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Citizen Science

Making a Difference Through Community-Engaged Science

In 2003, community members in a portion of western New York’s greater Buffalo–Niagara Falls area experienced health challenges. They noticed that the air often had a strong unpleasant smell, and even after going inside and closing windows, the smell at times was inescapable. After speaking with one another, community members wondered if there was a connection between air pollution from local factories and their health challenges. They searched for information and found that little to no research on the topic was available. Determined to learn more, they formed the Bucket Brigade, and began taking local air quality samples. The initial test results indicated that extremely high levels of benzene and other harmful chemicals were present in the air. Community pressure led to a study being conducted, which similarly found very high levels of benzene in the air.

In 2009, EPA testing indicated that a local plant, the Tonawanda Coke Plant, was massively underreporting its benzene emission levels—the plant was emitting over 90 tons of benzene per year, but reported only 3 tons. Based on violations of federal environmental law, the Tonawanda Plant was directed to reduce emissions.

In light of this, the Citizen Science Community Resources Group was formed to focus on public and environmental health using local community-based science and action (See “Project Home”). The group continued to collect and send samples for independent testing, and, even after the EPA findings and subsequent ruling, the public group discovered that particulate organic matter in the area’s soil had a number of carcinogens present in every sample that had been submitted for analysis.

Local high school students helped with the next round of soil collection for testing, and their results supported the earlier findings. Scientific evidence coupled with community action led to a landmark verdict against the Tonawanda Factory in violation of the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation Act. All of the work began with local residents sharing concerns about health issues and environmental quality concerns, followed by a decision to take action.

The Citizen Science Community Resources Group invites the public to participate in its Soil Testing USA project, where anyone can collect soil samples and have the samples tested. Through participation in the project, communities can make a difference regarding environmental issues impacting their local area.

Project goal: To empower communities to test soil and foster environmental health

Your task: Collect and test soil for possible environmental contamination

Science discipline: Environmental

The Soil Testing USA project provides the materials needed to collect soil samples for your site and they offer a number of options for participants (See “Soil Toolkits” and “EnviroBucket for Soil Testing”). The EnviroBucket kit contains all necessary materials to engage in the Project’s soil collection procedure (See Figure 1).

EnviroBucket kit.
EnviroBucket kit.

The kit’s materials are housed in a five-gallon bucket that can be used for cleaning field equipment. The kit contains: a binder with instructions to guide you through the procedure and protocols, a clip board, collection site forms and paperwork, a stainless steel hand trowel, gloves, a spoon, mixing bowl, amber jars, and more. Beyond the kit, the only additional materials needed to participate include a smartphone or camera, distilled water, and ice (See “Materials you will need”).

The Soil Testing USA project shares helpful videos that feature the kit’s contents as well as an overview of the soil collection procedure and protocol (See “Video Collection”). The Project also has additional resources available including a high school curriculum (See “Project Home,” “Resources,” “Soil Sampling Manual,” and “Lending Library”). The project provides students with hands-on soil science collection experience, and the analyses disseminate lab results for your review. Additionally the citizen science project can help with the interpretation of results (if needed) once the analysis is completed by the lab.

Materials you will need

  • Soil Sampling Test Kit (See “EnviroBucket for Soil Testing”)
  • Smartphone or camera
  • Distilled Water
  • Ice

The Soil Testing USA Project from Citizen Science Community Resources shows students how science and local action can lead to change that has the potential to benefit the environment and public health. It can also lead to discussions within the domain of the environmental justice field, specifically highlighting how the benefits of a healthy environment can be equitably shared across communities. Engaging students in air, water, soil, and other environmental science citizen science projects can lead to in-depth discussions and interdisciplinary explorations of these themes.

Science matters to all of us and citizen science invites everyone to participate in the process of science. Through participation in this project, students will enjoy contributing to real world science as well as exploring examples of community led science in action.

Citizen Science Community Resources

Soil Testing USA at a glance

When: Anytime

How: Order or build your own soil test kit and follow the established procedures and protocols outlined by Citizen Science Community Resources’ Soil Testing USA Project (See “Project Home”).

Where: Global

Time needed: 1.5 hours

Special equipment needed: The EnviroBucket Kit (See “EnviroBucket for Soil Testing”)

Cost: Soil testing materials to purchase (See “EnviroBucket for Soil Testing” for kit, materials options, and prices)

Contact for more information:

Safety: As with any science lab, classroom, or field activity, always ensure that you are following recommended safety practices; for more information on safety in the science classroom visit

Helpful Project Links

Project Home:

EnviroBucket for Soil Testing:

Lending Library:


Soil Sampling Manual:

Soil Toolkits:

Video Collection:

Project Link on SciStarter:

Public Lab’s Soil Resources:

This column is the result of a partnership between SciStarter and the National Science Teaching Association. For more information about SciStarter and other citizen science projects, please visit

Citizen Science Earth & Space Science High School

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