ASU 2016 Citizen Science Maker Summit: (l-r:) Narendra Das, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Dan Stanton, ASU Library; Darlene Cavalier, ASU SFIS; Catherine Hoffman, SciStarter; Micah Lande, Polytechnic School; and Brianne Fisher, former ASU graduate student
Photo credit: Marissa Huth
SciStarter was founded in 2010 by Darlene Cavalier, now professor of practice at ASU and principal investigator on the Libraries as Community Hubs for Citizen Science project. Cavalier had no background—or even much of an interest—in science when she started out doing business development for Discover Magazine and eventually its parent company, Disney Publishing. But in the process of writing educators’ guides for Discover, a science magazine geared toward a general audience, Cavalier’s interest was sparked.
“A lot of the work I was doing was promoting the idea that science is for everyone,” she told LJ. “In reality, there’s only so much you can do if you don’t happen to have an opportunity to go to college…or you went into a different field, and later on in life discovered that you liked science.”
The only available avenues for engaging with science as a nonprofessional, she found, were, like Discover, aimed at passive consumers. “Something just didn’t feel right to me—all these messages that we were sending to kids, a lot of the investment in STEM programs, I know never would have worked on me…. I always felt that they were talking to the really smart kids in the classroom and not to me.”
Once her youngest child was in school, Cavalier earned a master’s degree in science history and policy at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’m not even sure it was called citizen science yet,” she recalled. “But as soon as I read [about] it I knew that was for me.” SciStarter—a National Science Foundation–supported hub supporting the recruitment and retention of volunteers in over 1,600 citizen science initiatives from hundreds of organizations—grew out of her master’s project. “I wanted to demonstrate to professional science organizations and congressional agencies that [citizen science] is a real thing. A lot of people are involved in it, and it’s not just birdwatchers.”
Cavalier joined the SFIS faculty in 2014, along the way serving as an advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Advisory Committee Environmental and Technology Policy and cofounding the Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) network. (She also founded Science Cheerleader, a site highlighting the more than 300 current and former NFL, NBA, and college cheerleaders in STEM careers; Cavalier is a former cheerleader for the Philadelphia 76ers.) In 2016, she organized the ASU Citizen Science Maker Summit, which resulted in the National Academy of Sciences inviting Cavalier and her colleague Kiki Jenkins to join its Committee on Designing Citizen Science to Support Science Learning.
The summit also brought Cavalier together with library faculty. Dan Stanton, associate librarian for academic services, developed a citizen science libguide page and helped organize a series of interviews with Cavalier and other ASU scientists. When he asked Cavalier how the library could support her various projects, she mentioned that one of the major issues that had come up in a recent local citizen science partnership had involved equipment—people didn’t want to invest in specialized tools that could cost hundreds of dollars.
That, said Stanton, “was something that we knew we could do.”
At the time of the summit, SciStarter had recently partnered with the Superstition Area Land Trust (SALT), a nonprofit educational community group in Apache Junction, AZ, and the Apache Junction Public Library (AJPL). SALT was concerned about the use of local land and wanted better access to the data informing those decisions; a citizen science program was a way to be a part of the process. The program encompassed two modules: El Nino, which helps NASA satellites confirm soil moisture levels by asking volunteers to dry and measure soil samples to compare with the satellite’s data, and Garden Roots, which measures contaminants in home-grown vegetables.
At first, SciStarter provided equipment directly to the participants, but they balked at having to store tools like heat lamps, digital scales, and rain gauges in their homes. AJPL and ASU were logical locations to hold and lend out the needed equipment.
Risa Robinson, now assistant director of learning services at ASU Library, was then an adult programming staff member at AJPL. Having the tools available to check out “definitely erased that barrier—people don’t want to buy graduated cylinders to keep forever,” she told LJ.
However, the project turned out not to be a big draw at the university, so the partners decided to focus on public library participation. Stanton felt his experience as past president of the Arizona Library Association gave him a good overview of libraries in the state—“Their commitment and creativity with regard to community programming blew me away, and I’m always thinking about us here in the academic library, that we could really take some lessons [from them]…. And I just thought, this is an excellent opportunity and a win-win.”
As the library continued circulating tools, ASU, AJPL, and Cavalier began to envision the project as a pilot for an ongoing collaboration, said Robinson. “We were able to see how the packaging worked and how much work it was going to be for staff, and I brought up the questions that Darlene wouldn’t have thought about, like: this is a heat lamp, the bulb’s going to break. Are we going to keep supplies?… How do you keep an inventory list and how do you check it when it comes back?”
Earlier that year, at the Special Libraries Association annual conference in Philadelphia, Cavalier had spoken with an IMLS program officer who encouraged her to develop a proposal promoting libraries as citizen science hubs. The partners submitted a proposal, and in August 2017 were awarded nearly $250,000 to develop toolkits over the next two years.
The partners are looking forward to refining the kits as well as the programming that will support the projects. Considerations include whether the equipment is meant to be recirculated, or whether, as in the case of microbe collection kits, they are never returned to the library. Because citizen scientist volunteers tend to do several projects at once, material for experiments may be bundled together based on the types of activities—indoor or outdoor, or seasonal. The amount of data produced will influence their grouping as well, depending on how much information the original researchers can handle.
At the top of the list, of course, is what the libraries and their communities want. The team will meet with each of the six—Maricopa County Library District Southeast Regional and White Tank branches; Mesa Public Library; Pinal County Library District; and Scottsdale Public Library Appaloosa and Civic Center branches—to help determine which projects are the best fits.
The projects will also need more than just space and packaging. “When I first thought we’d make the tools available through the library, I was thinking exclusively about the needs of the volunteers,” Cavalier told LJ. It wasn’t until she began having conversations with library staff, she realized, that “you’re not going to have something sustainable unless you really think about the capacity of the librarians themselves. Not just their interests, but how do you go about this in a way that supports them so that they are secure and supported facilitators of this.”
Robinson agreed, recalling her work with SALT at Apache Junction. “I think about how ill equipped I was at being the liaison…and I think this community hub grant is going to look at getting someone in the library to be that expert. I think evaluating [a librarian’s] comfort level at bringing up ideas, mentioning new projects, and helping people work through issues…is something [we] need to be contributing to.”
The project recently held its initial meeting with all the principals, including a representative from NISE Net who has helped developed similar prototype kits for museums to sell from vending machines. “That’s what we’re looking for,” Stanton told LJ, “something like that that’s low cost, not packaged bells and whistles, but practical…. You get kind of a low-tech experiment and then you have the sheet for information, and it’s all kind of self-contained. What we’re looking at is that squared. We want to build in programming and make people feel like this is an ongoing thing.”
To that end, ASU, as an R1 research university with a range of science programs, is particularly well situated to provide guest speakers. “For some of these programs, even if it’s not ASU sponsored research, we have experts who can come in and talk to a community group.”
Although the scope of the project is local for now, it has the potential to scale nationally. “We want to make sure what we’re doing is a sort of guidebook for others who want to do this in other states as well,” Cavalier noted. “This is what we did in Arizona that worked, or here’s how we misfired, and here’s what we did as an intervention to that.” Equipment could potentially be shared through interlibrary loans, and Cavalier is hoping to eventually develop more formal accreditation for some projects.
The important part, she added, was that the benefits go both ways. “Not only do you have scientists who actually need help from people like me, but it’s meaningful, it’s not just trying to teach me something. I actually feel like I can play a role here…local knowledge can advance areas of research.”
Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.
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