Students capture a scientific revolution for multimedia series

The first time Mark Neil heard ‘citizen science,’ he wasn’t sure what it was. In fact, that was the case for most of his journalism classmates at Western, when they were assigned a multimedia project spanning the topic in their New Media Journalism class.

“It was difficult because none of us had really heard of citizen science before. It (the project) was a new experience for us and it definitely came with a lot of new challenges,” Neil said.

Citizen science, sometimes referred to as crowd-sourced or networked science, is a relatively recent movement of amateur scientific research, conducted by individuals who, despite keen interest and involvement, are not professional scientists. These individuals sometimes, though not always, work together with trained scientists, analyzing data, testing water samples or studying bird populations, among other various projects.

So, why bring the topic to journalism students?

“Over the last year or so, I’ve done some work with the Association of Science-Technology Centres and, in the course of that, I’ve seen a lot of presentations about citizen science,” said Wayne MacPhail, New Media course instructor. “I was learning a lot and I thought, ‘Most people don’t know about this.’ There are really great stories – like a guy working in the Baja Peninsula, taking people who used to be sea turtle hunters and turning them into sea turtle preservers.”

MacPhail saw an opportunity to inform the public and engage his students, dividing them into nine groups responsible for researching and producing a seven-part multimedia series on citizen science. The package will be published this month by online magazines The Tyee,, and

And while the students have learned a lot about citizen science, getting acquainted with new tools of the trade and new mediums was also one of the assignment’s goals.

“We’ve really been focusing on the principle of open journalism – from the beginning of the story. Let’s engage the audience. Let’s let the citizen science community know we’re doing this, let’s have them make suggestions, see early feedback,” MacPhail said.

The class published releases in the two online magazines at the project’s outset, calling for involvement from citizen scientists. Since then, the student journalists have used social media to engage the public, discuss the progress of the project as well as document what they’re learning and the technology they’re using on YouTube, Twitter and Tumblr.

“They’re learning a whole different way of using the web, not just as a garbage dump for your final story – as digital Tupperware – but they’re using it as a tool from start to finish, to research a story, find sources, to validate and check the story, to promote your story and to publish it,” he continued.

The social media push has especially generated a buzz in the citizen science community, garnering attention from far and wide.

What’s more, the project has given students the opportunity to familiarize themselves with new technologies and tools that will enhance their journalistic skill and make them more marketable.

The students have connected with citizen scientists globally, and were able to conduct interviews using Skype and Google+ Hangouts, a video chat service that allows multiple parties to participate at once. They used ScreenFlow, a recording software, to capture interviews for free. They then uploaded their work to YouTube, and will embed clips in the final projects, also featuring podcasts and photos, to be published this month.

“Here’s a multi-country discussion, a public forum, captured for free. These are fantastic tools and a skillset to have for the students,” MacPhail said.

Neil echoed these sentiments, noting he has learned a great deal himself and has seen his classmates come a long way also. “When I started this, I didn’t think I’d enjoy it that much. I’m not, by any means, technologically adept,” he said, adding the class has acquired a rich skillset, learning new technologies and unfamiliar topics.

The class has gained confidence and a sense of legitimacy going out in the field, Neil explained.

“It’s an interesting time, from a news point of view to be talking about citizen science,” MacPhail said. “The Harper government is making it very clear they want to control scientific information. The Ministry of Environment is saying scientists can’t speak to the media.

“A natural reaction to that is, citizen scientists saying we’re a grassroots reaction to that. It’s a good news peg for us.”