Becoming a professional scientist takes years of preparation and education and a lot of math, but becoming a citizen scientist takes only curiosity and a willingness to explore your own environment. Gardeners are naturally predisposed to becoming citizen scientists. We love the natural world, we are interested in making it better, and we want to learn how natural systems work.
The idea of citizen scientists seems to have been one of those concepts whose time had come. It was developed and explained by several people in various places at about the same time, but the essence rests in the belief that people’s lives are affected by scientific discovery, and nonscientifically trained people can participate in that discovery, monitoring of natural systems and development of scientific knowledge. In many cases, citizen scientists work together with professional scientists to expand knowledge and represent the interests of the wider population.
While the term citizen scientist is fairly new, the concept is as old as human curiosity. After all, Ben Franklin wasn’t a scientist when he was fooling around with electricity. When gardeners track the temperature and rainfall in their gardens, they are collecting data that result in changes in their gardening process. When we decide to plant more trees or native plants or leafy greens, we are making decisions based on scientific knowledge: Trees clean the air, native plants require less input, and leafy greens make us healthy.
The most common areas of citizen science participation that are of interest to gardeners are those that track and monitor the health of the natural environment. Here are some of the ongoing projects in Texas that take advantage of the participation of citizen scientists:
The Invaders of Texas program is a campaign that trains volunteers to detect the arrival and dispersal of invasive species in their own local areas. The information the citizens collect is delivered to a statewide mapping database that shows wider trends and provides information to people who can do something about the problems. Gardeners know that invasive plants can take over native species and reduce the amount of food and resources available to native wildlife. Teams of volunteers are coordinated by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and can either attend a workshop or train online. There are several groups in the Austin area, and the workshops are free. Visit texasinvasives.org to sign up or learn more. This is a great program for individuals or groups. They have special materials for teachers who want to involve their students in collecting data and learning about environmental science through participation in the project.
If you are particularly interested in birds, the Texas Audubon Society has a program called the Texas Estuarine Resource Network, or TERN. This program is designed to promote bird monitoring and conservation. Citizens gather data about bird populations in foraging grounds and rookery habitats, and that information is incorporated into plans for the future to protect Texas birds. While the focus is on water birds, even those of us who live inland can participate. We can go to the coast to participate in surveys and habitat restoration projects and participate in monitoring field days. A part of the program that gardeners might love involves the growing of native trees, shrubs and other plants used by nesting birds to replenish their habitat. Visit tx.audubon.org/conservation.
Texas Master Naturalists have several projects that involve citizen scientists: Bird Counts are done all over the continent to determine the size and health of bird communities. The Christmas Bird Count, the Great Backyard Bird Count in February and the Texas Hummingbird Roundup, in addition to other projects like Nest Watch, Feeder Watch, Bird Banding and more, give citizens the opportunity to learn more about our native bird populations and their current challenges. Master Naturalists also participate in the Texas Amphibian Watch, the Box Turtle Survey, Texas Mussel Watch and Texas Whooper Watch. Becoming a Texas Master Naturalist opens up the possibility of participation in a wide variety of projects designed to collect data on the state of the natural world in Texas. Visit txmn.org.
One of the oldest citizen science programs (which actually predates the term) is now called the Texas Stream Team. Begun in the 1980s as River Watch, the program has grown and matured. The Colorado River Watch Network program is still monitoring the water quality of that river’s system of streams and creeks. The Stream Team program uses citizens to collect water samples from streams, rivers and other bodies of water across the state to monitor their health and pollution levels. Part of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, the project hopes to understand and to protect the 191,000 miles of Texas waterways. Citizen scientists can test water with more frequency and in more areas than professionals and act as early warning systems when a problem develops. More than 10,000 people have gone through the program and are certified citizen scientists. People of all ages and locations are welcome to the program. They are asked to commit to a year of monthly monitoring. Learn more at meadowscenter.txstate.edu.
While you are planning and planting your own garden, look a bit beyond and keep an eye out for ways to expand your knowledge and enjoyment. Search the internet and you’ll find the Texas Bee Watch and other options. Discover Magazine lists projects to do in your own garden, including monitoring pollination, watching worms and tracking invasive cabbage looper. Gardening was always fun. Now it is smart, too.