Hands on data collection in the community takes root at UMass Dartmouth

Aug 6, 2023

Students at UMass Dartmouth will soon learn how to not only collect their own data, but make it. A UMass Dartmouth program on July 27 taught educators about “connecting undergraduates to biodiversity instruction through citizen science.”

Citizen science encourages anyone in a community to participate in gathering scientific data, aiming to connect participants to the scientific method and the community where the data is gathered, said Stephen Witzig, who teaches STEM education and teacher development at UMass Dartmouth. The leading site for citizen science is www.inaturalist.org

Witzig received a $599,926 grant from the National Science Foundation to create the program.

The workshop does not end with UMass students. It will expand to other universities across the South Coast; there’s also nothing stopping community members from getting involved in data collection on their own.

“The beauty of what we're trying to do here is not just have science taught for the sake of science,” said Witzig. “We are trying to engage science in a way that is meaningful in the community.”

An example of citizen science is uploading a video of a bee pollinating a flower to iNaturalist. By looking at “metadata” attached to the video, which includes date, time and location, scientists are able to find patterns or abnormalities across large swaths of citizen-generated data.

“Having students engaged in issues that directly affect the community could lead to pollinator gardens being planted in open fields, it could lead to advocacy encouraging people to not mow their lawns in the month of May,” Witzig said.

The program aims to provide a deeper understanding of the scientific method, and how data collection factors into that. 

“Students engaged with citizen science projects are active partners in their learning,” said a statement on the program. “Providing [the students] with a deeper understanding of the importance of science to the community and increasing the likelihood that they will maintain a career path in the sciences.”

To help ensure a successful execution of the program, Witzig hosted a three-day workshop at UMass Dartmouth for professors across the South Coast to learn about connecting citizen science and biodiversity and make a plan to connect it to their classes.

“I have learned so much over the last three days,” said Haley McMurray, who teaches chemistry at Massachusetts Maritime. “I am excited to bring it back to my department.”