The first step for citizen scientists: enjoying nature

By March 9th, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Comment

To swing, or not to swing...

Sometimes you just have to get started…

During the past week, I’ve experienced nature from a state of semiconsciousness in my bed. Almost every morning, the same lonely male cardinal practices his songs for spring, occasionally interrupted by a pair of blue jays imitating a hawk or a small flock of monk parakeets flying overhead from their nests.

There’s something special about doing citizen science from your bedroom with your eyes closed – even if I have yet to find a project that will accept data that is taken while you’re half-asleep.

A couple of days ago, I had a brilliant idea: citizen science from the comfort of my bed! I can count the stars, peer through my window at birds (which has the additional benefit of freaking out the neighbors), and measure snow accumulating on my fire escape – all without experiencing the February cold!

I tried this for a couple of hours one morning, attempting to conduct as many scientific experiments as possible from my 8×4 foot bedroom. Yet, something was missing from the experience. I found myself getting bored and my mind floating between the unread emails in my inbox and the uneaten chocolate in the refrigerator. So, the next morning, I threw on some warm clothes, filled up a travel mug with hot coffee, and headed over to Prospect Park to figure out what was missing.

At first, I just felt cold and grumpy – February isn’t exactly a month of joy for me – but as I crossed the ballfields and entered the Midwood, something shifted inside. I wasn’t thinking as much as I was experiencing – the tapping above my head that made me look up to see the red-bellied woodpecker pecking away at a branch, a pair of hawks gliding silently above the treetops, my feet sinking into the mud where the snow had just melted. As I walked, my head became clearer, my body calmer, and I found the wheels in my brain turning in an ever-so-slightly different way.

Whoooohoo!!!

Whoooohoo!!!

The clear and calm effect stayed with me all the way home, and a question formed in my now wide-awake brain: is there a connection between nature and our emotional well-being? If so, what does this mean for citizen science?

An exploratory journey on Google Scholar led me to some interesting research done in this area, mostly in a new area of psychology that looks at the role that the natural environment plays in the development of our psyche.

For starters, one study done at the University of Michigan showed that going on a walk through a natural area has significant benefits to concentration and memory performance, as compared to going on a similar walk through a built environment. But, the calm that I experienced on my own nature walk went much deeper than merely increasing my focus for a few hours.

According to biologist E.O. Wilson, humans instinctively seek connection with nature, often subconsciously. This theory is known as the Biophilia Hypothesis, and Wilson argues that it is the job of all who care about nature to find new ways to help people connect to this natural instinct.

So, what might help people connect to nature? Well, how about citizen science?

Instead of giving people an endless list of what not to do, why not encourage people to come to their own conclusions through direct experience? Perhaps, if we focus on bringing people closer to nature by helping them enjoy it through citizen science, we might find that the world is full of potential environmental warriors who just need a fun reason to get out there.

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