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Creating a generation of citizen scientists

22 January 2013


Yesterday the BIG-funded Open Air Laboratory Project (OPAL) released a new Community Environment Report – celebrating the range of information collected by ‘citizen scientists’ who took part in some hands-on environmental surveys.

In this guest blog, Giorgio de Faveri explains how OPAL is getting people of all ages and backgrounds thinking about the science on their doorsteps. Over the past five years, six succcessful surveys have been launched – each a unique learning experience.

Man shows girl what he has caught in a pond net

Ben Goldsmith from the OPAL Water Centre shows Katie Tucker what is in his net (Credit OPAL)

The recent outbreak of ash dieback disease showed how delicate and vulnerable our environment is. Tracking the spread of plant diseases and the health of our country’s environment in general is no easy task, but with the Open Air Laboratory Project, OPAL, citizen scientists can give a helping hand

As the first and biggest of a new breed of citizen science projects, OPAL is an engaging and inspiring project, and far more interactive than clicking images on a computer screen. OPAL’s activities are all about getting people outdoors, enjoying and discovering their local environment while helping to answer important research questions.

Supported by the Big Lottery Fund’s Changing Spaces programme, OPAL was created in 2007 with the vision to provide an opportunity for all sectors of society to participate in science. The flagship activities of the project, over the years, have been its nature surveys, designed by scientists to give people the knowledge and the tools to record the local wildlife and their habitats.

“We don’t ask people to do the work for us,” says Linda Davies, Director of OPAL. “Our approach is simple, we provide the people with the tools and skills they need to become amateur naturalists, all they need is enthusiasm. Our scientists design activities that can be done by everyone and that get people closer to nature, tangibly and at heart. Then, if they wish and many do, they can share their findings with us so that our scientists can interpret them and use the information to gain new insights into the state of England’s environment.”

Girls examine bugs they have found

Olivia and Jade from Rydon Primary School, Kingsteignton in Devon, looking at the bugs they have found (Credit OPAL)

Over the past five years, OPAL has launched six surveys (all still on-going): Soil, Air, Water, Climate and two about biodiversity: Hedges and Bugs. Visit the OPAL website’s survey pages to read these in more detail. 

Each of them is accompanied with a field pack, including the survey questions, field kit of materials needed, field guides and extra information about the topic.

OPAL Community Scientists travelled the country offering help and training to amateur societies, schools and other groups to make each survey a unique learning experience.

To thank and acknowledge the contribution of everyone that participated, yesterday we released our Community Environment Report, an engaging summary of the information collected in all the previous surveys including preliminary findings from our scientists.

OPAL has been very successful so far. A most welcome legacy for the years to come will be both knowing we helped to inspire a new generation of nature-loving young people that care and respect their environment, and also to have encouraged people to undertake studies and careers in natural sciences.

But it’s not all over yet! In the spring, OPAL will launch its seventh survey, focussing on the health of our trees. So keep a close eye on our OPAL website as the registration will open soon! More detailed results from the surveys will follow throughout the year too.

Giorgio de Faveri is OPAL Communications Officer at The Natural History Museum

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