While I and others in this wintry clime await the days of parka-free hikes and skies filled with bird-song, I enjoy attending the UW Arboretum’s weekly Winter Enrichment lecture series. The lecture series was originally designed to connect Arboretum educators with UW research and ecological experts over the quiet days of winter. The program has since evolved to offer weekly education and fellowship to over 100 attendees from across the community. A recent lecture focused on the breadth of work being done in Citizen Science. This is a particular area of expertise at the Arboretum as they oversee a dozen programs that encourage community members to seek out, jot down, and share information about the world around us.

According to NationalGeographic.org, the definition of Citizen Science is “the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs.” Kids who are working with the University of Minnesota Extension’s “Driven to Discover” program explain Citizen Science this way:

Here are a few highlights of the programs you can get involved with at the Arboretum:

  • Bumble Bees: Perhaps most exciting in the Arboretum’s citizen science accomplishments is the discovery of a rare and endangered bumble bee on the Arboretum grounds. In 2010, a photographer snapped a shot of a Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee foraging among Arboretum flowers. This finding spurred a robust Citizen Science project to monitor local pollinators. The resulting Bumble Bee Brigade is managed by the Department of Natural Resources and connects to the ATRI Network (Aquatic Terrestrial Resources Inventory). You can join the bee brigade by taking a bit of training, tracking your hours out in the wild, filling out an observation form, and submitting it to the scientists who are monitoring the Rusty-Patch’s status.
  • Monarchs: The Arboretum’s Director, Karen Oberhauser, has a long history in monarch research. So, it’s no surprise she’s fostering lively monarch Citizen Science participant-ship at the Arboretum. The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project focuses on “monarch distribution and abundance during the breeding season in North America.” And the Integrated Monarch Monitoring Program works to collect data on the way monarchs use milkweed for laying eggs, larval feeding, and nectar collection. They use the help of citizen scientists to “collect data during all phases of the annual life cycle of monarch breeding, migrating, and overwintering.” (Check out “For Families” below for ways, in addition to becoming a citizen scientist, you can help monarch populations.) 

Also worth checking out: The Madison Mycological Society, is a relatively new organization that welcomes people who are interested in fungi. Their mission is “to educate and excite the public about fungi so that instead of fearing them we can learn and work with them for a healthier, more sustainable, and tastier living.” 

Did You Know:

There is currently a bit of debate and discussion in the scientific world around the word “citizen” in Citizen Science. To be clear, the term citizen is not meant to denote actual citizenship, it is meant to differentiate between professional scientists and the general population. Anyone is welcome to participate in the collection and sharing of data regarding our natural resources. However, regardless of the intended meaning, the recent politicization of the word citizen has encouraged some thoughtful community members and scientists to advocate for shifting the moniker to “Community Science.”

To Do This Month:

  • Check out CitizenScience.gov to find out how you can contribute to federal research. 
  • Check out the many citizen science projects not mentioned above that take place at the UW-Arboretum. They have a wide range of projects, anything from the Asian Jumping Worm monitoring to migration tracking!
  • Help out at a Restoration Workday offered at many of our Nature Net Sites. These workdays are listed on our website.
  • See what kind of plants and animals you can find on a late-winter hike at a Nature Net site. How many of each plant type and animal did you see?
  • Check out the SciStarter website to learn about the ten principles of citizen science and discover over 3,000 citizen science projects that are available to take part in.
  • The Nature Net Calendar is updated monthly with activities happening at Nature Net sites, so you can visit our website to learn about upcoming nature-based and educational events for you and your family.

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For Educators:

Journey North 

Journey North, which uses citizen science to track the migratory patterns of multiple species (including bald eagles and cranes), also maintains an interactive “Mystery Class” program for classrooms. Mystery Class bills itself as “a global game of hide-and-seek.” 

Many animals base their seasonal change in behavior (like migration, and in the case of my backyard hen coop, egg-laying) on the amount of available daylight – also known as the photoperiod. Therefore, Journey North works to train young learners on the cycles of the earth’s relationship with the sun. Mystery Class gives classrooms clues to unknown locations around the globe based on the amount of sunlight they receive. Students do the work to calculate the photoperiod and match their data with a corresponding latitude. 

Teachers are supplied with a Participation Guide, including worksheets, and standards alignment. The mystery site answers are posted in mid-April. 

For Families:

Monarch Parenting

The Monarch Joint Venture is – as many of us are – concerned about the recent drop in monarch butterfly population. To that end, they offer many ways for families and community members to get involved in changing that trend. The Monarch Joint Venture offers tips and ideas on parenting your own flock of monarchs by planting milkweed (the monarch caterpillar’s only food source). And, of course, you’re invited to take part in citizen monitoring of the egg, larva, chrysalis, and adult life stages of monarchs.  

Providing a food source for caterpillars and adults, and a place for egg-laying is critical. You can help by adding even a small patch of milkweed in your yard (or school, church, etc). Milkweed can be started from seed or from cuttings, and the grown plants prefer full sunlight. Find out more from MonarchWatch.org. 

Other resources for creating milkweed habitats for monarchs include: SaveOurMonarchs.org, the US Forest Service, and my favorite, the XercesSociety

Now is the perfect time to start planning your garden – in just a few weeks we can start planting seeds indoors to transplant later in the year.


Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator and Director of Nature Net. She is a strong believer in the power of #VitaminN
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.