CSI: NY - Citizen Science Investigations in New York City

John Rowden

John Rowden is being honored as a Champion of Change for his dedication to increasing public engagement in science and science literacy.

"Mister, I hate birds." With those words, my relationship with Stacy began. Stacy was a student at a Bronx satellite high school that offers the opportunity for students who have not succeeded in other schools to get a diploma. From her seen-it-all attitude and the way she fixed me with an appraising look as she walked into our first session, it was clear that Stacy had one thing on her mind: getting to graduation, and I surmised that selling her on a citizen science project about  birds wasn’t going to be an easy job. 

My work with Stacy and her classmates was part of my Toyota TogetherGreen conservation leadership fellowship from the National Audubon Society. I had been chosen with others from around the country to complete conservation action projects in our communities.  One of the stated goals of the program is to engage diverse audiences in conservation, and the focus of my project was to expand the reach of New York City Audubon’s citizen science program, both geographically and demographically. So I was spending one day a week in the Bronx with this group of students who came in not knowing or caring anything about the subject. I’ve been studying birds almost as long as some of these students had been alive, and wondered whether I could get them to feel my passion for birds and science.

Citizen science offers a unique opportunity to involve people in real scientific research and can have enormous benefits: greatly expanding the ability of scientists to collect data, creating a more scientifically literate population, and allowing people to better understand their role in protecting nature. During my fellowship I worked with the students to teach them bird identification, survey techniques, and rigorous data collection. Although our monitoring area along the Bronx River included a scrap metal yard and several combined sewer outflow pipes, our monitoring excursions offered a surprising respite from the urban surroundings. We saw Brant geese hanging south before their journey to the Arctic, belted kingfishers flying back and forth across the river staking out territories, and flycatchers making their acrobatic sorties in search of insects. The students began to appreciate that birds were more than just pigeons they encountered scraping by in the city. And the data they contributed gave us valuable insight into bird populations in an area that was under-represented in our database.

By June the students were anxious to finish the year and get on to graduation. When I checked in with Stacy the last week (as I did every week) about how she felt about birds, she said she thought they were “kind of cool.” I didn't make the students into a bunch of avid birders but I do believe they'll think a little differently about their relationship to science, appreciate birds a little more, and know that they made a difference. Citizen science can do that.

I recently moved from NYC Audubon to National Audubon where I manage the national Toyota TogetherGreen grants program and evaluation of conservation results. Citizen science is a key component of Audubon’s efforts to impact conservation across the country and I continue to champion its use as a tool for positive change in communities.

John Rowden is the Toyota TogetherGreen research and grants manager for the National Audubon Society.

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