Experiential learning with citizen science

India is abounding with a multitude of natural resources. On the one hand, these resources are the very basis of life, forming the primary source of many livelihoods. On the other, these same resources are under threat due to over-exploitation, degradation and depletion of forests and grasslands, scarcity of firewood, loss of soil fertility, a decrease in agricultural productivity, depletion of ground water, non-availability or limited access to clean drinking water, so on and so forth.

The magnitude of this stress is becoming significant and common day by day. Therefore, the management of natural resources is on the frontline of the struggle for sustainable and equitable development as degradation of these resources affects the lives and livelihoods of millions of poor around the nation, especially the indigenous communities.

In India, there are about 6,38,000 villages. A majority of the population residing in and around these villages are dependent on natural resources for their daily life. For sustaining the livelihoods of these resource-dependent communities, there need to be dedicated and conscious efforts to take stock of the resources that exist and their status. What is crucial, is to try to understand the factors that drive changes in the resources.

However, the fundamental question here is: Who will monitor the natural resources? Can the state or Central governments or the respective line departments take up such largescale pan-India resource monitoring exercise? Is it the responsibility of local governments or institutions? Can the resource dependent communities do the monitoring? Can others contribute?

If the governments, be it state or Central, are to conduct an inventory at the national level, enormous time, effort and financial support are required. If the local governments are to do the same, technical know-how and resources, albeit at a lower scale as compared to the national level, are needed. So that leaves the local institutions and citizens.

Interestingly enough, capacity exists in the local schools and colleges in the form of teachers, and the resources are the students. Undergraduate colleges are institutions where students are given the finishing  touches before they step out into the world to be dutiful individuals. So, why not use the opportunity to get them involved in resource monitoring of village ecosystems in their vicinity, under the leadership of an enthusiastic teacher with innovative thinking?

Such participatory resource monitoring exercises will help integrate academic content with community service, bring  a sense of connection between classroom learning and the personal lives of students as well as the lives of others within the larger community.

Public participation

The opportunity will also help students learn basic research methodologies involved in natural resource monitoring. Further, the interactions with local communities will help sensitise them to issues and problems of the local communities and the underlying causes.

That is not all. Public participation in scientific research has surged in popularity and prominence in the recent years through the web and an explosion of smartphone, broadly termed “citizen science”. This refers to the practice of engaging the public in a scientific project – a project that produces reliable data and information usable by scientists. This has been possible because of a slow cultural change within professional science toward a more open and welcoming research environment.

Citizen science has earned a reputation for excellence in advancing science literacy at all ages and educational levels. It also has the tools to produce high quality data. Hands-on involvement in a real research question makes science tangible and lends participants a sense of personal connection to our natural resources.

There are initiatives around the country which are promoting experiential learning through citizen science programmes revolving around forest monitoring, water quality monitoring, amphibian monitoring, and bird monitoring and wildlife census. Targeted efforts to involve corporates, urban schools and colleges are already happening in a small way.

But it is time, such efforts are integrated into the school curricula, and schools and colleges are involved, particularly at the district or block level in natural resource monitoring. The enhanced awareness will lead to conservation in addition to being conducted as a popular programme.

(The writer is researcher at the Indian Institute of Science and  heads Aranya Climate Change Services, Bengaluru)

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