Making a Visible Difference through Citizen Science

By Laura Stewart

About the author: Laura Stewart is an Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education (ORISE) research participant in the EPA Region 10 office.

My first citizen science project was in 1999; working on a United Nations-funded project in Swaziland. In a poor community near a paper mill, we worked to address environmental and local health concerns due to the plant’s emissions. As a result of the youth-led project, the factory extended the height of its smoke stakes to disperse the emissions, which improved air quality. Seeing this interplay between environmental science and social justice changed my life.

Me (in all black) with the Swaziland "bucket brigade."

Me (in all black) with the Swaziland “bucket brigade.”

Today, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related jobs are some of the fastest growing sectors in the United States, growing to an estimated 9 million jobs by 2022.

Despite this projected growth, diversity in these fields is decreasing. Since 1991, 12 percent fewer women are earning computer science degrees. According to a National Science Foundation report, 8 percent of Hispanics and 4 percent of African Americans earned bachelors degrees in engineering, and currently people of color make up less than 20 percent of staff in the nation’s environmental organizations.

I believe these trends are creating the potential for a fundamental problem in trying to solve environmental and health challenges – how can we make a visible difference in low-income and minority communities when people from those communities are not taking part in STEM? I believe using citizen science at the community level provides a great answer to this problem.

Citizen science is the involvement of regular people in the discovery of scientific knowledge. Citizen scientists come from all walks of life, harnessing the power of information towards a common goal.

Here at EPA, I’m working on a community-based research project testing the beta version of a new EPA resource, the Community-Focused Exposure and Risk Screening Tool (C-FERST). C-FERST is a web-based environmental information and mapping tool that EPA researchers are developing where communities can identify, understand, and address local-scale sources of environmental exposure, thus becoming a part of the expanding pool of citizen scientists:

  • In Tacoma, Washington we used C-FERST with local government, a nonprofit organization, and a local college to look into food access, houselessness and infant mortality.
  • At Portland Community College, students assessed disproportionate impact, environmental justice concerns and air quality.
  • At Concordia University, social work students used the tool to interpret the real-life implications of environmental data for an upcoming project that focuses on creating safer, healthier, and more educated communities.
  • At Groundwork Portland, youth in a summer employment program used the tool for a livability study. By using C-FERST information about brownfields and air quality, students were able to inform their field research and advocate for equitable development practices in one of their city’s urban growth corridors.
  • In Seattle, we partnered with Antioch University to train their Masters of Urban Environmental Education graduates to use C-FERST to develop culturally-responsive curricula. As part of a STEM summer program at Garfield High School in Seattle, C-FERST was used to teach high school and middle school children of color about environmental justice issues including food justice, urban blight, and transit access. Students learned to conduct a community assessment, create and upload GIS map layers, and envision interim uses for vacant properties in their community.

Citizen Scientiest Groundwork Portland

I believe citizen science dares us to recognize how power imbalances affect the unique experiences of communities and people’s abilities to positively change their communities. Citizen science gives us the opportunity to return that power back into the hands of communities, potentially changing lives, not just the immediate results from science projects, but engaging members of these communities in the long term power of STEM disciplines and what they can bring to their communities.

What is your community doing to make a visible difference through citizen science?