Citizen science projects have the potential to increase public understanding and interest in ecology, which is crucial to meeting global conservation goals. These projects are increasing in popularity, but the influence of citizen science participation on youth interest in science is poorly understood. We sought to investigate what motivated student participants in the Hudson River American Eel Project, and how participation influenced student science literacy and the likelihood of students continuing in science fields, including ecology. The Eel Project is a citizen science initiative run by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation that collects data on glass eel populations in tributaries of the Hudson River. Glass eels are the juvenile life stage of the American Eel (Anguilla rostrata), which is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Student participation in the Eel Project is voluntary, though in some cases teachers offer extra credit for participation. In 2015, we administered pre- and post- surveys to 30 Poughkeepsie, NY high school students participating in the Eel Project. We also conducted interviews with a third of these students to provide a more in-depth assessment of their interests.
Based on survey results, we found that most students were motivated to participate in the Eel Project because of internal drivers such as enjoyment of learning new things. We also found that students were more likely to provide specific examples of what can be learned from data collected during the Eel Project in post-interviews than in pre-interviews. Seventy-seven percent of the students who participated in the project and were surveyed were minorities. In both pre- and post-surveys, minority high school students gave more strongly positive answers than white students in response to questions about future interest in science, which contrasts with the representation of minorities in science careers. This result may indicate that citizen science projects foster and encourage the pursuit of science careers in these traditionally poorly-represented groups. Here we demonstrate that student participation in citizen science is internally motivated, leads to a more complete understanding of research outcomes, and may encourage minorities to pursue science in the future.