out a research agenda that can help to build the field of citizen science by filling gaps in the current understanding of how citizen science can support science learning and enhance science education. Researchers should consider three important factors: citizen science extends beyond academia and therefore, evidence for practices that advance learning can be found outside of peer-reviewed literature; research should include attention to practice and link theory to application; and attention must be given to diversity in all research, including ensuring broad participation in the design and implementation of the research. Pursuing new lines of inquiry can help add value to the existing research, make future research more productive, and provide support for effective project implementation.

The study was sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Simons Foundation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit A committee roster follows.

Kacey Templin, Media Relations Officer
Andrew Robinson, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
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Copies of Learning Through Citizen Science: Enhancing Opportunities by Design are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242.  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

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Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Board on Science Education

Committee on Designing Citizen Science to Support Science Learning

Rajul Pandya (chair)
Thriving Earth Exchange
Washington, D.C.

Megan Bang
Senior Vice President
Spencer Foundation, and
School of Education and Social Policy
Northwestern University
Evanston, Ill.

Darlene Cavalier
Center for Engagement and Training
School for the Future of Innovation in Society
Arizona State University

Daniel Edelson
Executive Director
Biological Sciences Curriculum Study
Colorado Springs, Colo.

Louis M. Gomez
MacArthur Chair in Digital Media and Learning
Graduate School of Education & Information Studies
University of California
Los Angeles

Joseph E. Heimlich
Lifelong Learning Group, and
Director of Research
Center of Science and Industry
Columbus, OH

Lekelia Jenkins
Associate Professor
School for the Future of Innovation in Society
Arizona State University

Bruce V. Lewenstein
Professor of Science Communication, and
Department of Science & Technology Studies
Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y.

Christine Massey
Research Psychologist
Department of Psychology
University of California
Los Angeles

John C. Mather*
Senior Astrophysicist, and
Senior Project Scientist
James Webb Space Telescope
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Greenbelt, Md.

Julia K. Parrish
Lowell A. and Frankie L. Wakefield Professor of Ocean Fishery Sciences, and
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
College of the Environment
University of Washington

Tina Phillips
Assistant Director
Citizen Science Program
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y.


Kenne Dibner
Staff Officer

*Member, National Academy of Sciences