Oregon citizens become coastal scientists

You don’t need a degree to be scientist. For more than 30 years, the number of citizen scientists has been steadily increasing along the Oregon Coast as part of an effort to engage people of all ages in scientific activities.

These diligent volunteers work on projects stretching from one-time learning events like a school sampling trip, to long-term data monitoring such as monthly beach surveys.

“There is a range of citizen science,” said Shawn Rowe, an Oregon Sea Grant (OSG) researcher studying citizen science. “Some you go collect data as monitoring projects such as sea stars or bird counts. On the other end of spectrum is a collaborative effort where [volunteers] help design research” – and even write up the results.

Citizen scientist Ralph Breitenstein teaches students about different sampling methods in the Yaquina Bay.

Citizen scientist Ralph Breitenstein teaches students about different sampling methods in the Yaquina Bay.

OSG citizen science projects include programs such as StreamWebs—where K-12 students adopt a stream site to study—and supporting the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST)—where volunteers monitor dead birds on west coast beaches. Moreover, individuals such as Ralph Breitenstein have even taken on independent research projects at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Rowe’s research is two-fold: First, he is looking at what motivates citizens to become scientists. Second, he is analyzing what aspects of citizen science projects are effective. Rowe says there is a tendency to create new programs rather than improve existing ones.

“You may have 5 or 6 groups in one area measuring water quality or marine debris and they might all be using different protocols,” Rowe explained. “We are looking at what we can do besides just running another program.”

The biggest obstacle for any citizen science project is data reliability. COASST, for example, has more than 800 volunteers ranging in age from nine to 90 all conducting the same research. To ensure the data is useful, they have rigorous protocols on top of a five-hour training for volunteers.

“All of the COASST data are collected in the same fashion,” said Jane Dolliver. “There are set beach lengths. You never alter your pattern and you don’t change it up. All of those data—because they are collected the same way across all of the sites—can be compared.”

COASST’s data is regularly used by both state and federal agencies. While many citizen science projects strive for that level of data reliability, others, such as StreamWebs, exist simply to engage students in science.

“That’s the education philosophy now,” said Vicki Osis, who served as OSG Marine Education Specialist from 1971-2002. “When it comes to research, it’s often repetitive tasks, but it does give them a taste of what it is like to do science. You have to gather your data and analyze it.”

OSG’s first attempt to engage citizens was the Seatauqua program in the late 1970s. These free, non-credit courses did not involve monitoring, but they connected non-scientists to science through topics such as tidepooling and beach safety. Osis built upon the success of these classes by integrating the content into school visits, where she also had students conduct water quality monitoring. More than 30 years later, OSG and the Oregon Coast Community College are resurrecting the Seatauqua program.

Since OSG was established in 1971, the number of citizen scientists on the coast has grown steadily. What started with free classes has expanded to include student sampling, bird surveys, water quality monitoring and much more. As these programs continue, researchers like Rowe are helping increase both their effectiveness and longevity.

Below is a list of current citizen science projects connected to Oregon Sea Grant:

  • Oregon Sea Grant (OSG) supports the COASST program, which has hundreds of volunteers from Alaska to Southern California monitoring coastal conditions and checking for dead birds. OSG researcher Shawn Rowe is helping identify what motivates volunteers to participate and stay on for long periods of time. http://depts.washington.edu/coasst/
  • StreamWebs is a monitoring program aimed at K-12 students. The project gets students into nature and allows them track changes to an area over time by graphing data from past studies at the same site.  http://www.streamwebs.org/
  • With Sea Star Wasting Syndrome afflicting west coast echinoderms, citizen science monitoring has been put in place to detect exactly where the outbreak is occurring. http://www.eeb.ucsc.edu/pacificrockyintertidal/index-logo.html
  • Ralph Breitenstein is a citizen scientist at Hatfield who has devoted five years conducting research on invasive species in Newport’s Yaquina Bay. He has published his work in a scientific journal along with giving presentations. http://hmsc.oregonstate.edu/visitor/get-involved/volunteers-speak
  • The Seatauqua courses—though not strictly citizen science—are being revived after 30 years and offer a way for non-scientists to further their understanding of coastal and marine resources. http://oregoncoastcc.org/seatauqua