“The key to engaging ‘our future’ – the millennials!”

Tina Phillips travelled from New York to attend CitSciOz18 and gleaned some top tips on how to engage the younger generation.

  • Tina Phillips from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

After attending the Australian Citizen Science Association meeting, I can affirm that citizen science is alive and well in Australia! I really enjoyed visiting this beautiful country, and the backdrop of the amazing diversity of citizen science presented at the conference made it even more rewarding. I learnt a lot about Australia’s history; extraordinary biodiversity; and its warm and friendly people. I found the city of Adelaide to be more bustling than I expected and the surrounding countryside to be serene, but also exciting because of the prospect of spotting Australia’s famous marsupials.

Although the majority of projects I heard about during the conference were relatively young, there was good representation across every discipline – from botany to ornithology to astronomy to water quality and public health. Across most projects was an emphasis on minimizing barriers, maximizing data quality, and leveraging easy-to-use technology such as smartphones, wearable sensors, and (well-known) social media apps. The growth in the number of projects over the last few years has been exponential, and much of the ecological data are housed in the Atlas of Living Australia, which supports the field-based data repository needs of the citizen science community. In time, and with enough data, this repository will become invaluable for cataloging Australia’s biodiversity.

With session titles like #Engagingcitizens, #EmpowerWithData, #SocialResearch, #Communication, and #ShowcasingOutcomes, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of social science research being conducted in Australia.  I found it difficult to choose among sessions!  I managed to jump around – hearing about emerging research on immediate versus sustained engagement; ways to enhance social relationships within projects; education and engagement outcomes; motivation; social justice; and the importance of intrapersonal communication even in the digital age.

A particularly lively session moderated by Philip Roetman highlighted four different projects, each co-presented by a project leader and a citizen scientist. This session left me wondering why don’t we include more citizens in our conferences, and why are “cat people” so funny?

Rustem Upton–a freelance environmental educator–described the five dimensions of ongoing participation, including: contribution; interest; program organization/efficacy; contribution to a local area; and personal and social benefit. Several of these dimensions overlap with results from my own dissertation research that I refer to as “Dimensions of Engagement” (social, affective, cognitive, motivational, and behavioral). So halfway across the world, in different institutions, the cumulative nature of science often leads to parallel results.

Finally, I’d like to recap an especially enthusiastic and informative session led by Margot Law and Ellie Downing, who presented first-hand knowledge of how to engage the elusive millennial in citizen science! With an unemployment rate of 13%, millennials are looking to engage in projects that not only align with their values regarding basic human rights, the environment, and climate change, but also offer tangible skills and experiences that prepare them for the competitive job market. Given that many millennials are self-employed (#creativegeneration), they have excellent problem-solving, data analysis, reference, and communication skills, making them ideal citizen scientists. They are extremely tech savvy and highly networked and can be key figures in social media efforts. Perhaps the most important reason to engage with millennials is that they represent the transition between current and future leaders. They are our future leaders, so getting their support for citizen science now may have lasting influence in the coming years when they serve as leaders and decision makers.

So how do projects attract and retain millennials? According to Margot and Ellie, it’s important to share your passion but also make clear the project’s long-term goals. Also, the social aspect of engagement is very important to millennials, so think outside the box when it comes to project structure. For example, consider “meet-ups” instead of memberships, or host your meeting in a pub with the backdrop of beer and chips.  Or look to partner with different groups such as sports or outdoor clubs. Emphasize fun and accessibility, but maintain a safe, inclusive, and welcoming environment. Give positive feedback often and regularly and try to provide certification for citizen science participation (apparently, millennials love recognition, memes, and certificates!). Most importantly, don’t make assumptions about millennials based on unfounded stereotypes, instead, respect and listen to them. Their energy, new perspectives, and fresh ideas may lead to new ways of thinking. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what drives growth and innovation?

In closing, I would like to thank all of the ACSA organizers for their generosity in time and resources, their energy and enthusiasm, and for putting together a welcoming and highly informative program. I learnt a lot, and immensely enjoyed the casual gatherings to meet and engage with new colleagues.  I left Australia with continued commitment and new inspiration for elevating and promoting the value of citizen science.

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