Last month, five scientists spoke to an audience of teachers about conservation biology during an all-day event called BioForum. The day ended with a panel question and answer session. During this lively conversation between the teachers in the audience and the scientists on the panel, a theme began to emerge: our new policy in science education should be “No Child Left Inside.”
Why is this so important? Several of the speakers agreed that their passion for science was first sparked by spending time outside as kids—“mucking about” in the natural world, exploring and experiencing, developing a life-ling curiosity and fascination with nature that led them into their current careers.
But with so many demands on our class time, how can we justify taking time out to turn our students loose in the great outdoors? From this question, the conversation turned to citizen science projects as a way to give students the chance to spend time in a natural setting, but with content, structure, and value built into the experience.
So what is citizen science, anyway?
Imagine a scientist who is studying, for example, birds. Suppose the scientist focuses on a migratory bird species, and needs to figure out when and where it goes on its migration. If the bird species has a small population in a restricted area, it might be feasible to go out and watch the migration first-hand. But what if the species is spread all across the continent? How can the scientist follow all these populations at once?
One day the scientist realizes that she is not the only person paying attention to birds. There are thousands of amateur birdwatchers across the continent who like to keep track of the birds they see in their area. Whether individual watchers record what they see in pictures, words, or not at all, the combined observations of thousands of people contain a wealth of data with great potential.
Recognizing this potential, the scientist reaches out to the birdwatchers. “Hey guys, if you happen to notice this type of bird passing through your area, can you tell me about it?” Before she knows it, she receives hundreds of sightings from around the country and has all the data she needs to complete her research.
Meanwhile, birdwatchers from different areas are suddenly united and start to compare notes. Instead of making their observations in isolation, the birdwatchers are now part of a community with a common interest and a shared task.
The scientist gets to use the data to map out migratory route of the birds and publishes a paper. The birdwatchers get to see the observations made in their own backyards shared with the entire scientific community. Everybody benefits from the experience—including the birds.
Sounds interesting, but how does that help my students?
Okay, suppose you are starting a unit on birds. You can talk about them, show your students pictures and videos, but you know the best thing would be to take your students outside and show them real birds in action.
Then you hear about the scientist collecting observations from birdwatchers. You realize that this is the perfect opportunity for your students: not only will they get to learn about birds, they will be participating in real scientific research. You can teach them observation and data-collecting skills in a real-world context. Then your class can follow the project and see what happens to the data they send in, giving them front-row seats to science in action.
This is an excellent way to bring your students outside. So much of our teaching takes place indoors, and of course our lectures and lab activities are essential for students to learn science content. But true science is not confined to indoor settings. Science is all about understanding the world around us, and the best way to do that it is to go out into the world and experience it. While most students imagine that scientists spend their whole careers in the lab, the fact is that many scientists spend significant time outdoors doing field work. Involvement in citizen science allows your students to experience this firsthand.
That’s great, but what if we’re not studying birds?
This hypothetical example is only the tip of the citizen science iceberg. A vast array of projects are underway involving volunteers, teachers, and students in collecting valuable data on just about everything, from birds to bees and beyond. Citizen science is not limited to biology either; projects exist focused on weather, light pollution, astronomy, and more. Many of these projects are producing real-world results with remarkable impact.
For example, the Christmas Bird Count, which is the oldest citizen science project in existence, has had some remarkable impacts. Data collected by volunteers during 109 annual Counts since the tradition began in 1900 provides scientists with a long-term picture of bird populations and how they change over time. This project documented a significant decline in populations of the American Black Duck in the 1980s, leading to new conservation measures to protect the species.
Citizen science is more than just a way to teach your students science content and science skills; it’s also a way to involve them in valuable work that can make a genuine real-world impact. I’ve compiled a list of 11 Citizen Science Projects in the Bay Area with which you can involve your students.
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”