Citizen science is when members of the public participate in the scientific process through collaboration with scientists and organizations. This is one case study demonstrating the value of citizen science in helping the National Park Service to meet its mission.
Case Study Overview
The Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is a simple footpath that spans roughly 2,180 miles through 14 states from Georgia to Maine. The Trail and its surrounding land protects a wide range of habitats, species, watersheds, views, and historic sites. It is also an excellent area for understanding how species' phenology (seasonal changes) are related to climate change.
The A.T. Seasons project started in 2014 and is a partnership with the National Park Service, the US Geological Service, the National Phenology Network, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Appalachian Mountain Club. The project's goal is to document seasonal change in target species of trees, flowering plants, birds, and amphibians that are found along A.T. corridor.
As of 2018, the project has several hundred volunteers who have provided almost 400,000 observations from every state the A.T. encompasses. Land managers, environmental scientists, biologists, and others may choose to utilize the data future studies, especially those comparing A.T. areas with sites in similar elevation ranges.
Getting volunteers up to speed, ensuring consistent data, and being flexible to engage multiple audiences are constant challenges.
To allow for changing individual circumstances and interest level, the project designates three participant types based on level of participation. “Casual observers” are one-time or periodic participants. They simply download the A.T. Seasons app and choose which nearby monitoring site along the trail to visit. “Trained observers” attend an in-person training session. They are then assigned a monitoring site along the trail and are expected to visit the sites at least weekly. Participants therefore become familiar with the natural resources within their specified area. In addition, educators and local organizations can become “partner groups.” In those cases, A.T. Seasons staff train partners in setting up their own monitoring projects on their property or nearby.
Benefits and Outcomes
The A.T. Seasons project engages a diverse public audience and promotes science literacy through hands-on citizen-science opportunities. In addition, by observing and reporting seasonal changes of plants and animals, project participants help understand and protect the scenic and natural beauty of the trail corridor.
The A.T. Seasons project case study illustrates the following steps in the Federal Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing Toolkit:
- Scope Your Problem—Engage Your Stakeholders and Participants: The A.T. Seasons project relies on a wide variety of participants and provides them with in-person training sessions.
- Build A Community—Engage Your Community: The A.T. Seasons Project allows individuals to conduct their own monitoring along trails. In addition, staff trains partner organizations and educators in how to create their own monitoring projects. Both undertakings serve to both educate and empower participants.
- Sustain and Improve Your Project—Adapt to Cycles of Participation: By providing three levels of participation, the A.T. Seasons project adapts to individual interest and needs.
More Information and Project Contacts
Marian Orlousky, Appalachian Trail Conservancy Northern Resource Management Coordinator
Matt Drury, Appalachian Trail Conservancy Southern Resource Management Coordinator
Last updated: September 25, 2018