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Citizen Science Program

[2012]
A formative evaluation with a conservation trust
Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, San Juan, PR

The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico collaborated with RK&A to study the impact of its Citizen Science program, a NSF-funded project designed to involve local citizens in six scientific research projects that contribute to growing knowledge about the Trust’s biodiversity and land management efforts.  The Citizen Science program underwent formative evaluation in 2009 and is now undergoing summative evaluation.  Formative evaluation is discussed here. 

How did we approach this study?

RK&A believes that planning for visitor outcomes, such as increased knowledge or skills, creates successful programs that achieve impact.  The Trust developed audience impact statements within NSF’s Framework for Evaluating Impacts of Informal Science Education Projects.  This framework requires award recipients to define impacts within five categories—awareness, knowledge or understanding; engagement or interest; attitude; behavior; and skills—as well as indicators as evidence of these impacts.  RK&A uses these impacts as guideposts to explore how successful the program is at achieving its impacts.   Formative evaluation included naturalistic observations of all six Citizen Science research projects, complemented by 22 short-answer interviews with participants of varying commitment levels, nine telephone interviews with participants from each project to allow longer-term program reflection, and 13 interviews with staff and scientists who manage the research projects. 

What did we learn?

Formative evaluation findings showed that, overall, most participants and scientists were engaged and satisfied with the program experience.  The Program met participants’ goal of participating in real scientific research and conservation efforts, and scientists enjoyed working with the public, an opportunity they typically do not have.  Findings also showed that the six research projects successfully achieved goals to facilitate participants’ understanding of the scientific method, which includes the importance of rigor, the need for conservation, and how efforts would help inform the land management plan for the Trust.  Findings suggest these successes resulted from scientists’ enthusiasm, staff’s efforts to make program goals transparent to participants, and participants’ level of interest in and commitment to research projects.  The program also had challenges, ranging from logistical barriers such as transportation, to gauging the optimal number of participants per program, to scientists managing inexperienced members of the public while maintaining the rigor of their research. 

What are the implications of the findings?

Citizen science programs, such as that of the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, face a number of challenges because the program must serve both the needs of the scientists, who seek to conduct rigorous scientific research, and participants, who seek engaging and enriching science experiences.   Findings show that the Trust was highly successful at serving these dual needs owing to the thoughtfulness with which the Trust staff and scientists planned the program and their continued reflection on its effectiveness.  The Trust’s focus, organization, and dedication to the Citizen Science programs helped them overcome the many challenges of operating six long-term research projects taking place at the same time. 

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