Science students as citizen scientists

by Emma Despland (D.Phil, Oxon.)

Papillon tigré, ste Brigitte
Canadian tiger shallowtail butterfly

I teach a class in Techniques in Ecology, and the goal is bridge the gap between ecological theory and the practice of science, in other words to prepare students to do practical work in ecological research.

One might think that students would come to study ecology from a childhood spent outdoors observing the natural world, that is armed with solid skills as naturalists. However, in our urban university, this is far from true.  Most ecology students are indeed fascinated by nature and inspired to protect it, but this comes more from David Attenborough and the Discovery channel than from playing outdoors.

As a result, they know their ecological theory, but have little natural history knowledge or naturalist skills. Asked to name butterflies, they’ll generally mention Monarchs and Morphos, but nothing else.

Ricardo Rozzi, a scientist and philosopher from the southern-most tip of the Americas writes about how our experiences of the natural world are increasingly mediated, that is experienced through text, images or equations rather than from direct experience. In other words, many people who have “book-knowledge” of ecology have never actually seen the species, ecosystems or phenomena they know about.  Of course, direct experience of the natural world is much richer, more emotionally, spiritually satisfying, and provides deeper understanding. It is also better training for scientists. It can lead to that more primitive mode of thought, which, according to EO Wilson in The Diversity of Life, “weaves ideas from old facts and fresh metaphors and the scrambled crazy images of things recently seen”.  This is where novel hypotheses come from.

This is why I teach my students to be citizen scientists.

The first assignment in this class is to photograph 3 butterflies, identify them and submit observations to eButterfly.  Many students find this daunting and don`t know where to start. One young man came back saying he had spent the whole day hiking in the woods in the rain without seeing a single butterfly.

So I tell them, try open habitats with flowers, on windless sunny days. I recommend an easy spot: the City Farm School on campus. I give them butterfly field guides (Butterflies of Canada). I give them several weeks to work on it.  And they almost all succeed.

The skills they learn: observation of the world around them, patience, stalking butterflies, photography, use of field guides to identify organisms. Also some basic butterfly biology and behaviour.

Then, I show them the data that they collected. The most common species are monarchs (an emblematic endangered species) and cabbage whites (an introduced agricultural pest). We talk about lifecycles and overwintering strategies, dispersal, host plant use, invasive species etc… This discussion links what they saw out in the real world with ecological theory previously learned in class.

Finally, at the end of term, they have another eButterfly assignment: download the dataset and use it to test a hypothesis of your own.  They have already had their curiosity piqued about butterflies, and this exercise develops the other end of scientific research: once you have some background knowledge of your study system (gained from the field observations), formulate a realistic hypothesis and work out how to test it. It break the process down into a manageable chunk because the data is already collected, they just need to work out how to use it in order to develop new understanding on a question of interest.  Students in the past have tested question such as: Are Monarchs more abundant in Québec (at the end of their Northern migration) or in Texas (at its beginning)? How abundant are the exotic invasive cabbage whites compared to native congenerics? 2012 was an exceptionally warm spring; did this affect abundance or phenology of your chosen species?

And at the end, most of them now pay more attention to butterflies than they used to…

Author Biography: I am a professor at the young, urban Concordia University in Montreal (Canada).  I research plant-insect interactions, and have been teaching Techniques in Ecology for 16 years.

Image: Papilo canadensis (Emma Despland)