The May 21, 2014, Headwaters Chapter Virginia Master Naturalist Basic Training Class included of a panel of experts who discussed the exciting and growing world of citizen science. David Mellor, Ph.D, chair of the panel and Citizen Science Coordinator of Virginia Master Naturalists, began by challenging panel members to define the concept of citizen science. Panel members agreed that citizen science is scientific data collection, research and analysis carried out by a person who is either not a professional scientist, or as David stated, who is doing unpaid scientific work.
Panel members discussed the increasing popularity of citizen science, the varying opinions of professional scientists regarding data collected by volunteers, the role of citizen scientists in the scientific process, and ways that citizen science may increase the scientific world of knowledge. The panel also discussed the possibility of citizen scientists as advocates who use their data findings to educate others in the community.
Headwaters Chapter Virginia Master Naturalist Kate Guenther and visitor Wayne Webb of the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District were two panel members who currently practice citizen science. Both Kate and Wayne spoke of a deep-seated interest in collecting scientific data to study the natural world. Audience members learned that many citizen scientists, such as Wayne, have careers as professional scientists before volunteering as retiree citizen scientists.
Panel members Thomas Benzing, Ph.D., an Integrated Science and Technology professor at James Madison University and Michelle D. Prysby, Director of Science Education and Public Outreach at the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, University of Virginia, talked about their work with citizen science projects and discussed the ways citizen science contributes to the scientific process.
Karen Andersen, Program and Laboratory Director for Friends of the Shenandoah River, spoke as a panel member with firsthand accounts of how data collected and analyzed by citizen scientists is perceived by the scientific community. She stressed how the professional scientific community holds citizen scientists to a high standard of accuracy. She noted the struggle to have citizen-collected water monitoring results recognized as valid and authoritative data.
Panel members agreed that citizen science is an important and growing field. New technologies, such as geographical and biotechnology, will allow even greater forms of future data collection. David stated how new programs are being developed for Virginia Master Naturalists who wish to volunteer as citizen scientists. David is interested in projects that allow volunteers to not just gather data but to analyze and format questions and hypotheses using their collected findings.
The evening also included an amazing meal with curry by Sandy, rice and condiments by Judy and bread by Bob. Everyone went home both better educated and well nourished.
– Stephanie Gardner