Citizen Science: A Tool for Teaching, Learning, and Contributing in the Health Sciences

April is Citizen Science Month, so there’s no better time to consider incorporating citizen science into the classroom or into your free time. Citizen science refers to scientific research that leverages the collective strength of communities and the public to identify research questions, collect and analyze data, interpret results, make new discoveries, and/or develop technologies and applications. Today’s thriving citizen science movement has evolved over centuries as a mutually beneficial solution to both researchers’ needs for greater data-collection and analysis capacity and communities’ desire to be empowered as active participants in research that affects them.

Projects that ask everyday people to go outside and count birds, identify plants, or report air pollution often serve as the face of citizen science, as they are widely appealing and easy to participate in. However, citizen science projects can be found in almost any area of inquiry, ranging from history to astronomy. In fact, citizen health science is increasingly making its mark on biomedical research! We’re exploring this topic in the HSLS class, Citizen Health Science: A Tool for Teaching, Learning, and Contributing, on April 20 at 2 p.m.

Popular citizen health science projects include:

  1. Stall Catchers, in which participants contribute to Alzheimer’s research by identifying blood vessels in brain images that are “stalled,” or not flowing freely. The Washington Post highlighted this online game as it turns the hunt for a cure from frustrating to fun. This citizen science project dramatically increases the rate at which images can be processed and moves researchers closer to a treatment for the disease.
  2. Outbreaks Near Me!, in which participants anonymously self-report cold and flu symptoms (or the lack thereof) at least once per week. Originally used to track the spread of influenza, this project now relies on a community of almost 7 million people to monitor and even predict the spread of both the flu and COVID-19.

In addition to being a fun free-time activity, citizen science can provide opportunities in teaching and learning. For instance, it can enhance understanding of classroom topics and increase student engagement with a subject. Researchers may be interested in leveraging the power of crowdsourcing to gather or analyze large amounts of data. Finally, citizen science can provide a foundation for greater community-researcher connection and collaboration, building relationships and ideally even contributing to improved health outcomes in those communities. SciStarter helps you find volunteer opportunities that match topics you’re curious or concerned about. There’s something for everyone!

~Kelsey Cowles