UH Hilo biologists, marine scientists harness the power of citizen science

Scientists often do not have the capacity to collect data from all the sites necessary for their research. That’s where citizen science comes in, where people from the community collect data from the field, greatly contributing to the understanding of complex issues.

By Leah Sherwood

Two women in tidal pool collect data with measuring device and clip board.
Hawaiʻi Island citizen scientists collect data for the Our Project in Hawaiʻi’s Intertidal, or OPIHI, initiative. Courtesy photo.
Matthew Knope
Matthew Knope

Matthew Knope, assistant professor of biology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, has a long history of engagement with citizen science for the study of Hawaiʻi’s intertidal invertebrate and algal communities. Fifteen years ago, as a graduate student at UH Mānoa, Knope was an instructor for Our Project in Hawaiʻi’s Intertidal, or OPIHI, a citizen-science initiative that trains middle- and high-school students and teachers across the state to conduct ecological sampling surveys in the intertidal zone of Hawaiʻi’s shores.

In citizen science, the public participates voluntarily in the scientific process, addressing real-world problems in ways that may include formulating research questions, conducting scientific experiments, collecting and analyzing data, interpreting results, making new discoveries, developing technologies and applications, and solving complex problems.

“This is community-engaged learning,” Knope says of citizen science. “In the old days, universities were often these ivory towers that were isolated away from the communities they serve and now there is a really important movement away from that, to place universities to serve the needs of the communities that they are actually a part of.”


In Hilo, 12 teachers have participated in the OPIHI project with citizen-scientist students from eight junior and senior high schools, including Hawaiʻi Academy of Arts and Science, Pahoa High and Intermediate, Volcano School, Hilo Union School, Ka ʻUmeke Kāʻeo, Hilo High School, Kalanianaole, and Paʻauilo elementary and intermediate.

The teachers are accompanied by UH Hilo undergraduate marine science students who serve as scientific assistants in the field. The undergraduates are students of Lisa Parr, instructor in the marine science department and coordinator of the UH Hilo Marine Option Program. The OPIHI outreach allows the students to hone their scientific communication and leadership skills and serve as positive role models for the younger students.

Knope credits success of the outreach on coordination between the marine science and the biology departments at UH Hilo, in addition to the College of Education at UH Mānoa, all working on this community-engaged learning together with many educators and students throughout the entire state. “Its success is really due to the synergy of everyone’s efforts,” he says.

The data

Today, there are nearly two decades’ worth of data from the ongoing OPIHI project, in which citizen scientists collect and record species found along the shore between the highest high and lowest low tide lines. And some of that data is now being used in Knope’s laboratory at UH Hilo.

Catherine McTighe, a 2020 graduate in marine science from Rutgers University in New Jersey and a National Student Exchange student at UH Hilo this past academic year, is using the OPIHI data to investigate if climate change has a measurable effect on the total abundance and number of species of invasive versus native species of algae in the intertidal zone.

Rebecca Webster, a UH Hilo graduate student in tropical conservation biology and environmental science, is using the ecological data gathered by the OPIHI project, in combination with sea-surface temperature data from satellites, to study how intertidal algal and invertebrate communities in Hawaiʻi may have changed in response to increasing sea surface temperature.

Rebecca Webster and Catherine McTighe
From left, UH Hilo students Rebecca Webster and Catherine McTighe. The two are using data collected by citizen scientists to conduct analytical research. Photo credit: Raiatea Arcuri.

Knope says that Webster’s analysis of the data has revealed that waters in Hawaiʻi are both on average getting warmer and becoming more variable, with higher highs and lower low temperatures. “But what does that mean for Hawaiʻi’s intertidal ecological communities?” he asks. “That’s the next question Rebecca is tackling for her master’s thesis and it is a really important one.”

Citizen scientist divers heed the call

John Burns
John Burns

Citizen scientists also play an important role at UH Hilo’s Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis (MEGA) Lab, directed by John Burns, assistant professor of marine science and data science.

When the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a significant ocean warming event in late summer of 2019, which they feared could cause widespread coral bleaching, Burns and Kailey Pascoe, the MEGA lab’s coral reef research technician, reached out to diving companies to solicit assistance with monitoring coral reefs to detect coral bleaching.

“Corals respond quickly to rising temperatures, so bleaching was expected to occur rapidly,” says Burns. “Unfortunately, there is limited capacity to conduct surveys that can monitor bleaching throughout the expansive coastlines of Hawaiʻi Island.”

Ocean divers underwater.
Citizen scientists assist the UH Hilo MEGA lab collect data. Courtesy photo from John Burns.

In response, Aquatic Life Divers, a diving company in Kona, Hawaiʻi, was able to recruit seven citizen divers on very short notice to assist Burns and Pascoe with data collection. After receiving a crash course in structure-from-motion photogrammetry, the volunteers were able to collect data from 30 standardized sites on Hawaiʻi Island.

“We don’t have the time to get there and reach all the sites,” explains Pascoe. “A lot of divers have nice cameras with water housing. They want to contribute to citizen science but they don’t know how. The methods are simple; you don’t need a scientific background to do surveys.”

Pascoe is continuing to work with the volunteers in Kona and hopes to expand collaborations with citizen scientists in the future. “The volunteers expand the spatial area of the data that we are able to collect,” she says. “We hope we can teach more communities to collect this kind of valuable science going forward.”

Burns looks forward to further collaborations with private diving companies. “This project highlighted the valuable contributions that private industry can make to coral reef monitoring,” he says. “Since these companies are visiting a large number of sites daily, it provides a great opportunity to simultaneously collect data and improve our capability to monitor coral health.”

Story by Leah Sherwood, who received her master of science in tropical conservation biology and environmental science in the spring of 2020 from UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University.

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