Engaging the curious: WSU Extension educates and empowers citizen scientists

Opportunities to observe the natural world exist everywhere in the Pacific Northwest, with important questions awaiting the passionate and the curious: “Is that a species of crab I’ve never seen here before?” “How can you tell if a western redcedar tree is healthy?” “What do shellfish eat?”

Washington State University Extension programs engage budding citizen scientists, educating them and encouraging them to go outside and take part in answering questions like these.

Through scientific inquiry and data gathering, volunteer citizen scientists make meaningful impacts and discoveries, according to Karen Lewis, director of WSU Extension’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Unit. To take one example, 23% of all invasive invertebrate pests reported to WSU Extension over more than two decades, 1990 to 2014, were logged by members of the public.

“WSU Extension citizen science programming spans the state of Washington,” Lewis said. “We have a long history of training citizen scientists through both Master Gardeners and 4-H. It is exciting to offer a diversity of programs for Washingtonians to tap into their inner scientist and contribute to a body of knowledge that leads to well-informed public policy and practices.”

Using citizen science to make local and statewide impacts, other Extension programs that engage the public include the Beach Naturalists, Washington State Naturalists, and Forest Health Watch.

Beach Naturalists

A group of seven people observe features in the intertidal zone. Some take measurements and hold tools.
Beach Naturalist volunteers collecting data as part of Olympia oyster restoration at Discovery Bay. Photo by Cheryl Lowe, WSU.

Bob Simmons, a WSU Extension water resources specialist in Jefferson County, coordinates a number of water- and natural resource-based community programs. Among them is the Beach Naturalists Program, which is offered in four shoreline counties in Washington state.

Beach Naturalists conduct many different kinds of outreach and science education, including recorded observations of invasive green crab and counts of chum caught via fyke net. Simmons highlights their partnership with the Puget Sound-area SoundToxins program, a partnership of shell- and finfish producers, environmental learning centers, native nations, and volunteers.

“Extension-trained volunteers go out weekly and work with SoundToxins, taking samples of algae and then sending them to the lab for toxins analysis,” Simmons said. “If toxins are detected in the algae, that means that shellfish are unsafe to eat at that time.”

“It’s impactful work,” he added.

Washington State Naturalists

Nine people stand in a prairie meadow. Wildflowers in foreground and conifers in background.
The first class of Washington State Naturalists tour the Glacier Heritage Preserve in May 2022. Photo by Angela Winter.

Patricia Townsend, associate professor and environment and community outreach specialist with WSU Snohomish County Extension, coordinates the Washington State Naturalist program, a pilot program that began in 2021.

The Washington State Naturalist program provides interested participants with a background in environmental science. Afterward, participants may choose to connect with scientists or programming in their region for further outreach.

“We live in a remarkable state in terms of topography and biodiversity,” said Townsend. “It’s really important to spend time in nature noticing the changing seasons and connecting with the resources we need on a daily basis: water, air, food, or clothing.”

Forest Health Watch

Someone lectures to a group of people in the forest on a forest path. He indicates to something in a handout he holds.
Researcher Joseph Hulbert educates a group of Forest Health Watch volunteers during a field trip. Photo by Tom Anderson, Issaquah Alps Trails Club.

Joseph Hulbert, a postdoctoral researcher with the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center, coordinates Forest Health Watch, a program that engages people and communities in Pacific Northwest tree health research.

Forest Health Watch has built a network of people in the Northwest who record observations of western redcedar dieback while learning about tree health.

“You can follow our work in real-time in iNaturalist,” Hulbert said, referring to the 284 volunteers who have logged more than 2,000 observations to date.

“Volunteers share valid hypotheses about reasons for redcedar dieback during program activities such as our monthly research updates,” he added. “I learn a lot from the volunteers, too.”

Aside from simply being curious, Hulbert thinks it adds an element of purpose to outdoor activities.

“People are drawn to this type of citizen science volunteerism because it provides answers to things happening in their own communities,” he said.

And that is a good thing, since public involvement is key to protecting forests from pests and diseases.

“We are working together to keep our forests and communities healthy,” Hulbert said.