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Understanding climate change through citizen science

Volume 5 Number 1 - April 2008

Jennifer Schwarz, Kayri Havens, Pati Vitt

French title: Comprendre le changement climatique par la science citoyenne

Spanish title: Como comprender el cambio climático a través de la ciencia del ciudadano 


This article will discuss two complimentary initiatives at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Both are designed to provide a positive and active context in which people can understand climate change and its impacts by contributing to ongoing citizen science projects. Phenology, or the study of plant life cycle events such as first flower, first leaf, and peak flower, provides an ideal context for these projects because it is a tangible, comprehensible, and ubiquitous process. Project BudBurst is a U.S. based citizen science initiative developed as a collaborative effort by the Chicago Botanic Garden and multiple universities that are members of the U.S. National Phenology Network (NPN). It engages citizen scientists of all ages, including youth, in recording phenological observations on the project website ( A second related project, currently in the planning stage, is a national network of Climate Change Monitoring Gardens. These gardens will be connected by interactive exhibits at botanic gardens across the U.S. Their displays will consist of a standardized garden of genetically-identical cloned plants, internet connected computers with national data and analysis tools, and interpretive signage. Visitors will be able to observe phenological events at their current location, compare them to gardens at other locations, enter their own data into the website database, and register for a list-serve that will provide ongoing updates on the progress of both the Climate Change Monitoring Gardens and Project Budburst.


In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that it was virtually certain that the climate is changing as a result of human activity (IPCC, 2007). This finding, though not a surprise to most scientists, was startling to much of the general public. While the release of the IPCC report provided a needed boost in awareness, it also highlighted three challenges facing environmental education institutions. First, the report was accompanied by the mass distribution of simplified and inaccurate information by the media (Ladle, Jepson and Whittaker, 2005). Second, there is an overall lack of specific information on actions individuals can take to mitigate climate change (Lowe et. al, 2006). Finally, because the impacts of climate change are not yet obvious in most regions of the U.S. it is seen as secondary to immediate issues in people’s lives (Lorenzoni and Pidgeon, 2006). These three conditions create a context in which individuals are not inspired, motivated, or equipped to take action to mitigate climate change.

From casual observer to citizen scientist

Project BudBurst and the Floral Report Card, developed by the Chicago Botanic Garden and its collaborators, are two complimentary initiatives designed to provide a positive and active context in which people can understand climate change and its impacts by contributing to ongoing citizen science projects. Both projects were developed with the intention of providing not only an on-site visitor experience, but also a range of engagement opportunities that continue after the initial garden or website visit. Research on engagement, motivation, and citizen science provided the context for programmes that 1) initially engage the casual observer, 2) motivate the observer to further investigation and, 3) provide a range of opportunities for action.

People tend to become engaged in issues with which they have personal experiences and that have immediate consequences in their everyday lives, while climate change is still perceived as a vague and distant threat (Dessail et. al. 2003, MacDonald and Silverstone, 1992). However, everyone can make and understand observations about when plants sprout, bloom, and die. The study of these life cycle events, known as phenology, is an ideal context for engagement because it is a tangible, comprehensible, and ubiquitous process that provides a common context through which visitors can engage in a more complex understanding of science (Athman & Monroe 2002, Barnett et. al., 2004). In order to motivate the observer to further investigation, both projects leverage interactive and web-based technologies that allow visitors to manipulate data, ask questions of their own design, and provide immediate ways to extend the museum experience beyond the one-time visit (Clark 2003, Pea & Gomez, 1992, Montada et. al., 2007). Finally, by providing a range of opportunities for action that address climate change from a variety of perspectives and at different levels of commitment, individuals are able to choose the actions that best fit their interests and personal constraints.

Floral Report Card

Specifically, the Floral Report Card, currently in development, is a network of ‘climate change monitoring gardens’ and exhibits that will be installed at five botanic gardens across the U.S. (Chicago Botanic Garden, IL; Garfield Park Conservatory. IL, Denver Botanic Garden, CO, University of Washington Botanic Garden, WA, and North Carolina Botanical Garden, NC). The gardens will include native species that:

  • have wide geographic ranges
  • have flowering times that are initiated by temperature, as opposed to day length
  • are long-lived and exhibit a variety of breeding systems
  • are easy to clone
  • are attractive in a garden setting.

The target species will include Baptisia australis (False indigo), Phlox paniculata (Summer phlox), Monarda fistulosa (Bee balm), Sorghastrum nutans (Indian grass, a C4 grass), and Pascopyrum smithii (Western wheatgrass, a C3 grass). By holding the genetic variance constant and standardizing the growing conditions, the gardens will act as a network of climate sensors. Plant responses to the different climates of the five participating gardens will allow visitors and researchers to make inferences about how the species might respond to future climate change.

The gardens will be connected by interactive, web-based exhibits that include regional and national data and analysis tools and interpretive signage. Visitors will be able to observe phenological events at their current location, compare them to gardens at other locations, enter their own data into the website database, and register for a list-serve that will provide ongoing updates on the initiative. Repeat photos will be displayed on a project website, enabling website visitors to see phenological changes and patterns through time, as well as across participating sites. The Floral Report Card is unique in its approach. It uses a current and compelling scientific issue to interest casual observers (Kolsto, 2000), allows visitors to interact with existing data, and most importantly, allows visitors to enter data they collect immediately into the web database through the computer kiosk at the exhibit. The visitor has an immediate way to participate in important scientific research that becomes a permanent part of the exhibit. By providing this opportunity, the Floral Report Card provides an incentive for continued participation. To support repeated contacts it offers ‘on demand’ follow up opportunities. Visitors can send the results of their on-site inquiries to themselves via email, and join an email list that provides updates on the progress of the Floral Report Card and opportunities to participate in other citizen science initiatives including Project BudBurst. While BudBurst is a stand alone initiative, it also represents an extension of the Floral Report Card that provides a straightforward way for individuals to contribute to research on climate change.

Project BudBurst

Project BudBurst, now in year two of implementation, is also a phenology-based programme that provides extended opportunities for individuals to contribute to research on climate change. This U.S. based citizen science initiative was developed as a collaborative effort by the Chicago Botanic Garden, the University Collaborative for Atmospheric Research, and multiple other members of the U.S. National Phenology Network (NPN). Citizens are asked to observe local flora, whatever species exist in their backyard or community park, throughout the growing season and enter observations of phenological events into a web-form connected to the BudBurst database. The website includes detailed information on phenology, climate change, and plant identification, as well as guidelines for family, youth and in-school activities. It also contains detailed information on 60 native wildflowers, shrubs and trees. By using a context that people can relate to on a personal level – gardens and plant growth – and providing specific information on common species like the dandelion and lilac (in addition to natives), the Budburst website ( accommodates all ages and locations. Participants are encouraged to continue participation by both immediate feedback and the visible accumulation of their data and ongoing contributions to the project.

The success of this approach is shown by the first year’s data collection. In 2007 there were nearly 900 observations from 38 states, the majority submitted by children under 12. This last statistic is indicative of the project’s accessibility and broad appeal. Teachers in particular, have expressed their excitement at the prospect that their students can participate in a meaningful research project that is adaptable to all ages and classroom styles and is relevant across disciplines. For year two, beginning February 2008, BudBurst has added a number of new features to the website that will facilitate ongoing participation. The site now accepts data all year round to accommodate people in warmer regions. Participants can also now create personalised ‘MyBudBurst’ pages which allow them to record and save the locations and plants they are observing and consolidate their data collection efforts. Personalisation not only provides a streamlined data collection process, but also brings the individual into a like-minded community, the existence of which has been shown to increase participation both in educational and extracurricular programmes (Harvard Family Research Program, 2004, Sherrod et. al., 2002). Finally, BudBurst is now accepting historical datasets (since many citizen scientists have volunteered to donate their datasets going back decades in some cases) to enhance the scientific usefulness of the project data.


Project BudBurst and the Floral Report Card were developed with the goal of addressing the challenges put forth by the IPCC in 2007. Phenology provides an entryway to a complex and controversial issue that can inspire and motivate individuals to investigate climate change beyond a one time garden or web site visit. Opportunities to contribute to the on-site exhibits and immediate feedback on their interaction, as well as ‘on demand’ avenues to further communication provide ongoing reminders to visitors. Participants discover that they are able to make valuable contributions to a ‘real’ research project through the cumulative efforts of their and others’ work. It is in this way that the Chicago Botanic Garden and its partners are reaching and engaging widespread audiences in environmental science at a critical time in our history.


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Cet article décrit deux initiatives proposées par le Jardin botanique de Chicago. Toutes deux sont conçues en vue d’apporter un contexte positif et actif grâce auquel le public est amené à comprendre le changement climatique et ses impacts, en participant régulièrement à des projets de science citoyenne. La phénologie, ou l’étude des stades du cycle de la vie végétale tels que la première fleur, la première feuille, et le pic de floraison, présente un contexte idéal pour de tels projets car il s’agit d’un processus tangible, compréhensible, et omniprésent.

Project BudBurst est une initiative de science citoyenne basée aux Etats-Unis et mise en place de manière collective par le Jardin botanique de Chicago et diverses universités membres du U.S.A. - National Phenology Network (NPN). Elle invite des scientifiques citoyens de tout âge, y compris les jeunes, à inscrire leurs observations phénologiques sur le site internet du projet ( Un second projet lié au premier, et actuellement au stade de création, correspond à un réseau national de Jardins d’observation du changement climatique. Ces jardins seront associés par le biais d’expositions interactives dans différents jardins botaniques à travers les Etats-Unis. Ces expositions seront constituées de jardins standardisés composés de plantes clonées génétiquement identiques, d’ordinateurs connectés via Internet à la base de données nationale et aux outils d’analyse, et de panneaux d’interprétation. Le public pourra observer les stades phénologiques dans leur lieu actuel, les comparer aux jardins dans d’autres lieux, intégrer leurs propres données dans la base de données du site internet, et s’inscrire à une liste de diffusion qui donnera des actualisations tant sur l’évolution des Jardins d’observation du changement climatique que sur Project Budburst.


En este artículo estudiamos dos iniciativas complementarias del Jardín Botánico de Chicago. Ambas iniciativas están diseñadas para proporcionar un marco positivo y activo dentro del cual el público pueda comprender el cambio climático y sus impactos, contribuyendo a la misma vez a los proyectos vigentes de ciencia ciudadana. La fenología, o el estudio de los ciclos de vida vegetal, tal como la primera flor, primera hoja o maxima floración, proporciona un contexto ideal para estos proyectos porque es un proceso tangible, comprensible, y ubicuo.

El proyecto “BudBurst” es una iniciativa estado-unidense de ciencia ciudadana desarrollada por el Jardín Botánico de Chicago en colaboración con multiples universidades miembros del U.S. National Phenology Network (NPN). Utiliza a los ciudadanos científicos de todas las edades, incluso a los jóvenes, para recoger datos fenológicos e incorporarlos en la página web del proyecto ( Un Segundo proyecto, actualmente en fase de planificación, es una red nacional de jardines monitores del cambio climático. Estos jardines estarán enlazados por exposiciones interactivas a través de los Estados Unidos. Sus exposiciones consistirán de un jardín estandarizado de plantas geneticamente idénticas, ordenadores conectados por el internet con datos nacionales, herramientas para el análisis, y material de interpretación. Los visitantes podrán también observar los sucesos fenológicos en su localidad, compararlos con los jardines en otras localidades, contribuir sus propios datos al banco de datos en la web, y registrarse para recibir información para mantenerse al día sobre ambos proyectos.

Jennifer Schwarz Ballard
Manager, Center for Teaching and Learning
Kayri Havens
Director, Medard and Elizabeth Welch Institute for Plant Conservation
Pati Vitt
Curator, National Tallgrass Prairie Seedbank
Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Road
Glencoe, IL 60022