Connecting People to Climate Change with Phenology and Citizen Science


Citizen science – science that involves networks of citizens and scientists working together to answer scientific questions – is gaining traction as a way to conduct important environmental research at scales not possible before. Citizen science is also emerging as an effective way to increase the scientific and environmental literacy of the public. One of the most powerful applications for citizen science is in research concerning climate change. Not only can citizens contribute data that helps scientists study the effects of climate change across the world, but they can learn to see local indicators of climate change affecting their surroundings.

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen science is a term that describes the involvement of volunteers in scientific in research[i]. Cornell’s Citizen Science Central formally defines citizen science as “projects in which volunteers partner with scientists to answer real-world questions” [ii] and is sometimes called participatory science or “public participation in scientific research” (PPSR). [iii],[iv] In recent years, citizen science has gained attention as a way of conducting large-scale ecological research projects that would not otherwise be possible without a large network of participants ready to serve as data collectors and analyzers[v] dispersed over large spatial (and sometimes temporal) scales. Currently, citizen science is used to study landscape-scale processes, climate change, impacts of urbanization, animal migrations, species declines, and more. i Citizen science has grown in popularity and scope over the past two decades: many of today’s most important and widely-used ecological data sets consist of data generated by citizens,[vi] rendering citizen science an increasingly important part of environmental research.i

Growing Interest in Citizen Science as an Educational Tool

Researchers are not the only ones to benefit from citizen science projects. Participants can benefit, too – and most citizen science projects are designed with this “dual purpose” in mind. Because it engages participants in the process of science (oftentimes in the natural environment), citizen science has the potential to increase scientific and ecological literacy; to improve participant about and attitudes towards science and the environment; increase participant understanding of science and the natural world; improve participants’ scientific thinking and research skills; increase participant interest in scientific careers; and foster a sense of environmental stewardship.[vii] So far, certain citizen science projects have been shown to increase knowledge of scientific concepts[viii] and increase sense of ecological place[ix]. More studies on the educational benefits of citizen science are needed.

Citizen science projects vary greatly in size, scope, format, and purpose – but are generally grouped into three major categories based on the nature and degree of participant involvement (fig.1) by the latest large-scale studies or review papers concerned with participant outcomes. iii, [x] While knowledge about participant outcomes is still generally lacking, this formal categorization reflects the growing interest in (and legitimization of) citizen science as an educational tool.

Figure 1: Three Classifications of Public Participation in Scientific Research (“PPSR”) Projects (CAISE report, page 11)

Category Description Examples
Contributory projects Researcher-driven data collection projects. Generally designed by scientists for which members of the public contribute data; minimal volunteer involvement The Birdhouse Network
Spotting the Weedy Invasives
ALLARM Acid Rain Monitoring Project
Monarch Larva Monitoring Project
Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network
Collaborative projects Generally designed by scientists and for which members of the public contribute data but also may help refine project design, analyze data, or disseminate findings Salal Harvest Sustainability Study
Community Health Effects on Industrial Hog Operations
Invasive Plant Atlas of New England
Co-created projects Designed by scientists and members of the public working together and for which at least some of the public participants are actively involved in most of all steps of the scientific process Shermans Creek Conservation Association
ReClam the Bay

A History of Citizen Science being used to study the Natural World

Citizen science as a field is not new. Networks of ordinary citizens have been observing and collecting data about the natural world for thousands of years. In fact, prior to the 19th century, nearly all scientific research was conducted by or with the help of non-scientists, many of whom were part of networks recruited to make observations or collect natural objects from across the world.

Citizen networks helped create immense plant and animal specimen collections that many famous ecologists (such as John Ray and Carl Linnaeus) based their research on. Citizen networks also helped create immense databases of observations about the natural world, oftentimes over large temporal and spatial scales.

Many of the largest and oldest data sets generated by citizens involved monitoring the timing of cycles in nature. For example, citizens of Japan have been monitoring the cherry blossom flowering times for over 350 years. Wine-growers in France have been recording grape harvest days for more than 640 years. Citizens in China have been tracking outbreaks of locusts for at least 3,500 years.[xi]

Although data sets like this were usually created and maintained for practical reasons, they have become invaluable to scientists – especially those concerned with learning more about the effects of climate change as they occur across time and space.

Citizen Science, Phenology, and Climate Change

Monitoring natural events is an important part of phenology, the scientific study of recurring plant and animal life cycle stages, such as leafing, flowering, fruiting, emergence of insects, and migration of birds (NPN, “About Phenology”). By studying and comparing the life cycle stages of different plants and animals over time, ordinary people are given a chance to discover interesting relationships between plants, animals, weather, and climate patterns – as well as what can happen when these relationships are disturbed.

Monitoring life cycle stages is integral to understanding the effects of climate change, and how these effects will fall across different domains of life. For example, scientists have observed that spring is arriving sooner in some places than it did in the past – but the effects of an “earlier spring” on different species are not yet well known. Climate change – earlier springs, later falls, hotter summers, colder winters – threatens to restructure entire natural and human systems in ways we don’t yet understand. Collectively monitoring these “small” cycles will help us better understand and prepare for these potentially big changes.

Most large-scale citizen science programs focused on phenology are strictly “contributory,” which means that they are existing databases designed by scientists that citizens are invited to contribute to (refer back to fig.1). While there is sometimes some training involved, training is usually limited to teaching data collection and submission methods, often with online modules. There is minimal education about how monitoring activities might be related to studying climate change; such relationships are usually left for participants to discover on their own (for example, by reading about on the website).

Despite this, many educational programs and curriculums have been developed around such contributory citizen science programs focused on phenology, and it is usually these educational programs and curriculums that make the connections between monitoring activities and climate change. Most of these programs are “portable” and designed to be done by anyone, anywhere.

Some phenology-focused citizen science programs (databases, curriculums, or both) with explicit connections to climate are described in the next few tables


Citizen Science Programs/Databases with Explicit Connections to Climate Change

Project Budburst (Large-scale database)
Organization National Ecological Observatory Network, Chicago Botanic Garden
Description One of the largest phenology-based citizen science databases in the country; funded by the NSF.

Project Budburst is a program that recruits observers from across the country to record the leafing, flowering and fruiting time of plants (called “plant phenophases”) of plants in their neighborhood. Observers are also asked to describe the plants’ proximity to buildings, asphalt surfaces, amount of sunlight, and sources of water. This data is used by scientists to learn about how different plants respond to changes in climate in different parts of the country.

Project Budburst is very educator-friendly; lots of materials for educators displayed on the project homepage

Audience General public
Current sites Everywhere
Educational component For participants: There is a lot of information about the connections between phenology, climate change, and monitoring activities available on the website. Climate change is also mentioned in

For educators: Educators can download educational activities or attend professional development webinars on the website; most are focused on how to collect and submit data with groups of people

Connection to Climate Change Climate change is identified as a central focus of this program (“About Project Budburst”). A lot of information about climate change, phenology, and monitoring activities is available on the website.
Peer-reviewed literature on participant outcomes? No – there really should be for a program of this size


Urban Tree Phenology Program (Database)
Organization National Ecological Observatory Network, Chicago Botanic Garden
Description Urban Tree Phenology, a daughter database of Project Budburst, is focused specifically on recording plant phenology events in urban areas. Observers record the leafing, flowering, and fruiting times of trees in urban areas and submit their observations to scientists interested in learning more about the effects of (1) climate in cities and (2) heat island effect.
Audience General public
Educational component For participants: Participants download a participation guide which describes how to collect and submit data
Connection to Climate Change Limited – connection to climate change is mentioned in the program description and in the “goals and outcomes.”
Peer-reviewed literature on participant outcomes? No results found for peer-reviewed studies on “Urban Tree Phenology Program”
Notes Although this program sounds promising, there is very little about this program published on the web.



Climate Change Monitoring Gardens (a.k.a. “Floral Report Card”) (Program + Database)
Organization Chicago Botanic Garden
Description Climate Change Monitoring Gardens is a national network of standardized Climate Change Monitoring Gardens (installed at botanical gardens, museums, and nature centers across the country) that help citizens and scientists study and compare the effects of climate change on plants in different regions. Participants observe and record plant life cycles, and compare data with past years as well as other monitoring gardens.
Audience Educators, program directors, coordinators; general public
Current sites Chicago Botanic Garden
Garfield Park Conservatory
Denver Botanic Garden
Wellesley College Botanic Garden
University of Washington Botanic Garden
North Carolina Botanical Garden
Educational component Educational components vary by site
Connection to Climate Change Connections to climate change vary by site
Peer-reviewed literature on participant outcomes? No results found for peer-reviewed studies on “Climate Change Monitoring Garden(s)” or “Floral Report Card”


Bird Migration: A Local Indicator of Climate Change (Citizen-science based curriculum)
Organization Franklin Institute
Description This curriculum (a component of the “Communicating Climate Change ” program) teaches students about climate change by (1) exploring the abundance and distribution of local birds according to the eBird database   and (2) exploring connections between abundance and distribution patterns and weather/climate trends. Students are then taught how to collect and submit data of their own.
Audience Teachers; educators at museums, science centers, nature centers
Current sites Arizona Science Center
Bishop Museum
Chabot Space & Science Center
Edventure Children’s Museum
Maryland Science Center
Museum of Discovery & Science
New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science
New York Hall of Science
Reuben Fleet Science Center
St. Louis Science Center
Educational component Students examine bird migration as a local indicator of climate change; learn to collect and submit citizen science data.

Th curriculum consists of four activities: “Understanding Climate Change,” “Bird Migration Patterns in My Area”, “Bird Sightings in My Area”, and “Bird Observation Data Analysis & Interpretation”

Connection to Climate Change According to the overview: “The goal of this curriculum is for students to increase their awareness and understanding of local indicators of climate change, and actively contribute to research in the field of ornithology.”
Peer-reviewed literature on participant outcomes? No results found for peer-reviewed studies on this program; I emailed the directors, and even they were not aware of any evaluations or publications based on this curriculum


[i] Dickinson, J.L., Zuckerberg, B. & Bonter, D.N. (2010) Citizen Science as an Ecological Research Tool: Challenges and Benefits. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, pp. 149-172

[ii] Citizen Science Central:

[iii] CAISE – Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education: Public Participation in Scientific Research:,resources-page-item-detail

[iv] Hand, E. (2010). “Citizen science: People power”. Nature 466 (7307): 685–687. doi:10.1038/466685a. PMID 20686547.

[v] Couvet D, Jiguet F, Julliard R, et al. 2008. Enhancing citizen contributions to biodiversity science and public policy. Interdiscipl Sci Rev 33: 95–103.

[vi] e.g., NWS-COOP, community-based water quality monitoring groups, Breeding Bird Survey, eBird, Nestwatch

[vii] Bonney, R., Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Kelling, S., Phillips, T., Rosenberg, K. V., & Shirk, J. Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. BioScience 59(11), 977–984. DOI: 10.1525/bio.2009.59.11.9 Retrieved from

[viii] Brossard, D., B. Lewenstein, and R. Bonney. 2005. Scientific knowledge and attitude change: The impact of a citizen science project.International Journal of Science Education 27 (9):1099–1121

[ix] Evans C, Abrams E, Reitsma R, et al. 2005. The Neighborhood Nestwatch Program: participant outcomes of a citizen-science ecological research project. Conserv Biol 19 :589–94. [CrossRef]

[x] Janis L Dickinson, Jennifer Shirk, David Bonter, Rick Bonney, Rhiannon L Crain, Jason Martin, Tina Phillips, and Karen Purcell. 2012. The current state of citizen science as a tool for ecological research and public engagement. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10: 291–297.

[xi] History of Public Participation in Ecological Reaaerch, Frontiers in Ecology:


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