Merging passions: Citizen science, STEM and libraries

Science by Scientopia, who tweaked a Hyperbole and a Half comic

Science by Scientopia, who tweaked a Hyperbole and a Half comic

When I was a youngster, all I ever wanted to be was a veterinarian (sometimes a equine veterinarian). Somewhere along the line that dream fell by the wayside when I started writing. And then in ninth grade I was positive I was going to be a crime scene investigator. Oddly this love affair was due to a Jeffrey Deaver book I picked up from the library (The Bone Collector, which is the first in the Lincoln Rhyme series), and I stuck with that for two years before I realized two things: Math more advanced than Algebra I and physical sciences (like chemistry and physics) both completely eluded me. Research any degree program that led to a job in CSI (or equine veterinarian, for that matter) and you will discover that you have to be able to do both advanced math and science. While these advanced courses had no place in my future, I still love science. What can I say? I grew up with Bill Nye the Science Guy and the Magic School Bus and the passion for science and exploring the natural world that both those shows involved stays with you (Especially when you continue to watch those shows as an adult. Thank you, Netflix/the interwebs).

It’s only recently that I’ve realized that librarianship offers the unique opportunity to incorporate these passions into my career. So, in a way, I am following my childhood dreams, just not exactly how I expected. Let me explain.
I realized that what I love about science is how it encourages everyone to explore, better understand and enjoy the world around them. While I could never really become an expert in all things science and math, I love watching TedTalks about how the brain works, documentaries about animals living in little-explored corners of the world and how astronomers map the universe. This love of learning needs to be cultivated in every individual. Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities for all of us to keep a love of science and learning alive in future generations. 

STEM and libraries

Recording mountain goat survey results for the high country citizen science project by GlacierNPS

Recording mountain goat survey results for the high country citizen science project by GlacierNPS

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) has been in the news a lot lately, mostly in relation to schools encouraging youth (especially women) to pursue careers in STEM fields. But schools can only do so much. As a community, we have to figure out how to help schools encourage interest in these fields, but more than that, we have to support a love of learning in our youth. This is where libraries can fill a real need. By partnering with public schools and local science experts (labs, museums, etc.), libraries can help bring STEM resources to patrons that don’t always know how to access them. We can do this through collection development (both physical and electronic) and by offering homework help after school. But there’s more we can do. Why not launch a love of science by getting people to do science? Far from being an action only scientists can partake in, anyone can join a science experiment, thanks to a fast-growing movement called “Citizen Science.”

Citizen Science
According to the Citizen Science Alliance, citizen science projects “use the time, abilities and energies of a distributed community of citizen scientists” to collect data. The mission is to “further science itself, and the public understanding of both science and of the scientific process.” This philosophy of collaboration underpins my own beliefs of how libraries will survive in the future. Plus, it makes me geek out to think that the concept allows me to collaborate with real scientists to collect real data that will further our understanding of SCIENCE as a whole. How cool is that? The answer is “unbelievably cool,” in case you were wondering.

So how does this citizen science stuff work? Essentially, scientists offer some project information to the public at large (including how the public can contribute and how the data will be used), usually through a website. Citizen scientists merely sign-up, complete the project’s tasks and bask in the glow of being part of something great. At the Virginia Library Association Conference, a librarian, formerly of Virginia Tech, presented on citizen science projects at Va. Tech and a public library nearby. She also offered resources for finding projects and tips for successful programs. Her presentation was my favorite of the conference and it really energized my passion for the possibilities citizen science holds for librarians. I’m even getting ready to pitch a program myself at my library.

Zebra migration, Serengeti by amanderson2

Zebra migration, Serengeti by amanderson2

But you don’t have to be a librarian or go to a library program to be a citizen scientist. Below I’ve provided some great links where you can get started on being a citizen scientist.


  • Fraxinus Ash Dieback Game via Facebook – Move colored blocks around to match patterns. What you’re really doing is comparing DNA strands and helping scientists track the movement of a disease affecting Ash Trees in England.
  • Citizen Science Alliance – Explains the point of citizen science and offers some projects citizens can take part in.
  • Zooniverse – Game-based citizen science projects. The vast majority are looking through images to identify animals or planets. They are mildly addicting. Some I’ve played are Moon Zoo (exploring the surface of the moon), Snapshot Serengeti (counting Serengeti animals in pictures taken as animals pass by), and Seafloor Explorer (identifying undersea animals from pictures of the ocean floor).
  • SciStarter – A database of citizen science projects. Some are game- or computer-based and some involve going outside and observing natural phenomenon. You can also browse projects by topic, so you can follow your passions.
  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology Citizen Science – This site overviews citizen science and its intent. It also offers access the Cornell Lab’s citizen science projects, which generally involve bird identification. These include the Great Backyard Bird Count and Celebrate Urban Birds.
  • Citizen Science from Filament Games – Encourage a love of science and an interest in environmental science in kids. This particular game teaches scientific literacy and limnology, while the individual goes back in time to stop a lake from becoming toxic.

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