Grant Awarded to Investigate Learning Through Citizen Science

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NSF Awards Grant to National Geographic to Investigate Learning Through Citizen Science

Oct 28, 2010

Chandra Teitscheid
(202) 828-6678

WASHINGTON—The National Science Foundation has awarded a $2.7 million, five-year grant to the National Geographic Society to launch a major educational initiative that will engage the public in scientific research about the world around them. In this educational research and development project, National Geographic will develop and evaluate a Web-based software platform called FieldScope to support citizen science projects involving geographic data.

In a citizen science project, members of the public participate in scientific data collection or analysis. For example, in the Christmas Bird Count, one of the longest-running citizen science initiatives in the United States, volunteers from around the country conduct a census of birds in their area during a three-week period in December and January and submit their census to the National Audubon Society. With this project, National Geographic is looking to exploit the potential of citizen science projects to provide science learning opportunities for their participants, especially for young people.   

While the growth of the Internet has contributed to an explosion in the number of citizen science initiatives, the development of a technology infrastructure has remained an obstacle for citizen science project organizers because there are no specialized tools or resources for creating citizen science platforms. Each organization has to develop its own database, entry tools and tools for displaying and/or analyzing data. For scientific and educational organizations that are typically interested in launching citizen science initiatives, the development of this technological infrastructure can be a serious technical and financial challenge. 

Through this NSF-funded project, the National Geographic Society will be helping scientific and educational organizations address this challenge by providing them with tools to quickly and inexpensively launch citizen science projects on the Web.

The project is focusing on a particular type of citizen science project that National Geographic calls “community geography.” In a community geography project, participants collect observations or measurements in different locations and analyze them for geographic patterns. Funded by NSF’s Informal Science Education Program, the FieldScope platform is being developed with particular concern for the needs of projects whose goals include providing science-learning experiences to their participants.

Said Daniel Edelson, National Geographic’s vice president for education, “Community geography is a ‘killer app’ for teaching young people how to reason about geography. Students get to observe firsthand how factors vary with location and to learn from the data of others about how different places are connected.” 

In the first phase of the project, National Geographic will develop easy-to-use tools for the three critical components of a community geography project. Using state-of-the-art geographic information systems (GIS) and social networking technologies, FieldScope will allow participants to upload data to a communal database, display, interpret and analyze the community’s data and discuss their findings with the other members of the community. 

Sue Allen, acting director of NSF’s Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings, said, “The development of capabilities to collect, store and share data as well as utilize new tools for understanding data will greatly influence the ability of the public to participate in science research as well as increase public understanding of science generally.”

During the first phase, National Geographic will work with two “testbed partners” currently running community geography projects, who will provide input into the design of FieldScope. Project BudBurst, run by the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), collects data about the timing of seasonal changes in trees and shrubs, such as the date of first blooms in the spring or changes in leaf color in the fall. FrogWatch USA, run by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, collects data about the ranges of frog and other amphibian species.

This first phase has two goals: (1) to solve the technical and usability challenges of supporting large-scale community geography projects, and (2) to demonstrate the educational value of community geography projects for their participants. In addition to designing and developing FieldScope, National Geographic and the testbed partners will collaborate on the design of educational materials for participants and on assessing the scientific and geographic learning that takes place when school-age children participate in these projects.

During the second phase of the project, National Geographic will develop a suite of open “FieldScope Project Builder” tools that will enable any organization to construct and manage its own FieldScope community geography site. National Geographic also will implement open protocols to allow outside developers to extend the functionality of FieldScope. In this phase, National Geographic will work with a larger circle of community geography projects, particularly smaller, regional projects, to ensure the FieldScope platform meets their needs as well. 

The goal of the project is to create a powerful, open technology platform to support community geography projects, so that organizations interested in launching community geography initiatives for educational or scientific purposes can focus their resources on building and supporting their community rather than their technological infrastructure.

“With this project, the NSF and National Geographic will make it possible for thousands of people who have great ideas for community geography projects but lack the technical expertise or resources to build a technology infrastructure themselves,” Edelson said.

This project will be conducted by the Education Programs division of the National Geographic Society. National Geographic Education works to improve geographic literacy in the United States and around the world by developing educational resources, providing professional development to teachers and advocating for educational reform. This work is done through a combination of direct action and grant making under the auspices of the National Geographic Education Foundation. National Geographic Education also serves as the education outreach arm for National Geographic’s Global Media and Mission Programs. For more information, visit

The National Geographic Society is one of the world’s largest nonprofit scientific and educational organizations. Founded in 1888 to “increase and diffuse geographic knowledge,” the Society works to inspire people to care about the planet. It reaches more than 375 million people worldwide each month through its official journal, National Geographic, and other magazines; National Geographic Channel; television documentaries; music; radio; films; books; DVDs; maps; exhibitions; live events; school publishing programs; interactive media; and merchandise. National Geographic has funded more than 9,400 scientific research, conservation and exploration projects and supports an education program promoting geographic literacy. For more information, visit


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