Citizen Scientists

By Jennifer Yauck When you hear the word “scientist,” what comes to mind? A man with a white lab coat, goggles, and frizzy hair holding a beaker of bubbling, mysterious liquid? How about a grandmother of three, tagging a monarch butterfly? How about a high school student counting snakes in a neighborhood park, or your co-worker listening for frog calls at dusk on a summer weekend? How about — YOU — doing any of these things, and more? At the Urban Ecology Center (UEC), everyday people — usually without lab coats, and often without formal scientific backgrounds — practice science as “citizen scientists.” Under the guidance of professional scientists, they take part in actual scientific research, assisting in anything from data collection, to data analysis, to communicating study results to others. “Citizen science bridges the gap between the scientific community and the public,” says Tim Vargo, Research Coordinator at the UEC. It’s a practice that goes back at least as far as the late 1800s, when the National Weather Service began its Cooperative Observing Program, a program in which volunteers make daily meteorological measurements. And it’s a practice that continues today, not only at the UEC, but at other institutions around the country as well. The unique partnership created by citizen science programs benefits everyone involved. For the citizen, it provides an excellent educational experience and an opportunity for community involvement. “You become more aware of your neighborhood, more aware of your local environment,” says Al Heldermon, a volunteer with the UEC. Over the past two years, Heldermon has taken part in a number of citizen science projects, including a tree survey and a bird-banding project. He also participated in a study designed to assess the success of plant restoration efforts along the Milwaukee River following removal of the North Avenue dam, an experience that he says increased his understanding of the human impact on the river and made him more aware of our association and connection with the waterway. Like citizen volunteers, professional scientists also benefit from citizen science. Involving community members in research helps raise awareness and the understanding of science among the general public. In addition, the citizen science partnership opens the door to research projects that otherwise might not be easily accomplished. With the added manpower of dedicated volunteers, scientists are able to cover more ground — sometimes literally — in less time. “The two citizen scientists I worked with provided me with invaluable assistance,” says Dr. Taly Drezner, an assistant professor in UW-Milwaukee’s Department of Geography. Drezner led the plant restoration study in which Heldermon participated. She explains that the experience was also valuable because she learned from the volunteers, who brought their own perspectives to the project. “We all wanted to learn more about the ecosystem along the restored section of the Milwaukee River, and together, we did just that,” she adds. It was also an opportunity for her to give back to the community. “I found the experience to be wonderful and very rewarding,” she says. Think you’d like to reap the rewards of citizen science? If so, you’re in luck, and especially so if you like ice cream. On Saturday, September 18, the Urban Ecology Center will hold a BioBlitz and ice cream social to celebrate the grand opening of its new facility at Riverside Park. The BioBlitz event will bring together scientists and citizen volunteers for a day-long survey of the biology of the park, with the goal of finding out how many species of plants and animals call the park “home.” Additional details about the BioBlitz are available at For more information on getting involved in this and other citizen science activities at the UEC, contact Tim Vargo at 964-8505. (Special thanks to Michelle Prysby of the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont for historical information.)