University of Helsinki Open Science Award to multidisciplinary Helsinki Urban Rat Project

The theme for this year’s Award is citizen science.

Citizen science projects are implemented at the University of Helsinki in several research fields, and the goal in this year’s Open Science Award is to highlight these projects and their diversity. Nominee proposals for the Award were requested from University units, from the University community via the Flamma intranet, and this year also from people outside the community who had participated in University-organized citizen science projects. Nominations were requested for a research group at the University of Helsinki that had advanced citizen science in an exemplary manner.

The criteria for the Award included development of technology for the crowdsourced gathering of research data, cooperation with wider communities and organizations in addition to citizens, development of forms of cooperation, communication and training, and broad utilization of the possibilities of open science.

The award jury decided to grant the award to the Helsinki Urban Rat Project , whose merits were in the multidisciplinarity and diversity of its activities, its extensive cooperation network, and especially its training of secondary school students in gathering data.

The jury consisted of University Librarian Minna Niemi-Grundström, Professor Tiina Onikki-Rantajääskö from the Helsinki Term Bank for the Arts and Sciences, Curator Jari Valkama from the Finnish Museum of Natural History, and Senior Advisor Tiina Käkelä from the University of Helsinki Research services. 

Helsinki city rats as research objects

The Helsinki Urban Rat Project is a multidisciplinary research project established in 2018 to understand the life of Helsinki city rats and their interaction with humans. The project’s research covers, for example, detecting the distribution of rat population distribution detection, urban rat parasites, and human–rat interaction.

Rats have always provoked strong emotional reactions from humans, and systematic attempts are often made, however unsuccessfully, to repel or eradicate rat populations. The Helsinki Urban Rat Project has approached this conflict between humans and rats not only from the perspective of urban rodent control, but also via ethnographic methods – for example, by gathering stories from city dwellers about their encounters with rats.

In close cooperation with the project, an art performance about the relationship between humans and rats was produced at the University of Arts in Helsinki. Other cooperation partners of the research project include City of Helsinki and The Foundation for Municipal Development. 

How is scientific study learned at school?

The Helsinki Urban Rat Project uses citizen science approach, for example, in engaging secondary school students in gathering data on rat movement in Helsinki. Project founder, Tuomas Aivelo, what initially gave you the idea of realizing data gathering with secondary school students?

"It was Otso Huitu, the chief research scientist at Natural Resources Institute Finland, who came up with the idea that the rat observations should be gathered from citizens, and it was my idea to realize it with secondary school students. I have worked a lot with biology teachers and knew they could be easily persuaded to join in because this is probably the easiest way to implement the basics of scientific methods in education. In practice this means that I visit the schools, give a presentation, and tell how the students can participate. And I’ll give them the materials."     

What is it like to work with secondary school students?

Tuomas Aivelo explains that they are not a homogeneous group. "Depending on their age, school, teacher, or the team spirit the student groups can be very different. Some are interested in certain aspects of the work more than others. Every school visit is thus different, even after my having given around hundred presentations."

"According to our study, the students really appreciate the fact that they can do something which differs from their everyday lives. You can notice that in the visits, where the students are usually polite enough to listen throughout my lengthy rat presentation. The students also appreciate the autonomy that research brings. I give them the materials, and teach the method, but they get to decide the places where they’ll conduct the study," Tuomas Aivelo says.

The Helsinki Urban Rat Project has also studied how learning the practices and methods of the scientific process affects the school students. In monitoring secondary school students (aged 13–14 years) it was noticed that they learned to understand and manage epistemic uncertainty in ways typical of scientific practices. The students for example developed alternative scenarios and hypotheses, and flexibly reframed their research activities and goals – just like one does in scientific research.

The results of the study were published in Science Education this year.


What is citizen science?

Citizen science is both a crowdsourced method for data collection and an important form of societal interaction for research. It promotes open science especially by openness and inclusion of the research process.

In citizen science, people outside the scientific community are knowledge producers who gather and describe data for researchers. But they can also participate in defining the research question and data analysis. The starting point for a citizen science project can also be a problem noticed by citizens and the need for related scientific knowledge.