Leading, Training, and Motivating Citizen Scientists

By Namrata Sengupta

Ellie Perry has been involved with the Earthwatch Urban Resiliency (UR) Program since June 2014, as the Los Angeles area Program Consultant. She assisted with the Operation Resilient Trees project. Ellie recruited and led citizen scientists into the field as well as trained them to collect data independently, during these past years. As we are wrapping up the Operation Resilient Trees project to get ready for our new program Operation Healthy Air, we decided to catch up with Ellie and let her share some of her experiences in leading citizen science initiatives.

Ellie Perry (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie Perry (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q1. What has been the most exciting part of being associated with the UR program?

I think most of the excitement came with trying to build a citizen science program almost entirely from scratch in an area where the organization (leading it) didn’t have much of a local presence to start.  Since there were so many directions the program could go, it was an exciting process to build it from the ground up, try out different engagement models, and figure out what ultimately would stick and resonate with people in the region.  

(photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
(Photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q2. Which aspect of the program motivated you the most?

I was mostly motivated by the citizen scientists themselves, and how committed they were to contributing and volunteering their time.  During my tenure, hundreds of people dedicated hours and hours to collect data for this project, not to mention the many educators who led entire classrooms semester after semester in collecting data in the field.  To freely volunteer that much time and put in that much effort when the final policy impacts from their work are still years off, takes serious dedication and foresight.  Citizen science isn’t as immediately gratifying as something like volunteering at a soup kitchen, doing a beach clean-up, or working at an animal shelter, and a lot of potential volunteers get turned off by the fact that it may take months or years for their efforts to result in something tangible they can immediately see.  The fact that these volunteers decided to serve as citizen scientists fully understanding that is admirable.  

(photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie interacting with citizen scientists (Photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q3. What were some of the challenges you experienced while working with this program?

One of the current problems in citizen science as a whole is the general suspicion that volunteers will never be able to collect data as efficiently as a scientist.  Even though many of these measurements are relatively easy to take, there was constant scrutiny and pressure on the effectiveness of the training, the quality of the data, the competency of the volunteers, etc. especially since there was no previous benchmark to compare with.

Q4. Can you share one or two of your favorite experiences from the program?

Reverting to the issue of citizen scientist-collected data being scrutinized harder than that collected by scientists, it was incredibly satisfying to hear the results of the recent quality control study the lab/Earthwatch performed on the data.  There’s a recent blog post covering the full results, but they mostly found that the data the citizen scientists were bringing in was well within 95%+ accuracy of the data collected by themselves (which statistically is no difference at all).  It gave a lot of confidence to the researchers and Earthwatch, and it was a real affirmation that the training we were providing to the citizen scientists was effective.  

Ellie with Operation Resilient Trees - citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie with Operation Resilient Trees – citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q5. What message would you like to give to the larger community interested in getting involved in citizen science projects and initiatives?

I would say it’s important to be patient if you’re going to get involved with citizen science.  As I mentioned previously, it’s a very slow walk from data to results to policy impacts, not a sprint. Bridging the communication gap between science and the public is an incredibly rare skill, and it’s not very common to find leaders who can speak to both sides of the table equally well.  Being patient while the kinks that will ultimately arise as a result get worked out is important if you want to stay involved for the long haul.  

Urban Resiliency Program citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Urban Resiliency Program citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

To explore citizen science opportunities with the UR program, connect with us and learn how to get involved.

Measuring Success: Operation Resilient Trees in the Classroom

Joe Hartley class(Photo credit for all pictures in this blog post goes to Carrie Lederer: http://www.carrierpigeonproductions.com)


Can the same training materials used to turn members of the public into bonafide citizen scientists be used to teach students to become citizen scientists as well?  Absolutely!  And to prove it, microgrant awardee Joe Hartley from Larchmont Charter School based a multi-day lesson plan on the Operation Resilient Trees protocol for 20 of his 8th grade students, collecting valuable measurements for Resilient Trees 3.0 in the process.  Here are his thoughts:

1. Name (First and Last):

Joe Hartley

2. School/Organization:

Larchmont Charter School, 2801 6th, Los Angeles, CA 90057

3. Number of Students and Age/Grade Ranges that participated:

20 students, 13-14 years old/8th grade (as of March, 2017)

4. What urban forestry concepts did you teach in the classroom, and what methods did you use? 


Mr Joe Hartley


I used the Earthwatch Powerpoints at the beginning to introduce them to the project, followed by a couple of days of tree identification that were less than successful, possibly because the students were middle-schoolers. We spent a couple of days training on the equipment, and a day in doing the actual measurements.

5. What hands-on activities did you have your students perform to reinforce these concepts?


Mr Hartley's measures


We practiced at some length to allow mastery of the GPS unit, the measuring of tree diameters (very hard for middle schoolers to remember which side of the diameter measure to use, and required almost universal correction and reteaching), and even the use of tape measures.


6. How did you use and/or modify Earthwatch’s Resilient Trees protocol in your hands-on activity to measure trees? (E.g. what data fields did you use, leave out, or adapt)No modifications.


7. What were the best positive outcomes for your students as a result of these urban forestry lesson plans?

EW plug w kids

The students showed a clear pride of authorship and work in completing all the measurements of trees on rather difficult terrain (sloping hills around La Fayette Park). They struggled with some of the measurements (particularly the tree diameter), but eventually all of them got it right, even if they needed a bit of reminding. By the end of the class, they were demonstrably faster and more accurate in their measurements.


Kids measure 38. What did your students have the most fun doing?

They really got into taking the measurements and working the equipment.

9. What were some challenges you faced in implementing these lesson plans? Do you have any best practices or techniques you used to overcome these challenges?I really didn’t have enough equipment to train the students efficiently in the way I structured it with only two GPS units and one kit on hand. I recommend deferring equipment training until you get the Earthwatch kits, and then have them to all the measurements on different trees, and then do the measurements the next class session. I’m hopeful to get some more GPS units so I won’t have that problem in the future, but you can do it just by assuring that you have the kits for long enough for the students to train with them. Don’t try to teach middle-school students tree identification; there are too many variables for them to process. Focus on having them taking the measurements. High school students may be able to handle the tree identification, but we spun our wheels with the middle-schoolers.


Want a copy of the lesson plans Joe used in his classroom?  Download the lesson plan outlines here:
Resilient Tree Initiative Lesson Plans-Hartley

10. What advice do you have for fellow educators wanting to implement a similar lesson plan? Any recommendations for facilitation techniques?I did a lot of work teaching the proper identification of the trees. For middle school, I think it was overkill. Were I to do it again, I’d simply decide which trees were present, assign one to each team, and have them locate it in the park as part of the exercise.It’s also important to give the students lots of practice on real trees. I was limited to a bunch of rubber trees on our campus. The other limitation we had was that at that time I didn’t have quite enough tape measures to go around (BTW, I supplemented the bags provided by Earthwatch with 100’ tape measured, which I recommend be added to the kit or provided by the school; they’re not expensive and useful for all sorts of other things). I would suggest back-to-back lessons, where the students are doing measurements on trees that are roughly the size of those they will measure, but not the ones they will actually measure. In my revised lesson plan, we’d wait to train until we had all the kits in hand, because it’s easy to be too short in the equipment. So I’d train them with the exact kits they’re going to use, and then the next day assign the actual measurements. I’d have them run through ALL the measurements instead waiting for the day of the training to demonstrate the ones we couldn’t do at school. This requires an available park, but ours is quite literally just across the street.

11. If other educators have questions about how you implemented your lesson plan, may they contact you?  If so, please list the contact information you would like publicly displayed on our website.I would be pleased and honored. Best way of contacting me is by email at hartley@larchmontcharter.org, or mail at Joe Hartley/Larchmont Charter School/2801 6th St./Los Angeles, CA 90057.  I’ll email them my cell phone from there.

12 Do you personally plan to share this with/recommend these activities to other educators?  Why or why not?

Mr Hartley's measures 4


The project was extremely popular with the students, once they got into the habit of measuring. We had a similar reaction earlier in the year to the “Globe at Night” project, where the students participated enthusiastically once they began observations. This kind of “hands-on” experience, particularly outside the classroom, is extremely valuable even if the precise subjects (e.g., botany and urban forest ecology) are not directly in the year’s curriculum. Our students, like most, often lack basic measuring skills, which has serious drawbacks in math and science. Any activity that generates interest while simultaneously allowing the students to practice real measurement for an obviously real and important study has significant positive carry-over to all math and science courses they will take in middle school and high school.


Our school is a constructivist school by design, and most of the teachers and students have a keen interest in environmental matters. I have been working with other science teachers as well as our incoming new administration to formalize this program and train the students progressively from middle-school onward so that we will build a cadre of dedicated, well-trained teenager able to handle increasingly-sophisticated measurements and monitoring. Earthwatch has been an invaluable beginning step for the student, the school, and me personally in figuring out how best to structure this training.

For more on Joe’s experience working on Operation Resilient Trees with his students, visit his own blog post on this project here:  https://lessthan3ley.wordpress.com/2017/04/02/citizen-science-at-larchmont-middle-school-earthwatchs-resilient-trees-project/