Connecting Biodiversity Research and Collections with Outreach and Education

The number of species is thought to be the largest in the history of life; i.e., never before have so many different kinds of organisms coexisted. Yet alarmingly, the world's biodiversity is diminishing rapidly and undergoing an extinction crisis. Biological collections of museums and academic institutions, documenting the fossilized and living members of the world’s ecosystems and their changes over time, are uniquely poised to inform the stewardship of life on Earth. Here, The Field Museum partners with leaders in online Citizen Science, Zooniverse of Adler Planetarium in an effort to help accelerate the pace of scientific discovery and documentation. The highly successful Zooniverse project brings a track record of success in creating, sustaining and studying citizen science projects in multiple fields. (See                               

The Citizen Science project will focus on a group of early land plants called liverworts (Marchantiophyta) and include the more familiar mosses (Bryophyta). Liverworts are pivotal in our understanding of early land-plant evolution and are ecologically significant, existing as important and conspicuous components of the vegetation in many regions of the world. This group of plants is an important environmental indicator and has been used as monitors of past climate change, to validate climate models, and as potential indicators of global warming. Many species have interesting biological properties. For example, chemical compounds from some species show cytotoxicity against certain cancer cell lines. Modern monographic treatments of liverworts are rare, and comprehensive treatments for species-rich genera currently are lacking. Also there are few liverwort taxonomists and monographers in the world, particularly in North America. There is a critical urgency to redress this loss of taxonomic expertise.

The goal of engaging a broader audience, especially students and citizen scientists to partner with our efforts in recording critical data sets thus relieving some of the taxonomic impediment. An online tool will be developed that enables users to rapidly measure defined morphological characteristics. The data generated will then be utilized by an established collaborative network towards documenting and describing the biodiversity of the target group of organisms. The data will be used to help determine species delimitations coupled with other multiple lines of evidence. A pilot project has already been conducted with over 200 students from Wilbur Wright College (a Federally designated Hispanic serving institution) and Northeastern Illinois University. A series of morphological characters were trialed to assess feasibility. The project has already been through a successful pilot phase. This was shared with educational professionals and leaders in online citizen science projects at a BioSynC Encyclopedia of Life sponsored meeting in 2012; the key recommendation was to pursue an online version that would vastly simplify the project as well as reach and engage a broader number of participants. The pursuit of this project is part of a larger program, ARTS: Collaborative Research: A model systematic treatment of a hyper-diverse lineage descended from early land plants (Frullania, Frullaniaceae, Marchantiophyta) (See:

Special Thanks to EOL Biodiversity Synthesis Center for continued support! (See:

The screenshots above are examples of a web-based prototype highlighting the ease of measuring lobules, a characteristic which provides efficient data for identifying a species. The interface is simple, user-friendly with dynamic features as a workable base for adding various elements. Providing educational resources for connecting users to an authentic learning experience beyond collecting data is a priority. The goal for the Core Action Team is to implement a program that will not only provide scientists with raw data but to educate a broad audience and facilitate scientific inquiry.

Research Team

Matt von Konrat, Field Museum--Adjunct Curator/McCarter Collections Manager

Juan Larrain, Field Museum--Postdoctoral Research Scholar

Blanka Shaw, Duke University--Database Manager

Technical Developers

Arfon Smith, Adler Planetarium--Director of Citizen Science

Eve Gaus, Field Museum--Digital Learning Manager

K-12 Data Generation

Beth Crownover, Field Museum--Director of Education

Jessica Hankey, Field Museum--School Partnerships Manager

Post K-12 Data Generation

Thomas Campbell, Northeastern Illinois University--Biology Instructor

John Kasmer, Northeastern Illinois University--Associate Professor and Chair, Biology Faculty

Matt Greif, Wilbur Wright College/Field Museum--Biology Instructor/Research Associate

Michael Bryson, Roosevelt University--Associate Professor of Humanities and Sustainability Studies

Norbert Cordeiro, Roosevelt University/Field Museum--Instructor/Research Associate

Preliminary Data Analysis & Program Evaluators 

Joseph Hibdon Jr., Northeastern Illinois University--Instructor, Math Department

Leilah Lyons, University of Illinois at Chicago/New York Hall of Science--Assistant Professor Computer and Learning Sciences/Director of Digital Learning

Northwestern University

Project Support Staff

Kristina Lugo, Roosevelt University-- Research/Administrative Assistant

Oana Vadineanu, Northeastern Illinois University--Research Assistant

Core Action Team Provisional Plans 2013

  • Continued trials for Northeastern Illinois Univeristy & Wilbur Wright College
  • Beta Version of web-tool rollout for Roosevelt University Natural Science Online Seminar--Spring Semester
  • Web-tool public rollout on Museum Campus--August
  • Invitation for other research proposal participation e.g. Zoology & Anthropology departments to utilize web-tool
  • Participatory outreach for schools enrolled in Field Museum Ambassador Program

Collaborating with resources locally and internationally is fundamental in advancing outreach initiatives. Listed below are a series of meetings that facilitated insights and conversation which has generated progress towards the goal of implementing a web tool for various audiences.

Chicago 2012 Meeting One (Connecting Biodiversity Research with Curriculum)

  • Introduction to original concept and pilot studies conducted
  • Discussion of potential pitfalls and barriers to both students using on-line tools and educators trying to incorporate project into their curriculum
  • Keeping assessment as an integral part of project to ensure careful consideration of user feedback
  • Professional perspective on Citizen Science, especially as it relates to public participation in digitization
  • Undergraduate student presentations describing their own experiences , student evaluations and initial data quality test:

Chicago 2012 Meeting Two (Frullania Fest)

  • Brief background of various Frullania collaborative projects
  •  Overview of molecular studies at The Field Museum & collaborative research at Duke
  • Phylogenetic studies & morphometric data for understanding the process of behind patterns
  • Development of a revised working list for Frullania worldwide
  • Identification of critical species-complexes for population studies

March 15th 2013 (Core Action Team Workshop)

(See 'Associated Files' below for PDFs of Activity Instructions & Background Information given to students for Spring 2013 semester)

  • Informal workshop reflecting on the project and discussion of improvements, future prospects, proposals and plans: best practices, ideas and suggestions
  • In the past six months we have had pilots at NEIU and Wilbur Wright College with our methods changing and evolving organically along the way (specifically in the way the images are captured and edited (or not edited) before giving them to students)
  • How to keep this project flexible: Engaging different levels in the process - children, students, the public
  • Are learning goals the same for all audiences? Can we develop a webtool that will answer different goals (the scientific method for coursework, the connection to biodiversity for the general public)?
  • Discussion of existing Citizen Science initiatives: projects that clearly state research goals upfront and throughout, educator tools and material to provide context have heft and projects that have a field component, offer a more holistic learning and technical features - microscope, mapping, a sense of contribution

Links for further reference/press: