Friday, June 15, 2012

Another Good Book: Citizen Scientists

Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard
By Loree Griffin Burns; photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz
80 pages, ages 8 and up
Henry Holt, 2012

One summer I got involved in the Lost Ladybug Project. Whenever we could, we headed out to wild and weedy areas in search of the elusive two-spotted ladybug. Along the way we netted – and took photos of – the ladybugs we found, and sent them to John Losey at Cornell. We were part of a “citizen science” project.

So I was thrilled to see that Loree Griffin Burns has a new book out that is devoted to citizen science – things kids and their families can do to help scientists gather information. It’s divided into four sections, one for each season, and each focusing on one kid-friendly project and each jam-packed with luscious photos. Each chapter offers cool tips on collecting data, like how to chill a ladybug so you can take a digital photo (hint: pop it in a freezer for 5 minutes). And she includes interviews with the scientists.

Turns out, Burns has been thinking about a book on citizen science for a long time. When I caught up with her for a quick interview, she said that she first heard the phrase ‘citizen scientists’ in relation to the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) that she wrote about in Tracking Trash. She was intrigued by the concept of regular people, including children, participating in true data collection.

“Once I started to look for it, citizen science seemed to be everywhere,” says Burns. She decided to focus on four projects that had a national scope and provided lots of online resources for students and teachers. And she also looked for some temporal diversity. “
FrogWatch, for example, takes place at night, encouraging participants to count frogs not with their eyes, but with their ears,” she notes.

Burns participated in all four projects as a citizen scientist… so she writes with the authority of “been there, done that.”  She’s tagged Monarch butterflies, waded hip-deep in vernal pools to listen to frog calls, clicked mug shots of ladybugs and tallied birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Her most interesting adventure happened while visiting Monarch butterfly wintering sites in Mexico. “We reached them on horseback, riding up through a steep, dry forest,” she said. It was so dusty she had to wear a bandana over her mouth like a cowgirl. “At the top, we found millions of monarch butterflies. They coated the trees like massive orange and black capes, bending one pine to the ground. Then suddenly they took off. All of them. Thousands and thousands of butterflies simply lifted up off the tree in a river of color and sound that completely surrounded me.”

That, says Burns, was one of the most incredible things she’s ever seen. Still, sitting in her backyard and recording bees that visit her sunflowers is every bit as fascinating.

One of the most important lessons for Burns was how her definition of the word scientist expanded. “The early part of my life was spent training and earning the credentials I thought I needed in order to call myself a scientist,” she says. “Working on this book reshaped my ideas on what it means to practice science. It doesn’t require a degree on a wall, or a track record of peer-reviewed journal publications. Science is a way of looking at the world, of asking questions, and of finding answers.” And the neat thing, says Burns, is that anyone of any age can do it. 

 You can learn more about Loree Griffin Burns here. You'll find more cool science books and resources at STEM Friday. And be sure to check out Non-Fiction Monday, too. Review copy of book provided by the publisher.


  1. I hope to review this book soon, too. Thank you for participating in Nonfiction Monday.

  2. This book is a must read. I'm so glad you reviewed it, Sue.