Across the globe, volunteers are helping advance scientific research to address real-world questions. Most of these volunteers aren’t professional scientists, but they provide important support to a variety of research projects. Volunteering for many of these projects presents opportunities to get outdoors and experience the natural world. Spring is an excellent time to get involved in citizen science projects as the earth comes alive.
What is citizen science?
Citizen science unites educators, data managers, scientists, and volunteers to work on scientific investigations of any number of important issues, such as climate change, biodiversity, and water quality. Citizen science makes science accessible to more people, which many volunteers, or citizen scientists, find rewarding. Also known as community scientists, these volunteers contribute to the research in a variety of different capacities, including collecting and classifying data.
Some citizen science projects are specific to certain geographical areas, such as Eyes of the Reef Hawai’i (open to all ocean users in Hawaii) and Mountain Watch (open to New Hampshire and Maine residents and tourists). Others are global initiatives. In some cases, tourists in the region might be able to contribute to citizen science projects, an enriching activity to complete while on vacation.
Some citizen science projects require volunteers to attend training, have specific equipment, or be at least 18 years of age. Other projects merely need volunteers to submit findings through an online portal and are open to all ages. Many projects require a smartphone or computer, internet access, and downloading an app.
How can I find a community science project near me?
Many citizen science projects seek volunteers of all ages. To find a project based in your area, search the SciStarter Project Finder database or the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Catalog. Here are a handful of worthy projects available across the United States or even globally.
Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network (CoCoRaHS)
Open to residents of the United States and Canada (but it is expanding)
Have you ever noticed that it might rain by your home but not several blocks away? CoCoRaHS has operated a grassroots observation network measuring and mapping precipitation since 1998. Numerous people access this data, including the National Weather Service, hydrologists, emergency managers, utilities, insurance adjusters, the USDA, engineers, farmers, educators, and citizens.
Volunteer with CoCoRaHS
This organization is looking for community scientists to measure precipitation in their own backyards and share this data, so it can benefit others. Volunteers of all ages and backgrounds are welcome. Sign up as a CoCoRaHS Volunteer Observer.
HawkWatch International (HWI)
Open to residents of the western United States
Raptors serve as a barometer of ecological health. Because birds of prey are at the top of the food chain, threats like pesticides, climate change, and habitat loss have a significant impact on them. Researching the population trends of indicator species provides cost-effective insights into environmental change, enabling more effective conservation efforts.
The mission of HawkWatch International is “to conserve our environment through education, long-term monitoring, and scientific research on raptors as indicators of ecosystem health.” Since the 1980s, HWI has counted, banded, and collected data on millions of birds heading south for the winter. The findings have helped inform land managers, promoting effective conservation efforts.
Volunteer with HWI
There are a variety of volunteer opportunities, including monitoring kestrel nesting boxes, serving as an educational docent for outreach programs, monitoring raptor migration at sites across the Western United States, and following forest owls. If you are interested in volunteering for HWI, check for current volunteer opportunities and sign up for the newsletter or follow them on social media (@hawkwatch) for project-specific announcements.
Open to citizen scientists worldwide
iNat is a social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists to map and share biodiversity observations worldwide. This joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society is dedicated to biodiversity science. Participants share findings via scientific data repositories to better understand and protect nature.
Contribute to iNat
To get started, download the iNaturalist app (Android or Apple), record your encounters with wildlife, and share your findings with fellow naturalists.
International Dark-Sky Association (IDA)
Open to volunteers worldwide
Although many of us may think about water, air, and soil pollution, light pollution is also cause for concern. The abundant and widespread use of artificial light at night is impairing our view of the night sky and adversely impacting countless land and sea animals and human health while wasting energy. Yet, there are many ways to get involved, help curb light pollution, and support IDA.
Volunteer with IDA
Globe at Night is an international citizen-science campaign to increase awareness about light pollution. Citizen science volunteers help by submitting night sky brightness observations and measurements with a computer or smart phone using an app that’s available in 28 languages.
Open to United States volunteers
The Monarch Butterfly has been added to the IUCN endangered species list due to habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change. Their populations have been under significant decline for several decades across their range.
Volunteer with Monarch Watch
Monarch Watch needs volunteers each spring and fall to gather monarch butterfly population information during the breeding season. This information can help with conservation efforts and in predicting population trends. To get started, register with Monarch Watch.
Open to citizen scientists worldwide
This organization helps power research that wouldn’t be possible without the help of citizens around the globe. These projects span a wide variety of topics, from language to art to medicine.
Volunteer with Zooniverse
This platform helps accelerate scientists to achieve more with help from community scientists of all ages. Volunteers work from home viewing and classifying web-based data on numerous topics.
Why get involved in citizen science?
Whether you want to help protect endangered species or contribute to conservation initiatives, there’s likely a citizen science project that fits your interests. With so many ongoing citizen science projects, the volunteer opportunities are varied — and many of them require a relatively small commitment. And the benefits? As a citizen scientist, you can learn more about the world around you, while helping researchers solve important problems that matter to you.