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Citizen Science: Collecting Real-Life Data

F. Water quality testing

Originally appears in the Spring 2016 issue

Have you ever wondered how you could get your students involved in local scientific research, and what opportunities exist for students to take part in collecting data and learning more about the world around them?

Citizen science, or scientific research completed by amateur scientists (i.e., the general public), provides ripe opportunities to engage students in learning scientific content and how it applies to their local environment. Not only does citizen science provide wonderful opportunities to contribute to scientific research, it also engages students in work aligned with educational standards and goals, making it ideal for both in-school and out-of-school learning.

One key characteristic of citizen science is the value of context.  Citizen science is completed locally, often in the participants’ neighborhood, schoolyard, or local parks.  Researchers[i] note that a sense of “place” is huge for urban youth, and that opportunities to engage in citizen science allow students to make connections to the community and the history of place.  Another critical aspect of citizen science is that it provides a humanistic view of science for children[ii], enabling them to work with animals (a passion for many children), something that can often be lacking in traditional lab-based sciences.

A number of citizen science projects are fairly well known, such as Cornell University and the National Audubon Society’s Great Backyard Bird Count. In the count, which takes place annually each February in both the United States and Canada, citizens count the number and types of birds that they see in a 15-minute time span in their yards, then report the data to Cornell labs.  Another popular project is Journey North’s Monarch Tracking, where citizens across North America report when they see monarchs in their area.  This enables scientists to monitor monarch migration patterns as they head south to Mexico. There are many resources online for teachers interested in completing citizen science projects with their students, such as:

  • org’s annual blog about the most popular citizen science projects[iii]
  • The Citizen Science Alliance
  • Scientific American’s database of International citizen science projects
  • Journey North’s Citizen Science project hub, geared towards U.S. and Canadian K-12 classrooms

Things to Consider

The age of your students will impact which type of citizen science project you might undertake.  Children of any age can complete a citizen science project, but some projects require more advanced skills or work than others; for instance, kindergarten students might have an easier time monitoring tulip growth for The Journey North’s Tulip Test Gardens Project, yet struggle to capture and mark turtles to share data with The Carolina Herp Atlas.  Knowing your students’ interests and capabilities is critical.

Another factor to consider is the seasonality of the project.  Monarch watches, for example, only work well during monarch migration time; likewise, all migration projects are going to provide better data at certain times of the year than others.  Similarly, tulip test gardens can require some forethought before planting.  I was surprised, when planning to do a tulip test garden with students in the spring, that I needed to refrigerate the bulbs from November until January before we could plant them.  Fortunately, I’d ordered them early enough to do this!

Finally, do not overlook the value of both your interests and the interests of the students.  If your students show an interest in birdcalls, for example, you might consider having them participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count.  If they’re interested in reptiles and amphibians and live in the Carolinas, they can collect data on local species and upload it to the Carolina Herp Atlas. If you live in an urban area in Canada or the United States with fewer opportunities to view wildlife, Project Squirrel, Celebrate Urban Birds, or Project Bumblebee might be viable options for your students.  Or, if dealing with animals is not something you’re comfortable with, you might consider a Tulip Test Garden or Season Spotter for a citizen science project.

Tips from Experience

Often, we learn the hard way how not to do things with our students, and citizen science is no exception.  As a teacher, one suggestion that I would recommend is making sure to contact the appropriate individuals at your school so that projects are not inadvertently damaged or interrupted. One year, our school system’s mowing crew mowed over the newly planted blueberry bushes we’d installed with fifth graders as part of a slow foods movement; it had not crossed my mind that the markers we placed next to them might not catch their attention.  Another time, when I was collecting turtles in turtle traps for a mark and recapture program with pre-service elementary teachers, the campus police waded into the water and cut open the traps one night to “free the turtles” after a group of college cheerleaders became concerned for their well-being. This latter incident was despite my having contacted grounds crew, administration, and even secured state permits to collect the turtles! If you plan to engage in a project that involves longer-term data collection, it would be wise to contact your administration, grounds crew, parents, and campus security, if applicable. Use your classroom or school’s social media platforms, such as Facebook, to your advantage too. After the turtle trap destruction at our school, now affectionately known as Turtlegate, we took to social media to educate others on campus about why the turtles were being collected and how they could come participate, if they wanted to do so.

You also want to consider how you are going to manage and carry any equipment needed for your project, if applicable.   Devices such as tablets and smart phones make recording data, taking pictures, and uploading information easier than ever, but it takes manpower and effort to lug equipment for catching reptiles, monitoring dragon flies, and other intensive projects.  If you work with younger students, it may be wise to choose a project that involves simple photography and observation for data collection. If you do leave equipment out, such as traps, then be sure to label, label, label.  Make sure individuals are clear on what you are doing and how to contact you.  I’ve found that index cards with my name, email, phone number, and a brief description of the project, work well for labeling traps and other equipment.  Laminating them helps to protect against water and weather conditions, and using neon colored index cards makes them hard to miss.

The timeline for data collection is another factor to take into consideration when planning a citizen science project. Some projects, such as the Great Backyard Bird Count, Celebrate Urban Birds, and The Great Sunflower Project require just a few minutes a day for less than a week’s time.  Other projects, such as collecting reptiles and recording data, take longer classroom periods and often need time to get established and attract the animals.  Finally, projects involving plant growth can take months or more. As a result, it is important to consider when in the school year you choose to start your project.

Finally, do not forget to consider funding sources for your project. If you’re interested in monitoring birds, insects, or reptiles, for instance, Donors Choose[iv] is a fantastic starting place to request the supplies you need for projects.  Public K-12 teachers can register for a free account, where they describe their classroom, project, and items needed to complete the project.  As a K-5 science specialist, I had a number of projects funded this way. They supplied my classroom with materials for citizen science such as gardening tools, dip nets, field microscopes, and even cameras for data collection.  Other organizations and foundations also fund educator projects which align with curriculum standards and hands-on learning: one might consider visiting the Teachers Count[v] website to find funding sources for both the United States and Canada.

Let the Data Collection Begin!

Citizen science provides a fantastic opportunity to engage students in data collection with real-life scenarios, whether it be through tallying the count and species of birds seen in the schoolyard, the number of bumblebees seen in a ten-minute time span, or the number of squirrels found in a given area, creating a bar graph to represent this data, or through measuring the length, width, and weight of a caught reptile.  Students can use this data to engage in graphing and data analysis, a mathematical concept applied from kindergarten through twelfth grade in the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics[vi].

Citizen science provides an opportunity to teach children more about their local environments, serving as an outlet to teach them how they can contribute to the protection of the animals and plants that live nearby.  As stated by one of my students, “We get to help animals and scientists? That’s so great – and we’re going outside to do it, which makes it even better!”  What more could you want?

 

Citizen Science Projects

Canada & the United States

Birds and Windows Project (http://birdswindows.biology.ualberta.ca) –  This Canadian-based research project determines factors that cause birds to collide with windows. Data is collected via online survey.

Bumblebee Watch (Project Bumble Bee) (http://bumblebeewatch.org) – This citizen science project relies on participants to record bee and bee nest sightings via an online system, enabling scientists to determine overall bee population health.

Celebrate Urban Birds (http://celebrateurbanbirds.org) – Celebrate Urban Birds provides participants a data sheet and identification guide to help them recognize birds in their area. The sheet is then mailed back to Cornell University, where scientists keep track of bird sightings.  The website includes lessons, art activities, and other resources for teachers; bilingual materials are provided.

Carolina Herp Atlas (http://www.carolinaherpatlas.org) – The Carolina Herp atlas is a database where amateur herpetologists can upload their observations of reptile and amphibian species in North and South Carolina.

Project Squirrel (http://www.projectsquirrel.org) – The University of Chicago’s Project Squirrel enables participants to record their squirrel observations at home, work, or school. The site provides directions for experimentation with food sources that can easily be completed by schools, and data is shared via the website or Project Squirrel app.

The Great Backyard Bird Count (http://gbbc.birdcount.org) – For the GBBC, participants count the number of birds seen within a 15-minute time period at least once during a four-day window.  The data are submitted via online system or with the eBird Mobile app.

Journey North (https://www.learner.org/jnorth/) – The Journey North provides K-12 citizen science projects focusing on tulip growth, monarch tracking, seasonal studies, bird studies, and whale citizen science projects.  Each citizen science project includes classroom lessons, resources, and readings. Teachers can input data, including photos, online or via the Journey North app.

International

Citizen Science Alliance: Zooniverse  (https://www.zooniverse.org/projects) – This is an online hub of citizen science projects covering a variety of topics, ecosystems, and countries; currently over forty projects are listed for participants.

Herp Mapper (http://www.herpmapper.org/about) –  Herp Mapper is an online database where participants store records of reptile and amphibian observations, which are then shared with scientists.

Scientific American (http://www.scientificamerican.com/citizen-science/) – Scientific American offers links to a plethora of citizen science projects covering a variety of topics, including life and earth science.

United States only

The Great Sunflower Project (http://www.greatsunflower.org.) – Participants in the Great Sunflower Project observe a plant and count the number of pollinators on the plant in a five (or more) minute time period.  The website includes resources for schools and the public to create pollinator-friendly gardens. Data is submitted online.

Canada only

Ontario Bioblitz (http://www.ontariobioblitz.ca) – The Ontario Bioblitz is a 24-hour project where participants inventory all species in an area that they can find, and scientists verify the identifications.  This project is designed to determine the biodiversity of Ontario’s ecosystems.

Citizen Scientists (http://www.citizenscientists.ca/Citizen_Scientists.html) – This Toronto-based organization focuses on ecological monitoring, and environmental education and training.  Current projects focus on birds, road ecology, insects, vernal pools, and endemic species.  Data is collected via fieldwork.

 

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Catherine Scott is an assistant professor of elementary math and science education at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina.

Notes

[i] Calabrese-Barton, A. (2012). Citizen(s’) science. A response to “the future of citizen science.” Democracy and Education, 20, 2.

[ii] Jenkins, L.L. (2011). Using citizen science beyond teaching science content: Making science relevant to students’ lives. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 6(2), 501-508.

[iii] Feldkamp, L. (2015). 10 popular citizen science projects. Retrieved 20 December 2015 from http://blog.nature.org/science/2015/02/17/citizen-science-10-most-popular-projects-best-nature-conservation/

[iv] Donors Choose. (2016). DonorsChoose.org: Support a classroom. Build a future.  Retrieved 20 January 2016 from www.donorschoose.org.

[v] Teachers Count. (2014). Retrieved 26 January 2016 from http://www.teacherscount.org/grants/.

[vi] National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. Washington, DC: Authors.