The Bell Museum with grass and flowers in the foreground

Citizen Science Amidst the Pandemic: Virtual volunteer opportunities at the Bell

Published09/29/2021 , by Emily Dzieweczynski

Although the pandemic put a pause on the Bell’s volunteer program, some dedicated volunteers pressed on with new, virtual opportunities. One Bell Museum Volunteer, Elizabeth Heeren, logged close to 250 hours as a virtual volunteer during the pandemic! Heeren, a passionate naturalist and dedicated citizen scientist, graciously shared a bit more about her experience as a virtual volunteer. 

A volunteer with short brown hair and glasses

Elizabeth Heeren at the Bell

When the Bell closed due to the pandemic, our in-person volunteer program was put on hold and volunteer coordinator Kate Sigurdson helped put volunteers in touch with other, existing virtual opportunities. These opportunities included citizen science projects that ranged from transcribing astronomers’ notebooks to identifying species caught on camera traps. A Bell volunteer since 2018, Heeren decided that she wanted to stay connected to the Bell despite the closure and virtually contribute to citizen science projects. Every week, Heeren would volunteer on a website called Zooniverse, which offers a range of different citizen science projects to contribute to.  

One of the projects Heeren worked on over the pandemic was created by the University of Minnesota Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve—a long-term research site that’s featured in the Bell’s Imagine the Future gallery. For this project, called “Eyes on the Wild,” citizen scientists are asked to review pictures of wildlife caught on camera traps and identify the different species photographed. Heeren explained that it didn’t take a lot of training to get started. In fact, the program made it very easy by including built in field guides with the most commonly seen species. Plus, if you aren’t sure of the identification, the images are reviewed multiple times by different citizen scientists. That way, researchers can cross-check identifications and take the most common answer. 

A deer caught by a camera trap

Image from Zooniverse

In many ways, citizen scientists play a crucial role in research. In the case of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem project, the cameras capture thousands of pictures and it would take research teams extraordinary time and effort to review all of them. Cue, citizen scientists. With the generous support and help from citizen scientists, these pictures are being quickly turned into meaningful data that scientists can use.

Another reason why citizen scientists are so important to researchers, Heeren explained, is because they can often reach data that researchers wouldn’t be able to collect on their own or would be difficult to do so. For example, citizen scientists living in rural areas can relay information and data to scientists living in more urban areas. A great example of this is the citizen science project iNaturalist. iNaturalist—a downloadable app used to identify and catalog biodiversity —allows citizen scientists to create a vast database documenting different species across the world.

Heeren is passionate about citizen science because, as she shared, “you both give something and you get something.” In the example of iNaturalist, everytime you contribute to the database, you also get to learn more about the world around you—new identifications, the characteristics of different species, information about their habitat—the list goes on and on!

Heeren also finds that carefully observing the world around her through citizen science projects can make the research more meaningful. It presents an opportunity to develop direct connections between the things you’re seeing in the environment and things being studied. Heeren shared a story about how, on another citizen science project, she began to notice that Japanese beetles were attracted to and damaging sycamore trees. It was not long before she found out that one of the researchers was indeed writing a paper on that!

If you’re interested in volunteering with the Bell, we encourage you to reach out! While virtual volunteering is great, we are excited to announce that we are now accepting applications for in-person volunteer opportunities! If you’d like to get involved, we encourage you to reach out. In the words of Heeren, “it’s fun and anyone can help!”