Dr Smriti Safaya recording the fauna on a mudflat near Yi O on southwestern Lantau Island. Image: Dr Safaya

The benefits of citizen science

2 November 2023

Smriti Safaya is pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Environmental Sustainability Institute at the University of York, with the support of Croucher Foundation. As part of her fellowship, she is now embarked on a project called the York Biodiversity Citizen Science Programme. Croucher News caught up with Smriti recently to find out a little more about her work and her views on science communication and education more generally. 

Most days, when Smriti leaves her flat, she can enjoy the smell of hot chocolate in the air - York’s known as the Chocolate City. Here in the cool autumn of northern England, it’s a long way from where she studied her BSc in Geology, at UC Davis in California. And the gentle urban landscape is also very different from central Tibet, where she did fieldwork in neotectonics for her MSc. But what brings these places together for Smriti is the key behind her interest in science communication, which is experiential learning. “This kind of learning, getting out and seeing for yourself, has always been at the forefront of education for me,” she said.

This kind of learning, getting out and seeing for yourself, has always been at the forefront of education for me.

Smriti’s development of the York Biodiversity Citizen Science Programme, which she is working on as part of her fellowship at York, was ultimately inspired by her experience as a teacher in Hong Kong.

“One unit in our geography curriculum was urbanisation. I thought Hong Kong would be an incredible place to do that when you’re out and about rather than in the classroom. And through that process, I learned about this thing called the City Nature Challenge, in which Hong Kong participates very year. As a coordinator for Local and Global Engagement for the whole school, one of the initiatives I created during our Green Week was a school-based biodiversity citizen science programme to coincide with HK’s participation in the City Nature Challenge.”

The City Nature Challenge takes place for a few days every April around the world, in well over 500 locations, including Hong Kong. “I realised that it was quite an easy thing that families could do together outside of class time and encourage them to enjoy nature. The beautiful thing about the CNC is that it doesn’t mean you have to go deep into the woods. You could literally stare out your window and take a look at the red-whiskered bulbul that goes by and record it.”

The York Biodiversity Citizen Science Programme will lead up to the city nature challenge in April, the first time York will be a participant. The aim is to “bring people into nature to learn about and appreciate their local biodiversity using citizen science and to encourage community-driven, scientific, evidence-based environmental action.”

“Thanks to generous support from Croucher Foundation, there’s the opportunity to bring in programme managers and a student manager with expertise in experiential education, citizen science and biodiversity,” said Smriti.

The programme will not only help prepare people to participate in the city nature challenge next April, but also build capacity and coalitions that will make such efforts in science communication and education more sustainable in the city. In turn, this will enable more environmentally-positive actions and even lead to environmental policy changes.

The benefits of such a programme can go beyond such education or communication as such. Smriti noted that “there’s so much research out there about the benefits of being out in nature,” benefits to both physical and mental health.

This kind of activity can also help people get their head around climate change and what to do about it. “There’s just so much data, so much information. It’s overwhelming. But if we personalise our connection with natural processes and nature, that maybe brings it home a little bit more in a way that just hearing about the data doesn’t necessarily do”.

We asked her about AI and science education. “I can understand the concerns that exist around it and around programmes like ChatGPT,” said Smriti. There are issues about plagiarism, around the way that the machines trained on large language models can get things wrong. But I think AI’s here to stay and I think we need to incorporate it as a tool. AI programmes, for example like ChatGPT, can also help us break out beyond our bubbles of knowledge by sourcing information that we may not have otherwise come across. This important function supports us to become more conscious of some biases we may have, and could make us more curious and open-minded people. And finally, by getting our students to reflect on how they use it, it can be part of the way we develop critical thinking skills.”

And where does she see her work in York leading in terms of her future work in Hong Kong?

“Through the generous support of Croucher, I have the chance to focus, and also to reflect deeply on my practice and learn more about practice and theory from elsewhere. One thing I want to look at is what aspects of good science communication are universal, and how much needs to be developed, especially for our local context in Hong Kong. I think there’s no real one-size-fits-all, and we need culturally-tailored approaches. At the same time, I think there are certain things that we can adapt from general practice that will work in different places. I’m really looking forward to exploring this further when I’m back in Hong Kong.”

Dr Smriti Safaya was awarded a Croucher Science Communication Studentship in 2020 and a Croucher Fellowship in 2022. To view her Croucher profile click here.