The forest is the subject of a growing social interest in Europe, while at the same timeless and less citizens have any concrete connection with forest management, and even with any productive activity based on living resources. This tension between great interest and concern, on the one hand, and capacities to understand the functioning, dynamics and management of the forest on the other, is problematic. Indeed, it leads to growing conflicts and misunderstanding between citizens, forest researchers and forest managers, impairing our collective capacity to set up the new forest deal that is required by the ecological transition. This tension is perceived by community elected representatives, who want to play the role of mediators between their population and the forest and wood sector. However, many of them lack appropriate support, training, and tools for achieving such a goal. This situation fostered the development of initiatives such as, for example, the one carried out by the French Forest Service in order to provide training sessions and resources for the majors of forest owning communities.
Professionals of the wood transformation sector are also feeling increasing social pressure in relation to the impact on the forest of the wood supply required by their activity. They must now report about the provenance of the wood and the sustainability of the forest management that provide this wood. This increasing need for additional training that affects citizens without a formal background in forestry (e.g., community representatives and several types of professionals in the forestry domain mentioned before), also concerns graduates from our Higher Education Institutions. Indeed, the forestry domain is multifaceted and requires knowledge from more and more disciplines, thus requiring graduates in forestry to permanently receive further training. One promising approach for addressing this additional need for training in the forestry domain, even for people without a formal background in the domain, is the so-called citizen science. The term citizen science refers to research projects that engage large amounts of individuals, not necessarily trained as scientists, in “collecting, categorizing, transcribing, or analyzing scientific data. Citizen Science is considered part of the Open Science initiative of the European Union, one of the pillars of the strategy for “Shaping Europe’s digital future”. Indeed, the European Union funds the EU-citizen.science portal, a repository of relevant Citizen Science resources and projects around the world. Citizen Science projects may have a significant scientific impact since they can generate scientific data “at scales or resolutions unattainable by individual researchers or research teams”. But, in addition, there is a strong interest in Citizen Science as a way of improving science and environmental education. Indeed, participation in Citizen Science projects seems to improve not only scientific knowledge and the acquisition of scientific skills in general, but it can also play a specific key role in the widespread understanding of conservation issues. This is the case of Citizen Science applications and initiatives that address different areas of Forestry: inventories, pest-resistance, prevention and identification of tree damage... Citizen Science can also bring interesting possibilities for learning when integrated with formal curricula. This is the case of recent research works that showcase the potential benefits of engaging primary and secondary education students in Citizen Science projects as part of school learning activities. However, the potential of Citizen Science as part of the formal training of Forestry professionals at Higher Education is still underexplored. The VirtualForests Strategic Partnership aims at 1)exploring how Citizen Science initiatives can be aligned with the formal curriculum of Forestry Engineers in different European Higher Education systems; and, 2)proposing teaching “best practices” for the design of learning activities that can happen in physical spaces “out-the-classroom”, based on the use of existing Citizen Science mobile applications. Different mobile apps have developed across Europe to engage citizens in the forest and natural resources management. The focus has been facilitating the participation in comonitoring and co-management VirtualForests will focus on the use of the Silvalert Citizen Science mobile app, developed by our consortium, for illustrating and evaluating this integration between Citizen Science and the formal training of Forestry Engineers. Silvalert app is designed to facilitate that citizens co-register forest tree damages. The user can be any citizen reporting any kind of damage (discoloration, damages to trunks, fires…). Based on where the damages are collected, they can be forwarded to regional health services and shared with relevant scientists. Students can register and be trained