By Joan Gould
The Houston-Galveston area topped the charts during the 2020 City Nature Challenge, an annual worldwide citizen science competition documenting urban biodiversity through the smartphone app iNaturalist. The Houston-Galveston area logged more than 27,000 observations and 3,300 unique species.
Citizen science opportunities like the City Nature Challenge invite the public to experience science in a simple, straightforward way that has lasting impacts on monitoring and improving biodiversity, water conditions, and other ecology aspects.
With its abundance of flora, fauna, and fascinating water ecology, Harris County Precinct 4 is a prime location for anyone with an interest in science to explore and learn about nature. Participating in citizen science is only one of the ways Precinct 4 facilitates scientific exploration for both children and adults and is making significant contributions to the scientific community.
Powers of Observation
Kris Linberk, Precinct 4 Trails As Parks (TAP) naturalist, brings an extensive educational and professional background in science education to Precinct 4. Before coming on board with TAP, Kris taught at the university level in Ecuador and worked for the state of Connecticut helping develop the “No Child Left Inside” curriculum, a program that strives to eliminate “nature deficit disorder” and connect kids to nature and the outdoors.
“I live, breathe, and eat this stuff,” Linberk says. She incorporates her passion for nature and education into not only science-based programs like aquatic walks and dissection activities, but also canoeing, fishing, and geocaching – the core of Trails As Parks programming.
“On a regular basis, we’ll put little nuggets of information for participants to digest as they can. When we do aquatic walks, it’s essentially a rapid bioassessment. We call it something a little bit more fun, a little less intimidating, but they’re still doing essential science,” Linberk says.
TAP tailors these activities for the public, also offered as field trips for school-age children to coincide with Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum. Linberk says this provides a unique opportunity for children to learn concepts like animal adaptations, which they wouldn’t typically experience until later in their school career through activities like dissection.
“It’s hard to teach interconnectivity and help kids understand that these aren’t separate learning boxes, that everything is a chain reaction, and by doing that in the field it solidifies this concept. It’s practical learning, rather than theoretical,” Linberk says.
“When they get to delve into the muck, literally, and pull out all of these creatures and critters and identify them using dichotomous keys and identification kits that have been developed by stream ecologists, they really focus on the power of observation, the most fundamental skill in any science-related field.”
Practical, hands-on learning is also integral to the programming at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center. A unique water ecology workshop led by Jason Naivar, an education program coordinator and naturalist, is available to the public and as part of the Gulf Coast Master Naturalist training.
Naivar holds a degree in marine science and has experience in outdoor education, offshore environmental consulting, and marine biology, bringing a wealth of knowledge to Jones Park. And he is passionate about sharing his knowledge of the outdoors with others.
“New Gulf Coast Master Naturalists come out for a three-part science training,” he says. “We start with a water ecology presentation, then head to the aquatic lab for macroinvertebrate identification and hands-on water ecology exploration. We look at things like water chemistry for dissolved oxygen and pH, total dissolved solids, turbidity, and water temperature.”
After the hands-on water ecology exploration, the group takes a pontoon boat tour along Spring Creek for a local ecology survey.
Participants practice forming hypotheses and conclusions on a variety of topics like water quality and ecosystems based on their observations.
At Jones Park, Naivar emphasizes that the benefits of science education are amplified by partnering with other organizations.
“I’m always trying to reach out to other groups with expertise who are willing to share their time, because although we know a lot, we don’t know everything. I think that’s why partnerships are so important in citizen science and science education in general,” Naivar says.
Science education in Precinct 4 continues beyond programs for kids and Master Naturalists. Unique internship opportunities are also available for college students interested in a career in science.
Interns with Precinct 4 learn and conduct research in various fields, participating in the planning and presentation of public programs. Many of them have also made significant contributions to the scientific community.
“A few years ago, University of Texas student Edwin Umanzor worked to germinate the Neches River rose-mallow (Hibiscus dasycalyx), a rare, Texas-native hibiscus,” says Anita Tiller, Mercer Botanic Gardens botanist.
Mercer recently partnered with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to introduce the rare plant into the wild.
Tiller explains that this species tends to quickly hybridize, so placing it near another hibiscus risks compromising it as a pure, rare species.
Mercer Botanical Center is also making significant contributions to the scientific community through partnerships with Botanic Gardens Conservation International and other botanic organizations.
“I think it really surprises people what is in this building that’s a great service for the whole community,” says Suzzanne Chapman, Mercer’s botanical collections curator.
“Through Botanic Gardens Conservation International, we periodically upload our living plant inventory database that is shared with hundreds of botanic gardens worldwide,” Chapman says. “Other researchers contact us if we have information or plant material that will benefit their research.”
Chapman says that research stretches the gamut from seed collecting protocols to genetic research, which they don’t do at Mercer, but the information is valuable to other partners, some of which have entire genetics facilities. Sharing seeds from Mercer’s rare plant seed bank has assisted graduate research projects at University of California, Davis; University of Wisconsin- Madison; and soon, Texas A&M University. Results from graduate research expands what is known about rare species.
“As a network, we work together and share resources,” Chapman says.
Precinct 4’s Biological Control Initiative (BCI), a division of Harris County Precinct 4 that researches and develops natural mosquito control methods, has a strong relationship with Lone Star College Biotech Institute, offering internships to biotech students interested in studying science-related fields.
Former intern and current BCI staff member Arielle Fike made significant contributions to the BCI program during her internship.
“Arielle led one of the initial studies in comparing two vastly different rearing protocols for Toxorhynchites rutilus, one of the biological control agents in development,” explains Anita Schiller, BCI program director.
“In the old model, we could not guarantee an output number. We would guesstimate and hope for the best,” says Schiller. “The precision of the new model allows us to establish and meet quotas.”
Citizen Scientists in the Community
In addition to citizen science projects like the City Nature Challenge, and year-round contributions to iNaturalist, Precinct 4 staff and residents participate in several other citizen science projects. Project FeederWatch, a program through Cornell University’s Cornell Lab of Ornithology. By collecting data about birds that visit strategically placed feeders, participants can help scientists make long-term trend conclusions. Another project managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, called eBird, documents bird sightings to provide scientists with important information that can help determine the range and habitat of certain bird species. The information also provides valuable information for conservation efforts.
As avid supporters of citizen science, Linberk and Naivar contribute to the Texas Stream Team, hosted by the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC). This citizen science program trains participants to conduct comprehensive water chemistry tests, including turbidity, pH, dissolved oxygen, and bacteria levels in various water sources, like Spring and Cypress creeks.
“The Texas Stream Team offers more eyes on the community so the HGAC can get a bigger picture of what is going on and find the pollution sources in our local watershed,” says Linberk.
Water quality information submitted to HGAC is available for the public to view online. Data points, when monitored over time, provide information used to change legislative or public behavior.
A recent BCI pilot program known as Aedes Predator Pod (APP) enlisted citizen scientists to take home a pod of juvenile “mosquito assassins” (Toxorhynchites rutilus) to observe and submit data to the staff at BCI.
“General feedback told us the project provided an engaging and interesting opportunity to become involved and served as a springboard to further scientific curiosity,” Schiller says. “After the inaugural phase, we gathered sufficient information to make necessary changes to the protocol.”
An article published in the Florida Mosquito Control Association’s Wing Beats examined BCI’s APP project and how other mosquito and vector control departments can use that model for outreach efforts and tracking results in the community.
Citizen science and science education are critical components to future scientific research and advancement. By providing more eyes on nature than what professional scientists alone can offer, the observations and reports provided by citizen scientists are invaluable to the scientific community and are a great way for the public to take an interest in the nature around them.
Learn How You Can Get Involved!
Visit the following Precinct 4 locations to find upcoming science-related programming.
Trails As Parks
Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center
Mercer Botanic Gardens
To learn more about how to get involved in citizen science, check out some of these online resources and apps.
“Contributions to iNaturalist give a snapshot of the biodiversity in various regions and help both the public and scientists identify and locate various species. Data entered into iNaturalist is shared with data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to help scientists find and use your data.” (iNaturalist.org)
Use eBird to document bird sightings that provide scientists with important information used to determine range and habitat and contribute to conservation efforts.
Track visitors to your feeders and help scientists collect data to make long-term trend conclusions.
A team of trained volunteers helps to monitors water quality by observing and recording data from our local water sheds.