Have you ever been interested in the work being done by scientists to gather data about some popular (or totally obscure) topic? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be part of a team that discovers insights into our world? Citizen science is a way to join the fun and help researchers.
Data collection is often time-consuming work. With the sciences chronically underfunded and understaffed, a key solution to gather more data for studies lies in looping in curious and energetic citizens. Citizen scientists help out in a wide range of ways by gathering images of certain study areas, noting sightings of particular species, and even counting bird species in their own neighborhoods.
The best part about citizen science is you don't have to stay home to do it. You can also take part in it while you're traveling, which can make your vacation all the more fun and memorable. Here are four ways that you can incorporate being a scientist into your travels, no matter where you go.
1. Check out local citizen science projects happening at your destination
Just about anywhere you go, there's likely to be a citizen science project that could benefit from your help. This is the case for practically any part of the country, and any type of habitat, including the urban jungle.
By looking into citizen science projects at your vacation destinations, you might find an opportunity to learn about new species of plants or animals, delve into interesting ecological issues, explore parts of a place that you wouldn't otherwise have discovered, or simply see your destination through a new, insightful lens.
Try SciStarter for finding a citizen science project suitable for your vacation. The site allows you to search for projects in a particular location based on the types of activities you're most interested in — such as "at night," "at the beach" or "at a zoo" — and also filter by projects that are suitable for kids, free or low-cost, designed for students or other criteria.
You can also try the project search page on Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which allows you to browse by topic, such as mammals, invasive species, weather, astronomy and so on.
2. Help out in urban settings while you stroll
You don't have to be going camping or hiking in the wilderness to participate in citizen science. If your vacation takes you to an urban place, such as exploring a major city, you can still take part. There are a lot of cities that have projects based in parks, or cataloging the flora and fauna found within an urban setting.
One such example is the Celebrate Urban Birds project. This project can take minutes to complete; all you have to do is watch an area the size of half a basketball court for 10 minutes and note which of the focal species of birds you see in that area during that time. Essentially, you can be part of a citizen science project while enjoying a short rest in a city park.
This isn't the only easy and fun citizen science project designed for urban areas. If your vacation takes you to a metropolis, you can still take part in natural science whether it's counting birds, watching squirrels or spotting butterflies.
3. Participate in national parks projects while camping or hiking
From Acadia to the North Cascades, our national parks have projects you can be part of when you visit. For instance, Acadia National Park has several different projects visitors can participate in, as do the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Yellowstone National Park and many others. You can plan a grand outdoor adventure and tack on some citizen science to explore an area with even more attention to detail.
You might even be interested in scheduling your vacation around a BioBlitz, during which you get out and catalog as many species as you can in a certain area in a short amount of time, from a few hours to 24 hours. BioBlitzes are hosted by National Geographic, which writes, "At a BioBlitz, scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to get an overall count of the plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms that live in a place."
A group of travelers with Oceanic Society examine some of the species that live in the water, from plankton to jellies to species they never knew about before. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
4. Book a trip that incorporates science into the itinerary
If citizen science is definitely something you want to do as part of your vacation, then you can easily build a vacation that revolves around research.
Oceanic Society offers trips that include research as a part of the adventure. The conservation nonprofit offers eco-tours that incorporate everything from studying dolphins, humpback whales or manatees to helping researchers monitor coral reef systems or sea turtle nesting habitats.
Citizen Science Trips creates vacations that revolve around citizen science, and include "work" such as stargazing and fishing. According to the program, "We organize vacation trips where you travel to a research field site, which is often in a wilderness location, and spend some time every day participating in a Citizen Science Project. All projects are part of a validated research program to ensure that the contribution you make is an important one."
Reach out to travel organizations that focus on eco-tourism and find out what adventures they offer that involve opportunities to volunteer with researchers. You may be surprised at the unexpected turns your vacation takes as you plan! And you'll know that not only are you enjoying a wonderful experience, but you're also improving what scientists know about the world we live in.