By Serine Haidar Ahmad, from the Local Conservation and Development with OCS in Lebanon
In this two-part blog series, we will go over our project’s planning and implementation process from my own perspective as a chemical engineer research assistant. In this post, I go over what attracted me to work on the project and the various components that were taken into consideration during our project planning stage. As I and my project team went through the planning process, there were several questions we had to answer: What would be the training material? What parameters would we focus on? How would we choose the village? Would the citizens be interested in the project in the first place? In this and the forthcoming blog post, I tackle how my team and I answered these questions in detail. It is my hope that these blog posts can be a guide for others who might be interested in running similar projects such as ours in the future.
- How it all started
When I was volunteering at the AUB Nature Conservation Center, a community outreach team headed by Prof. Salma Talhouk was working on a project called Baldati Bi’ati  with local villages across Lebanon. Through an open and collaborative science, this project incited citizens to apply their indigenous knowledge and produce “Green maps” on which they indicate cultural and natural landmarks to enhance eco-tourism and its sustainability. The team noticed that during this time, many villages had expressed concerns about local environmental problems, such as water pollution. The team thought that it would be great if they can map these pollution points too, so that they can come up with sustainable remedial solutions once done. The team members then submitted the OCSDnet grant proposal to achieve the latter.
“Professor Saliba, what kind of research are you doing this year?,” I inquired one evening. It was the first time I heard about the public participatory approach and its applications in the scientific field. I felt that this project would allow me to combine my passion for volunteering and science, and thus create a diversified impact on my community. Without needing any further convincing, I joined the project team.
Our main goals for the project were:
- Respond to the community’s environmental concerns through a collaborative action oriented process;
- Empower local citizens to take actions after testing for water quality parameters and analyzing data; and ensure the implementation of sustainable remedial environmental solutions suggested by the community and scientists;
- Identify barriers and difficulties faced by the different stakeholders and identify tools and method to face them.
- Team A
Since joining, what I have liked most has been our very diverse team. Prof. Salma Talhouk is an expert in community approach and outreach due to her work on the Baldati Bi’ati project. I go to her especially when I need advice on how to engage with our citizen scientists. “They should be the ones to decide,” she always advocates. I go to Prof. Najat A. Saliba and Prof. Mahmoud Al-Hindi, our air and water quality assessment specialists, respectively, when I need support on the technicalities of the project. Also other team members are Wassim Kays, our field coordinator, Rima Baalbaki and Fatima Hussein, two research assistants working with Prof. Saliba, and finally, Cyril Nasr and myself, two chemical engineers in formation.
- Getting deeper: the literature review
In order to first become familiarized with the concept of citizen science, and previously executed projects, a thorough literature review was necessary. In summary, out of many, three interesting papers helped us to frame our campaigns.
Hidalgo-Ruz and M. Thiel  wrote about employing citizen science to study the distribution and abundance of plastic debris in beaches in Chile. In its ‘Materials and methods’ section, the paper describes targeting citizen volunteers, motivating them into taking part of the assignment, coming up and testing sampling protocols and data entry mediums, and finally deciding on a concluding activity to receive the participants’ feedback.
Stepenuck K. et al. decided to compare E. coli testing results generated by professionals in laboratory and by citizens using two portable testing kits. According to this study, “few studies have comprehensively evaluated use of E. coli monitoring kits by volunteers.” The volunteers attended a workshop where they received some insights on bacteria and testing practices.
Nare et. al. reported the limited participation of the Zimbabwe population in water management. Questionnaires, focus groups and interviews were conducted with rural communities, NGOs and other relevant governmental ministries and departments, to assess their awareness levels in water quality monitoring. However, to our best knowledge, the citizen science concept was never applied in the Middle East.
- Getting the ingredients: one issue tree
First things first, we had to choose a village and the parameters we were going to monitor. For each, we had to purchase and instrument and the additional required equipment. This issue tree lists the conditions and criteria of each “Ingredient.” For example, the parameters we choose should give a reliable general idea about water quality. They also should have available and easy to use testing kits in the market.
We chose a village in the South of Lebanon, which has been suffering from biological contamination in one of its artesian well waters. The well was then closed and sealed in red wax by the Lebanese government, on August 7, 2015.
As for the parameters, a similar citizen science project submitted by scholars and advised by Dr. Shawn Hutchinson  was implemented in 2013. The study focused on detecting levels of nitrate, phosphate, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, conductivity and pH. After consulting with Prof. Al-Hindi, parameters such as alkalinity, hardness, nitrite, ammonia, total and fecal coliforms were added to the list.
Although we found testing kits for all physical and chemical parameters, we could not find simple kits testing for the biological ones and so these biological parameters were measured in a lab at AUB during the winter testing campaign. Then, for the summer testing campaign, we managed to assemble our own testing kits from items ordered online. This option was nevertheless expensive, especially that the filtration units can only be used once and then should be thrown away.
I hope this blog helped to give you a taste of the literature review, and initial logistics that we went through during our project planning. Through this more comprehensive “methods” type of blog post, my aim is to reveal much more of the background work that goes into running a citizen science project, from a scientist’s perspective. In my next blog, I will write about our first visit, especially focusing on what we decided to present during our visit to the village and what equipment we took with us. I will also explain how we performed a training before going to the field. Stay tuned!
 Baldati Bi’ati is one of the programs launched by the AUB Nature Conservation Center, focusing on community development and working on several outreach activities that targets different demographics across several areas in Lebanon. Check the website’s URL for further information: http://www.aub.edu.lb/units/natureconservation/programs/Pages/communitydvpmt.aspx
 Hidalgo-Ruz V. and Thiel M. Distribution and abundance of small debris on beaches in the SE Pacific (Chile): A study supported by a citizen science project. 2013. Marine Environmental Research 87, 12-18
 Stepenuck K., Wolfson L., Liukkonen B., Iles J., and Grant T. Volunteer monitoring of E. coli in streams of the upper Midwestern United States: a comparison of methods. 2010. Environ Monit Assess, 174. 635-633
 Nare L., Love D., Hoko Z. Involvement of stakeholders in the water quality monitoring and surveillance system: The case of Mzingwane Catchment, Zimbabwe. Physics and Chemistry of the Earth. 2006, 31, 707-712
 Brady G., Wilkinson B., Bennett A., Rohling K., Stropes K., Vollick T. 2013. Citizen Science Water Quality Mapping: A Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences Capstone Project. Manhattan: Kansas State University.