Engaging Non-Science Majors in Authentic Research through Citizen Science

Molly Simon
Assistant Professor
Arizona State University

Every year, hundreds of thousands of college students enroll in general education science courses to fulfill their institution’s liberal arts requirement. Upon graduation, these students go on to become our nation’s teachers, business leaders, journalists, lawyers, and politicians, as well as taxpayers, voters, and parents. Considering that these courses are often students’ last formal exposure to science, it is critical to help them further develop ideas and skills that will allow them to grapple with contemporary issues and make meaningful contributions to humanity beyond the classroom. As such, our goal was to generate instructional materials to help general education science students improve their scientific self-efficacy as it pertains to analyzing data and making evidence-based conclusions when presented with a variety of data representations. Furthermore, we aimed to increase students’ self-efficacy with respect to engaging meaningfully in science, all while increasing their knowledge of topics at the forefront of current astronomy and earth science research. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the scarcity of online, evidence-based, active learning, instructional materials suited for this population of learners. We developed three citizen-science based classroom activities (referred to as the Planet Hunters Activity, Floating Forests Activity, and Planet Four Activity) for use in general education science courses being taught online. These classroom activities were built around three citizen science projects active on the Zooniverse (https://www.zooniverse.org/) platform. We combined classification on the Planet Hunters, Floating Forests, and Planet Four projects with guided inquiry and data-rich socratic-style questions aimed to bolster students’ understanding of exoplanets, climate change, and martian surface features respectively. During the Fall 2020 – Spring 2022 semesters, we pilot tested these classroom activities with ~2,000 students at 15 institutions of higher education across the United States. We administered a Likert-style self-efficacy survey to students in a pre/post-test fashion, and conducted exit interviews with each of the participating pilot instructors. These assessments assisted in the evaluation of the following research questions: 1. Do our activities lead to increased student self-efficacy regarding data literacy and their ability to contribute meaningfully to science? 2. Can the activities be easily implemented into existing undergraduate, general education science courses taught online? Students’ responses to the self efficacy survey indicated that engagement in our citizen science-based classroom activities had a statistically significant positive impact on self-efficacy. The students reported the most significant changes regarding their abilities to analyze data and to meaningfully engage in and contribute to active science research. Overall, these classroom activities can be easily implemented into existing online general education science courses with little training required on the part of the instructor. Our Planet Hunters Activity was added permanently to the introductory astronomy laboratory curriculum at Arizona State University and University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. The similar structure between the three activities makes them a blueprint for future curricular materials intended to increase accessibility and engagement with data and where broadening participation in science is a priority.


Edward E. Prather, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ; Isaac S. Rosenthal, University of Massachusetts – Boston, Boston, MA; Michael Cassidy, TERC, Cambridge, MA; James K. L. Hammerman, TERC, Cambridge, MA & Laura Trouille, Adler Planetarium, Chicago, IL