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Biological Monitoring Programs for K-12 Students

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Green Teacher.

Are you an educator looking for a way to engage your students in real, hands-on science, research or community service? Are you having trouble finding a suitable program for your students? You are not alone. Educators are constantly looking for ways to enrich their curriculum with meaningful hands-on experiences for their students, but often have difficulty finding programs, let alone appropriate programs. In fact, when beginning our research we could not find an up-to-date, comprehensive list of environmental monitoring programs that involve students as volunteer monitors. Those who have worked with such efforts all know there are significant benefits from involving students in monitoring programs, including: providing them with hands-on experiences; involving them in genuine science; gaining a deeper understanding of a subject, problem or issue; building confidence; and developing a sense of civic responsibility by participating in community service.

In this article we will identify environmental monitoring programs that involve students as volunteers to monitor a plant or animal species and that are offered at least at a state/ provincial level. We believe that the benefit of providing such a resource is two-fold: educators and students can identify available programs and benefit from the experience of being able to participate in them; and the programs and species being monitored may benefit from increased public awareness and from the use of collected data. In addition, we hope that by making environmental monitoring programs more accessible to educators the more that they will be used.

The use of students as volunteers in monitoring programs is not a new development. Some environmental monitoring programs allow students to participate as volunteer data collectors, some programs encourage student participation, and some programs have been designed specifically for students. For example, Classroom FeederWatch (now called Project FeederWatch) started using student volunteers in its bird-monitoring program in 1987 and was developed specifically for students in grades 5-8. Other environmental monitoring programs like the Audubon Christmas Bird Count were not developed specifically for students, but allow their participation.

Environmental monitoring programs were developed to observe one or more specific feature or aspect of the environment on a consistent, longer-term basis in order to create a database so that trends and changes can be identified. While all monitoring programs share these characteristics, the specific focus of each of the various programs differs greatly. Among the entities that administer programs monitoring the environment are government agencies, universities, and non-government organizations. These programs are used to monitor such things as air and water quality, climate, land use, migratory paths of animals, and populations of animals.

Scientists, resource managers, community volunteers, and students often collect data for these programs. Many environmental monitoring programs utilize volunteers as part of, or for all of, their organization’s data collection efforts. Volunteers tend to be interested in the environmental conditions or problem being monitored, and most can be trained fairly easily. Volunteers provide inexpensive labor, which is of major significance to monitoring programs with limited funding. Furthermore, volunteers can increase the geographic range over which data can be collected, the aspects of the environment about which data can be collected (e.g., the number of species), and the frequency of data collection (e.g., monthly). On the other hand, monitoring programs that rely on scientists alone for data collection usually monitor only a limited geographic range and a limited number of species or factors on a less frequent basis due to budget, manpower, and other resource limitations.

water quality monitoring

The growth of “Citizen Science”

An abundance of volunteer monitoring programs exist in North America, and this number continues to increase, particularly with recent attention to “citizen science.” There are basically four types of programs with respect to student involvement in monitoring:

• programs that do not allow student participation;

• programs that allow children to participate with a parent or another adult;

• programs that encourage student participation (i.e. programs that may have school curriculums but that also allow adult volunteers); and

• programs that were designed specifically for students.

The majority of programs are water quality monitoring programs. For example, GREEN (Global Rivers Environmental Education Network) is one of the earliest monitoring programs, which was designed specifically for students. GREE N got its start in Ann Arbor, MI in 1984 and since then has continued to grow; in 1999 it became a part of Earth Force.

The program’s nationally recognized curriculum is now used in both the United States and Canada. Other monitoring programs include: the Adirondack Lakes Survey Corporation’s Adirondack Long Term Monitoring (ALTM) program, which samples 52 lakes monthly and 3 streams weekly for 21 chemical parameters; the Environmental Protection Agency’s “What’s Up with our Nation’s Waters?” program; and the World Water Monitoring Day, which is an international program that builds awareness of water quality issues by “engaging citizens to conduct basic monitoring of their local water bodies.”

There are also several programs that focus on monitoring weather and atmospheric conditions. These programs date back as far as the 1970s and include: the National Atmospheric Deposition Program (NADP); and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Student Activities in Meteorology (SAM) program. Additionally, there are programs like The GLOBE Program (featured in this article) that run the gamut, and include projects that monitor biological, atmospheric, and/or watershed conditions.

Benefits to students

On the basis of claims by program personnel and other anecdotal information, it is apparent that the involvement in volunteer monitoring programs is beneficial for students. Thus, biological monitoring programs that are geared specifically for students function as valuable curriculum components.

Through these programs, students can learn how to identify and understand environmental problems, an important step in enabling them to become part of the solution to these problems.

Student volunteers are able to experience learning outside of the classroom in a natural setting, which helps foster an appreciation of and respect for the natural world (affect) in addition to fostering retention of learning (cognition).

Additionally, many of these programs “give educators a chance to integrate science with language arts, visual arts, social studies, math and technology” (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2004). As Diane, a seventh grade science educator from Oregon, said about one volunteer monitoring program, Project BirdSleuth, “This may be one of the best uses of your limited budget, because it accomplishes what every good science program should: it makes kids aware of their environment, it teaches careful observation and recordkeeping, it engages learners in the process, and provides for inquiry” (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2008).


Based upon the results of the 2004 and 2007-08 surveys summarized in Tables 1, 2, and 3, it is apparent that there is now a sizable and growing number of volunteer monitoring programs that include students as volunteer monitors in the United States and Canada. No program that was designed specifically for students was in existence before 1987. Ten of the current 31 volunteer monitoring programs were developed since 2000. Further, the total number of volunteer monitoring programs increased from 13 in 2004 to 33 by 2008. Of these 33, we were able to identify and describe 14 biological monitoring programs that were designed specifically to include students as volunteer monitors. Finally, of these 14 programs, most have developed some curriculum for educators to use in the classroom in conjunction with the monitoring program, and eleven have some type of on-line database for entering and sharing student data. These programs are vital to school science curricula in that they help students learn how “real” science works. Furthermore, they show students that they can make a difference in the world.

Of the volunteer monitoring programs located, what was most impressive was that much of the data that are being collected are provided to and used by scientists and natural resource managers. This implies that the data that are being collected by these volunteer monitors are thought to be reasonably reliable and valid by the scientists and natural resource managers that use it.

Monitoring and educational reform

The fact that volunteer monitoring programs exist that include students as volunteer monitors, is encouraging because it indicates that educational reform is taking place at the local and/or state/provincial level in some regions of the U.S. and Canada.

Aspects of educational reform evident in some or all of these volunteer monitoring programs include:

• a more active role of students;

• a more facilitative/guiding role on the part of educators;

• more active, hands-on learning of both science process skills and content;

• use of the outdoors as a site for teaching and learning (Louv, 2005);

• development of a sense of place by using local sites; and

• providing data for scientists and resource managers is a win/win situation.

Several different types of volunteer monitoring programs exist. This allows educators to choose a program that is best suited for her/his students. However, the lack of visibility of these programs is perhaps their most limiting factor (Talsma, 2001; Overholt et al, 2005). By searching the internet for “student monitoring programs,” for example, an educator is likely to find one or two sites relevant to her/his search.

By searching for “citizen science programs” an educator is likely to find one or two actual programs among the sites that attempt to define or describe these practices. If educators are to incorporate a monitoring program into their curriculum, they need to be able to find information about and materials for available programs.


Future research should attempt to address the limitations that we encountered. This could be rectified if periodic searches were conducted with an eye toward identifying programs that may no longer exist, or for which contact information has changed, that have expanded, or that have been developed since the last search.

One of our concerns pertains to the lack of availability of information about existing monitoring programs to K-12 educators, higher education faculty, scientists who work for agencies and NGOs, and others who may have an interest in such programs. Publication of the results of periodic reviews of these programs is but one step toward making this information available to a wider range of interested parties (Tudor et al, 2001; Talsma, 2001). Programs that are interested in making themselves more visible should receive support for this. Strategies for accomplishing this should be discussed and pursued, including a website for environmental monitoring programs with hotlinks to the website for each program, and with charting of the kind found in Kaucheck (2004).

Finally, reflecting the increasingly common calls for accountability, as well as the availability of professional standards and guidelines, it is important that programs document their effects on participants through well-designed assessments, as well as take steps to ensure that their program is delivered in a sound manner through the use of evaluation. We think it would be beneficial to evaluate each of the programs via an assessment of their protocols, curriculum, and data, as well as through case studies of classes that have participated in the various programs listed in Tables 1, 2, and 3.

Lynna Marie Kaucheck undertook graduate research in 2004 and again in 2007-2008 on biological monitoring programs that involved K-12 students. She lives in Ferndale, Michigan. Thomas Marcinkowski, her graduate supervisor, is Chair of the Graduate Program in Environmental Education at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida.