University of Illinois students participating in a mussel survey with the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy. Credit: Abby Culloton

By Abby Culloton

“Look at me — I’m a chemist!” my teammate enthusiastically declared as she tipped a test tube full of bright blue liquid back and forth. The blue liquid in question was a test for dissolved oxygen in water: an important chemical parameter for determining the health of an ecosystem. Our lab was contained in a backpack that we carried to the grassy overbank of the Iowa stream where we used an empty milk jug to collect our water sample. We then tested the water for different chemical pollutants and recorded its clarity, color, and smell. None of my teammates had much experience or knowledge on water testing when the day began, but by the end, we were proud to call ourselves hydrologists-in-training.

Efforts like these to gather environmental data are part of the ever-growing field of citizen science: the involvement of the public in the collection of scientific data. Public-collected data is used in countless scientific studies across numerous fields. From helping NASA collect data on Aurora Borealis sightings, to keeping a rain gauge in your backyard to record precipitation data for state climate studies, there are so many ways for anyone to get involved in scientific research. Environmental science in particular is a field where citizen science is heavily used. Many environmental studies have large data needs, which can be time intensive or cover a large geographic range, making volunteer participation essential to collecting adequate data. Citizen science provides a unique opportunity for communities to engage with research and learn about environmental issues, all while collecting crucial information.  

On that summer morning when my teammates and I got to play chemist for the day, we experienced the importance of citizen science firsthand. We were participating in an annual event called “Summer Snapshot,” hosted by the Partners of Scott County Watersheds (PSCW) in Davenport, Iowa. PSCW is a nonprofit organization that hosts four “snapshot” events each year, where the community comes together to gather water quality data on local streams. Some teams collect chemical parameters, such as nitrates and nitrites, chloride, dissolved oxygen, pH, and more, using various tools and testing kits. Other teams collect biological data by identifying aquatic organisms present in a stream. All volunteers are provided with training on how to conduct these tests, then are sent off to visit two to five different sites around the county to collect their data. Afterwards, the information is entered into a publicly available database. Volunteers can see the final data they helped gather, community members can gain a better understanding of what’s in their water, and environmental agencies like the Iowa Department of Natural Resources can use this information for their own studies and projects.

A biofilter (crossing the creek vertically) installed in Robin Creek uses recycled plastic mats to filter fine particles out of the water. Credit: Partners of Scott County Watersheds

Volunteer-collected snapshot data is also used directly by PSCW to identify polluted streams, develop projects to remediate impaired waterways, and write grants to secure funding. One such initiative is the Robin Creek biofilters project. Snapshot data indicated an elevated E. coli presence in the Duck Creek watershed in Davenport, likely due to fecal pollution from pets, wildlife, and livestock in the area. One location on Robin Creek, just downstream of a dog park, was identified as a pilot location to install three biofilters, with the goal of reducing E. coli and enhancing the aquatic habitat. The biofilters are mats made of recycled plastic fibers, which allow water to pass through while filtering out fine particles. The filters are currently in use in Robin Creek and help determine the feasibility of implementing similar devices in other streams. This project would not have been possible without volunteer-collected snapshot data, which informed PSCW about the water quality issue in the area and provided the organization with the foundation on which to build the project.

Citizen science is also crucial in large-scale environmental studies where it would be impossible for researchers to gather adequate data on their own. The Globe at Night project, an initiative of the National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Lab (NSF’s NOIRLab), is one example of this type of effort. This international campaign aims to quantify light pollution across the globe. Artificial illumination from streetlights and buildings floods the night sky, interfering with astronomical research and disrupting the nocturnal rhythms of plants and wildlife.

The Globe at Night project allows anyone to submit their observations of the night sky from anywhere on Earth. Whether using sophisticated telescopes or just the naked eye, people are invited to use an app to submit their observations and the conditions in which they were recorded. Those who are especially interested in the project can even purchase a Sky Quality Meter — a device that quantifies light pollution in a given location — and report their readings to the database. This allows scientists to maintain a comprehensive database of night-sky observations across thousands of locations and under different meteorological conditions. Crowdsourcing allows for a much wider set of data than a small team of experts would be able to collect on their own. The database can then be used for light pollution studies and awareness campaigns. As an added bonus, the project actively gets people interested in the issue of light pollution and encourages them to go outside and engage with their environment in a new way. 

Environmental education and awareness are important aspects of citizen science. A 2016 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency presents citizen science as a core tenet of environmental protection, stating that “citizen science is more than the participation of volunteers in research. It is a model for the democratization of research and policy making. In addition, it is an environmental movement that is changing the way the government and institutions interact with the public.” Citizen science actively makes environmental research and policy making more accessible by meeting people where they are. When educational background can be a barrier to involvement in the technical aspects of scientific research, citizen science allows anyone, regardless of background or experience, to get involved.

I asked PSCW Coordinator Liv Humphrey about the impact of events like Summer Snapshot on the people who participate. She explained that “this is a day that most of them wouldn’t get to experience if it wasn’t for this event. Being able to work with water-monitoring tools is something that people don’t really get to do. Not only does it benefit the volunteers — it benefits them to get out there — but it also submerses them into their environment in a way that they might not have the ability to do.”

Citizen science events like Summer Snapshot engage community members in environmental efforts and provide educational opportunities that they might not otherwise have. They also allow people to become more aware of the environmental issues that are most directly impacting them and can inspire individuals to find a new interest in conservation. Humphrey went on to say that summer snapshot “really slows [volunteers] down and makes them look at what’s in their water.” In today’s world, it is more important than ever to bring continued awareness to environmental issues, and getting as many people involved in efforts that will generate this awareness is key to generating sustainable solutions.

In East Central Illinois, the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy (USRC) strives to promote diversity in citizen science and inspire young people to find a passion for the environment. One way the USRC does this is through mussel survey events, which bring community members out to the Sangamon River to help collect freshwater mussels, then participate in identifying, measuring, and tagging them.

In the short documentary “Mussel Grubbing: A Citizen Science Treasure Hunt,” USRC Citizen Science Coordinator Bruce Colravy says “one of the goals of citizen science with the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy is to offer opportunities to young people who might then take that enthusiasm that they have out here for the surveys into a more long-term goal of theirs.”

Dr. Danelle Haake, USRC River Watch Director then goes on to describe the wide diversity of participants in the mussel surveys: “We’ve had volunteers who were 5 years old, we’ve had volunteers in their 70s. We’ve had volunteers who were legally blind. You can’t usually see the mussels anyway, you use your hands to find them, so being blind wasn’t necessarily a hindrance to participating in the citizen science project.”

Furthermore, USRC volunteer Nina Carmichael discusses her passion for increasing participation of underrepresented communities in outdoor spaces and how citizen science events like the mussel survey help her achieve this. “One of my biggest passions is to bring people outside, and in particular black and brown people, and to make it less scary of an experience and a really exciting opportunity,” she says. “I think citizen science does that inherently where you’re able to come out, things are structured, you learn what things are, and what to look out for.”

Summer Snapshot participants conducting chemical water tests in Davenport, Iowa. Credit: Abby Culloton

Citizen science is truly a space for everyone, and it is an important step in making scientific communities more accessible and inclusive.

Through both PSCW’s Summer Snapshot and the USRC’s mussel surveys, I’ve experienced the magic that happens when community members of all ages and backgrounds come together over a shared interest in conserving our local water resources. The feeling of being immersed in nature and surrounded by a community is inspiring — in fact, it has motivated me and many of my peers in environmental majors to pursue careers in conservation.

When I started my Civil and Environmental Engineering program, I didn’t have a clear direction for what I wanted to specialize in or any idea of how I would use my major after graduation. The mussel survey with USRC was my first real opportunity to contribute to a hands-on environmental project, and after spending the day learning about river ecosystems … something clicked. I began to turn my focus toward water resources engineering, and my experiences with Summer Snapshot further affirmed that this was a direction I loved. Thanks to these citizen science projects, I found my passion in water resources conservation and aquatic ecosystem restoration, as well as a newfound desire to make a difference out in the world.

Humphrey echoed many of these sentiments: “The more we get our volunteers out in nature, the more they can connect with it, relate to it, and that will all build the relationship to then preserve and care for it.”

Citizen science initiatives helped me find my path in college, and this is only one example of the reach these types of events can have. When children engage with citizen science initiatives, they learn the importance of being good environmental stewards, and may even be encouraged to pursue an environmental field from a young age. When adults engage with scientific efforts in their communities, they may learn about environmental issues they weren’t previously aware of, sparking them to use their voices and voting power to influence policy and encourage conservation in their own backyards.

Citizen science reminds us that anyone can be a scientist, and by meeting people where they are and making science more accessible, we are creating communities that are more engaged, informed, and inspired to take action for a better, more sustainable future.

About the Author …

Abby Culloton is a recent U of I graduate from Bartlett, Ill. She completed her B.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering in December 2023 and earned the Certificate in Environmental Writing. She now works at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Rock Island, Ill. as a Hydraulic Engineer where she works on flood management and ecosystem restoration projects on the Mississippi River.

This article was the feature category winner in the 2023 Janelle Joseph Environmental Writing Contest.