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Scouting Exploration through Citizen Science

March 12, 2018

The newest merit badge, Exploration, encourages Boy Scouts to discover new things about their world through hands-on research, be it fieldwork or lab work. This mission is shared by the citizen science movement, where scientists partner with citizens to collect data and run research projects. If scouts start teaming up with citizen science projects we could not only check-off a lot of merit badge requirements, but also make important contributions to a range of scientific questions.

The key requirement of the Exploration merit badge is to plan and carry out an expedition. While the term “expedition” brings to mind dog sled teams marching towards the North Pole, there are plenty of options close to home, and the citizen science community is a great way to find the right project.

As a scientist and Assistant Scout Master, I saw the Exploration merit badge as a perfect opportunity to bridge the gap between scouts and citizen science. We joined North Carolina Candid Critters, a project where volunteers run camera traps to help study wildlife.   The project provided training, loaned us cameras, and offered GPS points on public land where they needed cameras run.

Our troop signed up to run camera traps at Elk Knob State Park. The protocol involves strapping a camera trap to a tree and leaving it there for three weeks; our expedition involved two backpacking trips to the park, one to set the cameras, and a second to pick them back up. These trips required extensive planning, not only the normal camping and food preparation, but also lugging extra gear, learning how to use the camera traps and GPS, and deciding who would set the various cameras scattered across randomly selected points in the park.

As with any good exploration, the work wasn’t easy, and we had to overcome night-hikes, rainstorms, and freezing temperatures. We learned that hiking to points off-trail is a lot harder than hiking on trails, and that contour maps are your friend.

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The best part was finally looking through the memory cards to see what animals we caught on camera. We used a computer program to look through the pictures, identify the animals, and then upload all the data to the Candid Critters project where they double-checked our IDs and saved our pictures and data in the Smithsonian’s eMammal project.

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By looking at the pictures we discovered some interesting things about the mammals of Elk Knob State Park. First, they have black bears; curious bears that sometimes munch on camera traps. Second, we found two species only found in the most mountainous parts of North Carolina: red squirrel and Appalachian cottontail. We got lots of other species on our cameras including deer, gray squirrels, turkey, and humans.

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We learned even more once we downloaded our data from the eMammal site and started making graphs and comparisons. We wrapped up the merit badge with a trip to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences where we analyzed data and wrote a report. For example, we found that bears were surprisingly nocturnal, that deer were the most common species, and that Elk Knob State Park had higher diversity of species than two more developed areas close to our home in Raleigh. In addition to our own discoveries, these data will also be used by scientists in the Candid Critters project, and possibly by others who access it through the eMammal database.

This project represented the best aspects of citizen science: it gave non-experts a first-hand look at the scientific process, it allowed them to make their own discoveries, and it also generated high quality data useful for future research.

I hope our project will also serve as an example for other scouts interested in the Exploration Merit badge by showing how citizen science projects can help provide the ideas and opportunities for discovery. It’s not just camera traps, scientists all around the world are launching projects that need help from the public to make their discovery, from cats to rats, birds to bees, stars to Mars – there’s so much more that needs exploring! [by @RolandKays]

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