Sometimes what is on the outside of an envelope may be as important as the message inside. At least that’s what a group of seventh graders are hoping as they ask the United States Postal Service (USPS) to produce a postage stamp commemorating citizen science.
Never heard of citizen science? That’s exactly the point!
Citizen science is essentially crowdsourcing for scientific research—inviting the public to take part in collecting data and observations for scientific studies. Citizen scientists, primarily volunteers, can provide more and broader scientific data without, for example, having to increase project funding.
“How can citizen science, which is a form of open science, prepare us to create a better world and place to live in the future?” was the question posed by seventh grade science and project teacher Juliana Thomas. She then led the class in a study of shark tooth forensics. The students found fossil shark teeth, measured them, created graphs, analyzed data, drew conclusions, and shared their results with North Carolina State University paleontologist Dr. Terry “Bucky” Gates.
Next, in typical Duke School fashion, Juliana challenged the students to participate in citizen science projects of their own. “I gave them the opportunity to either choose a citizen science project that's out there—here in North Carolina, or in United States, or around the world—to be part of, or to create their own citizen science project,” said Juliana.
A number of varied and interesting project topics emerged including:
- What animals appear in our local ecosystem?
- What do insects do in winter?
- How does flour type affect a sourdough bread starter?
- What types of mosses can be found in the Durham area?
- Why do eastern box turtles have different carapace patterns?
- How has the use of personal protective equipment during the pandemic affected the amount of waste generated?
Another topic idea came from the Citizen Science Association (CSA) itself, of which Juliana is a member. The organization was requesting that someone propose a postage stamp to the USPS that would increase awareness of and promote participation in citizen science. A similar project had recently been successful in Australia, so Juliana suggested that as an option for her students.
Enter Ananya, Erika, Gaby, Reegan, and Navya.
“I liked their enthusiasm,” said Juliana. “When I threw the (stamp) project out to the whole class, they were very eager to get started with it!”
The opportunity to creatively blend art and science in the stamp project was very appealing to the girls. “It combined a lot of things that I love, and it’s totally a great way to get the word out about citizen science and bring more attention to it,” said Gaby.
“We had to do a lot of research in the beginning to figure out what was the process for submitting the idea, what should be on a stamp, the artwork, and also how to write a good proposal,” said Ananya. “We had to write a strong proposal that would really convince them to accept citizen science as a stamp idea.”
All that research led to a rather unforeseen challenge—too much information!
“I was noticing how much evidence that we had, and how it's definitely hard to get it all into one proposal,” said Navya. “It's all strong evidence.”
They encountered another complication when they learned that the USPS rarely uses the artwork that is submitted with stamp proposals. “We found out that they would choose an artist to design stamps for a topic that was proposed … so you couldn’t actually submit the stamp designs,” said Ananya. “So that was one of the challenges … trying to figure out how to work around it.”
The girls ultimately decided to create their own designs and portfolios to further illustrate and represent the project. After analyzing components of the Australian citizen science stamps, the students created their own artwork using both traditional and digital techniques. Nature and wildlife combined with the human element were recurring themes in their designs.
“For one of mine, I drew a bee in a flower with someone holding it,” said Erika. “The bee and the flower represent the nature that we're learning about. And then for the citizen part, that's where the hands come in, so it can show how people can help save bees.”
Reegan added, “One (of mine) was a picture of a chipmunk with a camera next to it like someone taking a picture of it. That showed the process of collecting data for it.”
The girls have completed their proposal and a proposal letter to be sent to the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC). A supporting letter from the Citizen Science Association will also be included in the package. It usually takes about three years for a stamp proposal to be approved, designed, and produced.
Even without the prospect of immediate validation from the USPS, the girls found the learning experience to be rewarding and worthwhile.
“(Citizen science) is a very useful thing for scientists who want to gather a large amount of data from many different places. It’s hard to do that when you don’t have many people participating,” said Navya. “I learned how underappreciated it was and how not many people knew about it.”
Gaby had another take on the project. “This is going to sound very corny, but how amazing it is to be able to work in a group with people that you know, you're on the same page … you want to do the same thing, and then you just create this beautiful, amazing thing out of just a few words and a drawing. It’s really great!”