Citizen Science Programs: Volunteer Your Time and Gain Valuable Skills

By Heather Esper|March 23, 2015

“Citizen science” is scientific research using data collected by a large number of non-professional observers. These programs provide the opportunity for the young and the old, experienced and inexperienced, to connect with nature, observe wildlife, and provide valuable information to scientists. The success of citizen science depends on participants from many communities helping with projects and data submission. Participation in these programs can also provide valuable training, such as in identification of plants and wildlife or in monitoring methodology.

Photo courtesy of DTE Energy.

Photo courtesy of DTE Energy.

Most citizen science programs simply ask participants to observe wildlife or plants and submit their observations online.  Some programs, such as the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network, even have an app that can be downloaded to your cell phone in order to record observations!

It’s a good idea to check with local organizations about whether and how they can use your monitoring data in one of their citizen science programs. For example, you may be planning to monitor frog and toad calls to get a feel for amphibian use of your site. This data also may be valuable for local entities such as Friends of the Rouge, which documents frogs and toads within the Rouge River watershed as a measure watershed health, or for the Michigan Herp Atlas (see article, this newsletter). Friends of the Rouge’s next volunteer training will be in early 2016.

It is also possible to participate in national programs and coordinated events to attract volunteers to your site. For example, DTE Energy’s Monroe Power Plant organizes count days as part of the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.  The Christmas Bird Count is conducted from December 14 to January 5 each year, takes place within an established 15-mile-wide circle, and is organized by a count compiler.

Monarch Butterfly Waystations

Photo courtesy of General Motors Company.

Photo courtesy of General Motors Company.

One particular citizen science program that is relatively easy to implement on a variety of sites is Monarch Waystations, which can be certified through Monarch Watch.  Monarch Waystations are locations that provide resources necessary for monarch butterflies to produce successive generations and sustain their migration. Each year, hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies migrate from the United States and Canada to the mountains of central Mexico to wait out the winter before returning north in the spring.  The monarch migration is a great natural wonder, but is threatened by habitat loss at over-wintering grounds in Mexico and throughout breeding areas in the United States and Canada.

Waystations can be created just about anywhere, and can be as simple as adding milkweed plants and nectar sources to existing gardens and natural habitats. Milkweed species (genus Asclepias) are essential to monarch reproduction since the caterpillars feed only on milkweeds. Within the Huron to Erie region, the preferred species of milkweed that should be planted include: common milkweed (A. syriaca), swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa), and poke milkweed (A. exaltata).

Some guidelines required to certify a waystation by Monarch Watch are:

  • A waystation should be at least 100 square feet, but the total area may be split among several sites at a location.
  • The waystation should receive at least six hours of sun per day, to aid in plant growth, and contain relatively low-clay soils that allow for good drainage.
  • The waystation should include both milkweed plants and nectar plants.
  • Continued maintenance of the waystation through mulching, thinning, and watering is essential for long-term success.

Additional information regarding creation and certification of a Monarch Waystation on your site can be found at:

Other Citizen Science Opportunities

There are many other chances to contribute results from your site’s monitoring program to the broader body of scientific knowledge.

The following list is a small sample of citizen science programs:

Read more WHC blogs.