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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Citizen Scientists Wanted

Mar 31, 2018 07:00PM ● By Megy Karydes

photo credit: Morton Arboretum

Science gathers data and knowledge that can lead to solving problems, making new discoveries and applying them to our everyday lives. Often, though, there’s far more data to be observed and collected over large areas than there are research scientists; enter the citizen scientist. Citizen scientists are members of the public that collaborate with professional scientists to collect and report data relating to the natural world. Whether someone is interested in trees, birds, butterflies or other aspects of nature, there are many ways to get actively involved and make a real and lasting contribution through local nonprofit organizations. Although April 14 is Citizen Science Day (, we can participate and make a difference every day.

        “You don’t have to have a degree in science to contribute to scientific research,” states Dr. Christine Rollinson, a forest ecologist at The Morton Arboretum and someone who often uses citizen scientists to help with research projects.

Contributing to the Greater Good

A lot of science doesn’t require specialized equipment or anything more than our eyes and a willingness to learn, according to Rollinson. In fact, some of the best data she’s seen collected came from a journalist or an amateur birder that kept a log of when things happened year after year. Citizen scientists are vital to her work, and she notes that some research, particularly climate-related, is harder to achieve without them. “It’s only through volunteer engagement we can get the observations across the state, country or globe that we need to really understand how our world works,” she explains.

        Citizen scientist networks allow Rollinson and others to expand the number of observations far beyond what paid staff alone could do. “Our citizen scientists allow us to observe dozens to hundreds of plants every week, something that would nearly be a full-time job for a single employee and would result in other areas of research we perform not being done,” she says.

Lifelong Learners

While nonprofit organizations benefit from the work of citizen scientists, the volunteers enjoy another benefit; remaining lifelong learners while they contribute. Doug Taron, chief curator at the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, works with citizen scientists through the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network in the process of collecting quantitative data on butterfly populations. The information is used by land managers to evaluate long-term trends in a changing landscape.

        For those that want to learn more about birds, the Bird Conservation Network (BCN) has been promoting bird conservation and preserving and restoring bird habitat in the Chicago Region for close to 20 years. “Bird monitoring is a chance to observe the birds of our region and to spend time with them in their habitats,” explains Judy Pollock, co-coordinator of the BCN Survey, which observes breeding birds at parks and preserves. “It offers the opportunity to get to know them better and learn their habits and distribution, and often the locations are quite beautiful.”

        “Our citizen scientists have gained a much deeper appreciation for the life cycles of trees,” notes Rollinson. “Many had never thought about where the flower that eventually becomes an acorn is actually located or what it looks like. While closely observing trees, they were sometimes astounded at how much could change from week to week, even in summer, or just how much variability there can be among species or even trees of the same species. Our observers also really enjoy focused, quiet time outside on our grounds and just getting to feel connected to our trees and institution on a more intimate level.”

Turning Data Into Action

Doug Taron and citizen scientists

photo credit: Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum


Taron points out that citizen scientists provide a valuable service to both the scientific and general communities. The results from their work are often put into practice in the form of new exhibits and real-world examples used by educational programs. “Some of our curators have been able to publish analyses using the citizen science data,” he notes.

        Results from the compiled data show real-time data, such as the rise and fall of butterfly populations, says Taron. The same applies to bird monitoring efforts. “Many local researchers use our bird data, which allows them to understand how birds are using habitats and to gauge the success of their conservation efforts,” adds Pollock.

        The data collected by The Morton Arboretum citizen scientists is critical to understanding how different species and trees from specific regions respond to climate, according to Rollinson. “In the future, we plan to use our citizen science data to make more accurate predictions of when and where the best spring blooms and fall colors can be seen on our grounds,” she adds.

How to Get Involved

Anyone can become a citizen scientist, although there are some things each organization seeks from its volunteers. “In order to join the BCN Survey, a person needs to know the breeding birds of our region by sight and sound, and be comfortable spending a morning making observations in a natural area,” Pollock shares. She recommends that those interested in learning their birds join birding trips offered by local clubs listed at

        Those interested in joining the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network may visit “Training is required and consists of a talk on how to collect data using our protocol and a talk on basic butterfly identification,” says Taron, who also notes that a schedule of upcoming training sessions can be found on the museum’s Upcoming Events page.

        The Morton Arboretum uses resources developed by the National Phenology Network to train its volunteer citizen scientists to observe the timing of leaf out, fall color, flowering and other key events for trees on their grounds. “This training is essential to help ensure consistent data collection across many observers and helps them build self-confidence,” says Rollinson. Check the adult courses  at for a list of upcoming training sessions and other opportunities to get involved.

        Whatever it is that motivates an individual to go from bystander to active citizen scientist, everyone agrees they are an integral component to the way we understand the world around us. “It’s lots of fun!” says Taron.

Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based writer, ghostwriter and founder of Karydes Consulting, a marketing and communications agency (