Deepening Understanding of Forest Health in Central New Jersey through Student and Citizen Scientist Involvment

Nellie Tsipoura,
New Jersey Audubon Society
Jay F. Kelly,
Raritan Valley Community College


SENCER-ISE (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities-Informal Science Education) is an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Noyce Foundation to support partnerships between informal science and higher education institutions. SENCER-ISE currently includes ten cross-sector partnerships offering a range of civic engagement activities for K–12, undergraduate and graduate students, and the public. SENCER’s primary focus is the improvement of undergraduate teaching and learning through the framework of civic engagement (Friedman and Mappen 2011).

While the formal and informal science education worlds seem far apart, Alan Friedman noted that “informal Science Education (ISE) does not deliver education like a school, but rather it provides opportunities for people to become fascinated with something they experience, and to then find themselves learning and becoming even more interested in whatever it was that caught their imagination” (Friedman 2011). This free-choice learning complements formal education. The goal of SENCER-ISE is to help students and the public appreciate the value of informal science education institutions as credible and accessible and to support the exploration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics by people of all ages and all walks of life (SENCER-ISE 2014).

To achieve this goal and to emphasize the importance of informal science education, SENCER-ISE supports institutional partnerships between higher education and informal science partners./ Ten diverse partnerships across the United States are currently part of this program, with funding from the NSF and the Noyce Foundation. These partnerships are made up of an array of higher education institutions that include two- and four-year public and private colleges and universities and informal science education institutions that include science museums, an outdoor education center, a research and policy institute, and a wildlife sanctuary.

Civic engagement is the “acting on a heightened sense of responsibility to one’s communities that encompasses the notions of global citizenship and interdependence, participation in building civil society, and empowering individuals as agents of positive change” (Musil 2009). By framing higher education in the context of real-world problems facing our communities, students more easily gain a sense of their studies’ relevance and importance to their lives and the world around them, enhancing student interest and the imperatives both to learn and to take action. Moreover, by actively participating in identifying and solving these problems in their communities, students gain hands-on experience in applying what they learn, thus developing both the knowledge and practical skills needed to make them more informed, capable, and engaged citizens and professionals.

The Civic Issue

Figure 1. Map of surveyed area in NJ Raritan/Piedmont Region

Funding from SENCER-ISE has been supporting a collaborative effort of New Jersey Audubon (NJA) and Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) to monitor bird populations and forest health in central NJ in the Piedmont section of the Raritan River watershed. The goals of this project are to involve community college students and citizen scientists in a conservation issue of civic importance, and specifically to (1) document the abundance and distribution of forest breeding birds and the quality of their habitat in central New Jersey; and (2) make recommendations for improving forest health in the state.

Today, more acres of forests are being lost each year than any other land use type in New Jersey (45,000 acres were lost between 2002 and 2007 alone; Hasse and Lathrop 2010). Urban land uses have made the greatest increases and now cover nearly 30 percent of the state (1.5 million acres), propelled in large part by suburban sprawl. Significant strides have been made in recent decades to protect our natural areas from development through the public and private funding of open space, which has resulted in more than 1.2 million acres preserved. While these efforts have done much to stem the tide of habitat loss, little has been done to protect and maintain the quality of these natural areas in the face of other, more subtle threats.

In addition to the direct conversion of natural areas to developed landscapes, the integrity of the natural ecosystems that remain continues to be threatened by the physical and biological effects of fragmentation, including excessive deer herbivory, invasive organisms, climatic change, and pollution. New Jersey has some of the highest numbers and densities of deer and invasive plant species in the United States (Drake et al. 2002, Kartesz 2011). More than a third of the plant species present in New Jersey today are non-indigenous species (Snyder and Kaufman 2004), and many of these species are transforming our local ecosystems, filling in niches that are being created by disturbance and/or suppression of native species by deer. Deer densities in the state have been recorded at approximately twenty-eight deer/mi2 in recent years, which is approximately four times higher than the historical background rate. Densities of deer in central New Jersey are even higher, averaging seventy-eight deer/mi2 and in some places as high as 202 deer/mi2 (NJ Audubon 2012). The overabundance of deer has had devastating effects on forest understories, in which the herb, shrub, and sapling layers are completely absent in many places. The result is a slow process of ecosystem decay and the loss of many native species and habitat niches. Without intervention to protect, maintain, and improve New Jersey’s natural resources, loss of ecosystem function and habitat is inevitable.

Program Plan

This project involves students and citizen scientists in collection of data on invasive plants and deer and bird populations. Students learn about the principles of forest ecology and conservation as well as applied research methods in their General Ecology, Field Botany, and Environmental Field Study classes. Following this immersive introduction to forest ecology, the students create materials to educate citizen volunteers about the impacts of deer overpopulation and invasive plant species on forest health, and to lead training sessions during which they teach the volunteers how to collect relevant data. After the training workshops, students conduct research on the status of selected forest areas, looking at deer browse and invasive species in those areas, all under the guidance of their RVCC professors and NJA staff. Funding from SENCER was sufficient to hire two interns for summer 2014. In addition, RVCC students raised $1000 in donations in spring 2014 and an individual donor gave RVCC $4,000 to support this program. With these additional funds, we were able to involve four interns in this program.

Concurrently, citizen scientists collect data on bird populations in those forests and at additional sites with the Raritan/Piedmont region and also made rapid assessments of invasive plant species.

Figure 2a. Sample data analysis of bird in the floodplain forest understory at Duke Island Park.
Figure 2b. Sample data analysis of invasive and native vegetation in the floodplain forest understory at Duke Island Park. Vegetation data compares “old” and “new” forest study sites to historic data sets from the 1950s.

Program Implementation

In spring 2014, Dr. Jay Kelly developed the Environmental Field Studies course at RVCC around issues of forest health and the specific SENCER project. Students were introduced to basic ecological concepts related to forest structure and composition and learned how these can be applied to understanding and assessing forest health. Students conducted extensive field and library research on factors such as forest history, land use, invasive species, deer overabundance, endangered species, climate change, landscape context, public policy, and forest management. After personally delving into the causes and consequences of these factors, students engaged in the development of solutions to these problems, focusing on integrating invasive plant species into the citizen science training being conducted by NJ Audubon, as well as assessing the effectiveness of existing restoration efforts and forest management plans being applied to local forest preserves.

Previous versions of the course focused on student-driven independent research projects and/or more structured modules, exposing students to the process of conducting scientific research (from literature review to various types of data collection, along with data entry, analysis, and interpretation) through a variety of less-directly related community-based field research and conservation/restoration projects (e.g., community well water testing, superfund sites, amphibian road crossing surveys, invasive and endangered species surveys). The new version through SENCER helped focus and deepen the course content, providing a useful conceptual framework to integrate different course materials and giving students an opportunity to participate in meaningful community-based research and outreach being conducted by NJ Audubon. In all, this exposed them not only to the principles and practices of basic scientific research, but also to the relevance of research methods and results to solving real-world problems, and to the moral and civic values, roles, and responsibilities of science and scientists in matters of civic importance.

As part of the curriculum and syllabus, Kelly Wenzel, an educator with NJ Audubon, met with the students and helped them understand how to create lesson plans for volunteers and brainstormed with them on a design for a field manual. Dr. Nellie Tsipoura also spoke to the class as Director of the Citizen Science Program at NJ Audubon; she explained the purposes of the citizen science project and discussed what the students would be expected to produce and how to make the presentations tie in and flow with the rest of the workshop. Twelve species of invasive plants (shrubs, herbs, and emergent species) were selected as focal species for this project, and the students prepared materials on the biology and identification of these species. The students did a “dry run” of their PowerPoint presentations to the class during the lab period the week before the first citizen science workshop.

Citizen scientists were recruited through NJ Audubon membership lists and through birding groups in New Jersey. Although the NJ Audubon citizen science program has been active for over 10 years, creating new educational opportunities to engage and to challenge volunteers is a continuous process. The partnership with RVCC brings a fresh approach by allowing volunteers to interact with the college community and learn what the students are learning. In addition, people who have conducted bird surveys before through this project can expand their involvement and understanding of forest ecology by including the plant component, a new experience for them.

At training workshops, citizen science volunteers were presented with background information on the collaboration between RVCC and NJ Audubon through the SENCER grant. Then they were introduced to the purposes of the project and the scientific and civic questions relating to forest health in New Jersey. This was followed by (classroom) training in bird identification and invasive plant identification. While this is done in a classroom setting, we go into great detail concerning species identification with the aid of photos in a PowerPoint presentation, and in the case of birds there is also an audio component with bird songs. The bird ID part was presented by NJ Audubon staff, while the invasive plant identification was presented by the RVCC students.

The ID training was followed by a “working” lunch break, during which the students set up a display of herbarium specimens to test citizen scientists’ newly acquired knowledge. The volunteers were excited about being tested and very pleased to realize that they could identify most invasive plant species correctly after the workshop. Finally, the last hour of the workshop was spent going through the protocols for data collection for birds (NJA staff) and invasive plants (RVCC). Since we are using rigorous scientific methodologies to collect data that can be used for conservation and management purposes, we impress upon the volunteers the importance of careful data collection and go into detail on what this involves.

Each citizen scientist received a packet with CDs of all the presentations and of bird songs, all the protocols, and any additional paperwork. For this specific project the students developed a “field manual” to assist with invasive plant identification and survey protocols, and this was also included in the packet. This field guide is two-sided with photos and ID tips for the invasive plant on one side and the similar native plant in the back, along with visual depictions of cover classes and search radii for different target species. Volunteers can cut them out separately or print them out again in thicker paper and develop cards that they can bring with them into the field.

After the workshop each volunteer was assigned five to ten survey points within the selected forest sites and conducted surveys of birds and/or invasive plants between late May and early July 2014.

Field trips and integrated curricula in the different courses prepared students for field data collection. The Forest Ecology Interns were taught basic plant identification and field techniques for measurement of forest structure and composition in their General Ecology (BIOL-231) class; rigorous experience-based field identification of New Jersey plants in Field Botany (BIOL-232); and background on forest ecology, historical human impacts, and present day threats in Environmental Field Studies (ENVI-201). However, the most essential course needed to qualify for the internships was Field Botany, since the interns needed to have adequate skills in plant identification in order to collect reliable data. Dr. Jay Kelly also gave them basic training and orientation in the field, helping to locate study sites, set up sampling grids, and identify any plant species that were unfamiliar to the students.


Forest surveys

Overall 375 points throughout natural areas within the Raritan/Piedmont region were mapped and of these 192 points at seventeen sites were surveyed (Figure 1). Thirty-one volunteers participated in surveys and counted 3998 individual birds of eighty-eight species.

The interns collected data on the structure and composition of forest vegetation in the Piedmont region of the Raritan Watershed in central New Jersey, focusing on upland, mountain, and riparian environments and comparing forests of different ages, habitat types, and landscape contexts. Four student interns collected data at twelve sites (420 tree quadrats and 840 seedling plots) and counted 3067 trees.

While a complete analysis of biological information is beyond the scope of this paper and will be submitted to an ecological journal at the completion of the project, Dr. Jay Kelly involved the students in his fall 2014 General Ecology class in data analysis and presented the results at the RVCC Departmental Seminar. (See Figure 2 for examples of types of data and graphic representation and analysis.)

Student and Citizen Scientist Assessments
Figure 3. Self-assessment of students before and after participation in the project based on their response to questionnaires. Stars (*) denote statistical significance (GLM p<0.05). Interestingly, even though the rankings went up in every category, they were not significant for the “ability” related questions.

We conducted two types of quantitative project assessments.

To look at the educational value of the project for students, we distributed questionnaires to students before and after their participation in the program (Appendix 1). The questions asked for students’ perspectives about their personal interest, concerns, knowledge, and skills related to both forest health and environmental issues in general. There were significant differences in obtained pre- and post-project scores overall and by category (SAS PROC GLM statistic; P > F less than 0.05; Figure 3), with an average 0.8 point increase on a 5 point scale by each category.

Figure 4. Percent of volunteer citizen scientist observations correctly reporting presence or absence of invasive shrubs and herbs.

To test the effectiveness of the training on volunteer citizen scientists’ ability to identify and quantify invasive plants, we followed up and compared the results submitted by volunteers to the more accurate surveys that the student interns conducted at the same sites. We used similar methodology to that used by Jordan et al. (2012) and recorded true and false positives and negatives. After being trained, volunteers were very skilled at identifying invasive plants, reporting presence or absence correctly more than 80 percent of the time (Figure 4). However, volunteers were incorrect in their abundance estimates almost 50 percent of the time for shrubs, somewhat less for herbs. These results are similar to those previously published for invasive plant surveys (Crall et al. 2011; Jordan et al. 2012) and imply that we would need to incorporate a field training module to make those data more reliable.


Participation in this project confirmed and strengthened students’ interests in academic and career paths in environmental science and continuing civic engagement. The reflection papers show the impact this active learning experience made on these students not only in terms of approaching the civic issue of forest health, but also regarding learning and life in general (Appendix 2). All four summer interns in the 2014 program applied to do the internships again in 2015, in some cases turning down other more lucrative job offers to do so. All four students have successfully transferred to four-year programs in ecology-related programs at Rutgers and Cornell University, and several commented how well the courses at RVCC prepared them for their studies. This outcome of the project is in agreement with the studies of service learning that have found that students who combine community service and academic study benefit in their target attitudes, skills, and understanding of social issues compared to those who do not, as well as in their likelihood for further civic engagement (Eyler et al. 1997; Moely et al. 2002; Yorio and Ye 2011).

This project has benefited NJ Audubon, the non-academic partner, in its mission of protecting wildlife and engaging the public. To achieve conservation goals through citizen science requires an integration of volunteer involvement and conservation implementation (Figure 5). There are several steps in this process in which students can participate and contribute. In this project so far, these have included getting to know the audience, training participants, and tabulating and analyzing data. We anticipate continuing to involve students within the scope of the SENCER-ISE grant in disseminating results and reframing questions.

Figure 5. Schematic model of the process of involving volunteer citizen scientists in the effective implementation of conservation goals

Furthermore, this project provides a model that NJ Audubon and similar nonprofit groups can use to engage college-age youth and help shape them into civic-minded citizens while promoting new skills and career directions. This model can be incorporated into future work, for example into grant applications and other fundraising activities, as a paradigm of informal education and successful involvement of youth. Currently, NJ Audubon and Brooklyn College, another ISE partner, are developing a new partnership with each other using this SENCER-ISE model. Student interns and class curricula will be supported through funds awarded to NJ Audubon for coastal impoundment and climate research that carries with it the requirement that young adults be involved in process. This project is in the initial stages of development, but since it is supported through a grant from the U.S. Department of Interior/Hurricane Sandy funds, it is likely to have high visibility and high civic impact. These opportunities for college students and other youth are becoming critical parts of conservation efforts as our understanding expands of how wildlife recreation and involvement in activities in nature results in pro-environmental behavior (Cooper et al. 2015).

Similarly, RVCC is building on our successes with the SENCER-ISE model, developing new partnerships with other non-profit institutions working on other types of environmental issues in New Jersey and abroad. These include a project being developed with Clean Ocean Action focused on plastic debris accumulation on the tidal portions of the state shoreline, and another with Pinelands Preservation Alliance related to beach management practices affecting endangered species habitat and dune development. Each of these projects will build on existing curriculum offered in the Environmental Science and Biology programs, research interests and experience of professors, and relationships with individuals at non-profit institutions who are involved with these issues, to develop opportunities to involve students in the research and outreach needed to help address these issues of civic importance in the state.

While scientists devise methods to test data reliability (Wiggins et al. 2011) and evaluate the information so that it can be used in conservation and management (Dickinson et al. 2012), less is understood about the longer-term impacts of citizen science activities on volunteers both educationally and in terms of attitude changes and continuing involvement in civic issues (Toomey and Domroese 2013) or about the motivations behind their volunteer work (Rotman et al. 2012). There is broad recognition that the processes and outcomes of citizen science need to be studied for their social, educational, and environmental impacts (Bonney et al. 2014; Jordan et al. 2015). Within the context of this project, we found that volunteers were able to identify plant species successfully, but were not very accurate at providing percent coverage estimates, suggesting lower order versus higher order learning for these two tasks (Bloom 1956; Miri et al. 2007). The information recall needed for species identification is an example of lower order thinking skills, whereas analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of information, considered higher order thinking skills, are needed for developing abundance estimates. Future work that includes a more in-depth look at the changes in volunteer knowledge and ability to conduct surveys, as well as changes in attitudes and motivation during a project, would contribute greatly to improving the informal education value of this approach.


We thank Ellen Mappen and Monica Devanas for many brainstorming sessions and fun discussions that resulted in this work; Hailey Chenevert for her help and support through the SENCER-ISE project process; all the SENCER-ISE partners for their input, suggestions, and camaraderie; Dale Rosselet and Kelly Wenzel for guidance on outreach and informal education; Mike Allen and Laura Stern for coordinating citizen science efforts and data collection; the RVCC students for their contributions to the training workshops and the field work; the many citizen science volunteers for collecting survey data; and NJ Audubon and RVCC staff for administrative support.  Funding was provided by SENCER-ISE with additional support from the RVCC Foundation and Environmental Club and NJ Audubon donors.

About the Authors

Dr. Jay F. Kelly received his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers University in 2006. Since 2007 he has been a professor of Biology and Environmental Science at Raritan Valley Community College, where he teaches a variety of botany, zoology, ecology, and environmental science courses. His research interests are the ecology and conservation of endangered species in New Jersey, especially with regard to their population biology and habitat management. Other interests include plastic marine debris and toxins in consumer products and their effects on human health and local environments.

Nellie Tsipoura earned a Ph.D. from Rutgers University in 1999 and has been working as the Director of citizen science for New Jersey Audubon Society, developing and coordinating a number of studies that employ volunteers throughout NJ to monitor bird populations. Each year approximately 150 volunteers collect data on bird population that are used to make policy and management decisions. Through these citizen science activities, volunteers are provided a rewarding experience through informal education and civic engagement.


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