What’s a Citizen Scientist and How Can You Become One?

Citizen scientist using binoculars

Do you have a passion for the environment, but work in a totally different field and wish you could somehow still contribute to better understanding of issues like climate change or protection of endangered species?

Are you looking for interesting activities to do with your kids that might nourish potential lifelong interest in conservation?

Do you just need a formal reason to spend a couple of hours in nature but would feel less selfish about it if you are clutching a clipboard and collecting data?

If any of these reasons resonate for you then why not join with countless volunteers nationwide as a citizen scientist participating in “crowdsourced science.”

The University of Arizona is home to the National Coordinating Office of the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) that often uses citizen scientists to further their work. They explain that “phenology is nature’s calendar” keeping track of seasonal events like when cherry trees blossom or leaves start to turn in the fall. They offer the example of “birds that time their nesting so that eggs hatch when insects are available to feed nestlings. Likewise, insect emergence is often synchronized with leaf out in host plants.”1

I’ve participated as a citizen scientist observing the numbers of horseshoe crabs spawning along the Delaware Bay where they lay their eggs on beaches. Red Knots, an endangered bird that winters in South America, time their northern migration with a stopover that depends on gobbling up horseshoe crab eggs to power the continued journey to their summer nesting place in the Arctic. It is critical to the preservation of Red Knots that the crabs are present in sufficient numbers when they arrive. Biologists and conservation groups depend on legions of citizen scientists to help with annual crab and bird counts which inform wildlife resource management policies that protect both the crabs and the birds. 2


Horseshoe crabs Delaware Bay
Caption: Horseshoe crabs coming ashore at Kitts Hummock Beach, Delaware Bay. Photo by R.A. Kroft


USA-NPN calls their formal citizen scientist program Nature’s Notebook. It has a user-friendly website to make it easy to volunteer in tracking seasonal changes in plants and animals with projects ranging from helping the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS)  track the emergence of mayflies along the Upper Mississippi River (this helps to judge water quality) to documenting the flowering of agave and saguaro cactus in Southeastern Arizona which helps the FWS conserve habitat for lesser long-nosed bats. 3

If you love birds, you may already know about the Audubon Society’s annual Great Backyard Bird Count. This is an activity you can do from your own backyard, apartment balcony, neighborhood park, or anywhere else you choose. The count is conducted over four days each February and participants are invited to count birds for a minimum of 15 minutes. There is an online toolkit with bird lists, guides, birding apps, and even a more refined guide to deal with confusing species (while a woodpecker might have a red head, their guide can help you decide which of the SEVEN different species of woodpecker that has red on its head it is).4

The range of citizen scientist opportunities is sometimes—literally—out of this world. I participated in a NASA ClickWorker project where volunteers helped map the surface of Mars using home computers. As we viewed online images of the planet taken by the Mars Global Surveyor, we learned to click our mouse cursors around the edges of craters and the locations were recorded on a map of the planet by a computer program. This freed-up time that would have been used by a NASA scientist or perhaps a graduate student. In just one day in 2001, 458 ClickWorker volunteers devoted 200 combined hours to mark 24,646 craters! 5


Mars Craters photographed by Mars Global Surveyor
Topographic View Mars Craters from Mars Global Surveyor MGS, ID PIA01049

You can turn your annual vacation into a much larger citizen scientist experience if you want to sign-on for a formal working expedition with a group like EarthWatch that also helps fund the research. Trips range from a week-long woodland hike on the Olympic Peninsula recording bird calls and collecting habitat data or an expedition that helps researchers collect water quality and land use data for a week in the wetlands of Xochimilco, Mexico.6

Erin Posthumus, outreach coordinator for USA-NPN had this to say in a University of Arizona news article about backyard science: “These programs allow people to join together in pursuit of a shared science goal without being in the same physical place. The fact that people are spread out in different locations is actually a great benefit for citizen science programs that want to collect data over a large area…You don’t need to take classes or have a background in science to participate. All citizen science programs are created to be picked up by nonprofessionals, often in an individual learning environment.”7

These are just a few ideas for how you can be an important part of crowdsourced research that can help address serious environmental challenges. Whether you spend 15 minutes collecting data for the Great Backyard Bird Count or spend a week as part of a formal study trip, you are bound to make a difference for our world!

—R.A. Kroft


1USA-NPN. Why Phenology. USA National Phenology Network.

2Nature Conservancy. Horseshoe Crabs in the Delaware Bay. Nature Conservancy website.

3USA-NPN. Join a Campaign. USA National Phenology Network.

4Audubon. The Great Backyard Bird Count. Cornell University/National Audubon Society.

5Mars ClickWorkers. Mars Age Map. NASAClickworkers.com.

6EarthWatch. Expeditions: Travel the World. Make a Difference. EarthWatch website.

7Brandt, Rosemary. Bees, bats, and butterflies: Backyard science projects for the whole family. UA@Work. University of Arizona. 28 April 2020.

R.A. Kroft writes about her day-to-day journey in living a smaller, more sustainable life and other topics that interest her.

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