Citizen science: Real-world applications for science students
Citizen science projects enlist everyday citizens to collect or analyze data for real-world research studies. This article suggests that bringing citizen science projects into the classroom can help students understand the relevance of curriculum objectives. Several projects are suggested, for elementary, middle, and high school.
“Why do we have to learn this stuff?” It’s a familiar — and frustrating — question for many teachers. And answering “because I said so” satisfies neither you nor your students. No matter their grade level, students are increasingly aware that what they do in school should matter in the real world. It is the teacher’s job to ensure that students can recognize the relevance of their classroom lessons. One way to accomplish this goal is to involve students in a citizen science project.
What exactly is citizen science? No, it doesn’t entail buying a bunch of materials that will put you on a terror watch list. Rather, it is a way to get ordinary people involved in real research with real scientists. If you’re wondering, “How is this beneficial to the scientists?,” it comes down to man power and man hours. Researchers have a static number of hours in the day and a limited number of lab assistants available for data analysis. And in many cases they have a lot of data.
One example is the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Project at UC-Berkeley. Copious amounts of radio telescope data are generated on a daily basis, and the computers and researchers at UC Berkeley simply can’t handle it all. The SETI@Home program solves that problem by allowing volunteers to download a program to their home computers that sorts and analyzes small chunks of this data when the computers are otherwise idle. Other projects involve more active participation, like playing a “game” to discover the most efficient mechanisms of protein folding or viewing images of deep-space galaxies and classifying them as spiral or elliptical. Projects like these take advantage of things that humans can do better than computers — recognize spatial patterns and analyze images.
Citizen science as inquiry
Not all citizen science projects involve sitting in front of a computer. Many projects require participants to get out into the field and collect data. These sorts of projects are especially good for exposing students to the world of scientific inquiry. While the projects mentioned above may seem too advanced for your students, there are several data-collection projects that require little to no special equipment and could be done by students as young as kindergarten.
When students get an early start doing “real” science, they begin to see science simply as a way to examine the world by asking questions. Also, empowering students to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge helps develop a personal, vested interest in science. Ideally, students will develop this interest throughout their academic careers as they continue to approach science with inquiry and critical thinking. Carrying those habits into their adult lives will help them navigate the hot-button scientific issues that will increasingly be a part of policy decisions — climate change, global energy issues, environmental degradation, and new issues that will spring up in their lifetimes.
This article suggests some ideas on how to integrate specific citizen science projects into your classroom while connecting to required curriculum. The projects not only address specific content objectives, but are also ways to infuse inquiry into learning — as opposed to teaching content and inquiry as separate objectives.
These three projects are particularly suitable for elementary students because of their simplicity and the appropriateness of their topics to younger children. Butterflies, tulips, insects, and feeder birds are all familiar to most young students, and would serve as great initiations into the world of participatory science. Additionally, each of these projects addresses content objectives through an inquiry perspective. As such, the projects also provide students with a way to build scientific skills and habits of mind. All of these projects rely heavily on observation, the basic foundation of scientific skills. In each project, students observe and record data, then examine that data to look for trends and ask questions. With appropriate scaffolding, even kindergartners can ask questions about data — another skill critical to building a scientific frame of mind. The projects also offer opportunities for teachers to display class data and guide inquiry-based discussions.
According to its creators, Journey North is “a global study of wildlife migration and seasonal change.” Should you register your classroom, you will join a global array of classrooms that are collecting data on a variety of things. Two classic projects are the Tulip Garden project and the Monarch Butterfly Migration project. Both of these species are probably familiar to your students, and both projects are easy to participate in.
In the Tulip Garden project, you and your students plant a specific type of tulip bulb in the fall, then make observations and report when the first plants and flowers appear. Your data is aggregated onto a map with the data from other participating classrooms, which gives you a great visual to track the arrival of spring as measured by blooming tulips. Observing how the map develops also provides great opportunities for class discussion: Why has (or hasn’t) a particular school reported growth? The discussion could easily tap into students’ prior knowledge about seasons, weather, and climate.
In the Monarch Butterfly Migration project, students report sightings of monarch butterflies and their data is plotted on a global map. As students track the migration of the monarchs, they learn about animal behavior and adaptations, as well as the life cycle of the monarch butterfly — all of which are key topics in life science. This project also allows for opportunities to compare different species: Migration is one of many animal adaptations to cold weather. In studying monarchs, students may naturally wonder why some animals don’t migrate, which opens discussions about other animal adaptations to the seasons like hibernation.
While the monarchs are probably the easiest migrating animals to track for most classrooms, students can observe and report on other animal migrations as well — whooping cranes, gray whales, and American robins to name a few.
In addition to its citizen science projects, the Journey North website includes excellent supplemental curriculum materials, including lesson plans, graphic organizers, assessment tools, and instructional activities, to help teachers effectively implement the projects in the classroom.
Project Feeder Watch
While tulips and monarchs may be easily recognizable species to work with, birds are somewhat more charismatic and may better hold the interest of young students. Project Feeder Watch is very simple to participate in: Simply set up a bird feeder, observe the birds feeding at it, and submit your information to the Cornell Ornithology Lab. This project is particularly suited for younger students because the birds that tend to frequent feeders are easily identifiable (cardinals, chickadees, blue jays) and all it involves is counting. Scientists at Cornell use the information provided by participants to answer varied research questions. For example, one researcher recently requested participants to provide her with gender data and examined whether there was a “gender gap” amongst migrating birds.
This project can be used to address several essential content objectives in addition to developing the skills of a scientist. By observing and identifying birds, students will learn about the differences and similarities amongst bird species. They will come to understand some of the needs of living things — primarily food. Additionally, they may observe and understand bird behaviors such as territoriality and courtship, and perhaps even compare those behaviors to certain human behaviors. Students will also learn about how the environment can affect animal behavior as they observe their feeders on days with varying environmental conditions.
Because most feeder birds are easily recognizable and not too varied, it will be fairly simple for students to come up with testable questions related to their feeder watch. For example, students may wonder if different types of seed attract different birds. This would be an easy experiment to do and is an example of the seamless connection of content and inquiry. Students would learn the concept of living things having basic needs, and through the experiment they would discover that living things — birds in this case — have different needs for different types of food.
A $15 participation cost gets you a bird ID poster, a bird feeding kit, and instructional materials.
Insects, and specifically pollinating insects, are the focus of Discover Life’s Bee Hunt project. Like many participatory science projects, Bee Hunt has a two-pronged purpose: Scientists gain valuable research data and students learn about pollination. The researchers behind Bee Hunt are investigating whether pollinators are on the decline and whether climate change is causing a temporal mismatch between pollinator visits and bloom times. The scope of this research necessitates many data sets from a wide variety of habitats.
Bee Hunt invites students to collect data in one of four ways: inventory pollinators at a selected site using digital photographs, compare species in two patches, provide nesting sites for mason bees and observe their activities, or use bowls and soapy water to collect insects for a more thorough inventory of species.
For an elementary classroom, a digital photo inventory would likely be easiest. Armed with a camera and a little bit of adult guidance, students simply photograph the insects they see in a selected patch of flowering vegetation. The students submit their photos to a personal online album through the Bee Hunt website, and then use resources to identify the insects and plants they have photographed. From there, the digital data can be analyzed and shared with other participants in the study.
The collaboration and communication involved in Bee Hunt give students valuable experience in a critical aspect of science. As a result, they will realize that scientists do not work in isolation, but that much of science is a cooperative effort. From a content perspective, this project highlights the interdependence of plants and animals, and the key role that insects play in the life cycle of many plants. Students will observe that particular areas of vegetation (i.e. those with flowers) are more prone to hosting pollinating insects, and may even learn that particular insects are found on particular plants. Through their observations, students will learn about many adaptations that enable insects to survive, including camouflage and body structure.
Opportunities also abound for students to ask questions about their data that will help them build scientific skills and content knowledge. Imagine a student wondering how insects avoid being eaten by predators. Through this project, she’d have an opportunity to observe the relationship between an insect’s coloration and the colors of the plants on which it feeds.
The following four projects would work particularly well in a middle school classroom: They require slightly more advanced knowledge and skill in order to participate, and the topics are a little more esoteric. Additionally, the scientific habits of mind and inquiry skills fostered by these projects are more advanced. In order to participate in some of these projects, students will have to use more technical equipment than just their eyes and collect more complex data than simple observations.
If you live and teach in a city, you may think that you don’t have enough “nature” nearby to gather data about the natural world. Never fear, PigeonWatch is here. In this project, participants select an observation site and do three things: Count the total number of pigeons, count the number of each of a small selection of color morphs, and count any courtship colors if applicable. The website offers a free kit to download that includes instructions, data forms, and a poster explaining the color morphs.
Participating in PigeonWatch helps students to learn about heredity and inheritance. Pigeons are unique amongst wild birds in that they have extreme variations in coloring. Using pigeons as the basis, teachers could address many required genetics concepts — monohybrid crosses, incomplete dominance, and genotypic and phenotypic ratios. As the students observe and classify actual pigeons, it will be like seeing their Punnett Squares come to life. Observing phenotypic distributions in a real population and comparing them to their expectations from a Punnett Square is a powerful and memorable lesson. When students notice differences, it offers a chance to discuss experimental design: How big does a sample size need to be to approach theoretical values? How does sample size affect the reliability of the results? Both of those concepts are real issues that scientists deal with on a day-to-day basis — and they’re issues that middle school students are cognitively ready to address.
World Water Monitoring Day
World Water Monitoring Day seeks to test water quality at diverse global locations — although the “day” in this project title may be a misnomer. The official World Water Monitoring Day is September 18, but you can participate as many times as you like between March 22 and December 31. In this project, students use test kits to monitor the health of a local body of water, measuring pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and turbidity.
As they collect and analyze water samples, students will learn how humans can affect an ecosystem. They will also gain experience using equipment accurately, and will learn that many parameters can be measured to determine the health of an ecosystem. Students will enter their data into the online pool via the website, and can look at cross-regional comparisons of water quality. They may wonder why the pH of a river in New England is lower than the pH of their local stream, which could spark a discussion of regional differences in how humans can affect bodies of water, or the effects of those types of changes on the organisms living in the river. Discussions of biodiversity, biological niches, and animal adaptations to their environments could then ensue. These types of discussions, grounded in data collection and observation, can go a long way toward students seeing themselves as scientists.
A word about equipment: If you don’t already have the kits, you’ll need to acquire them. If you live near a university, you may be able to borrow equipment for free. If you teach in North Carolina, you can look into long-term equipment loans from The Science House. Otherwise, you can purchase the kits through the website or on your own.
Galaxy Zoo is a project in which participants examine images of deep space taken by the Hubble Telescope and classify them according to their shape. Humans are much better at this than computers, which is why the researchers are seeking help from the public. Even if you’ve never looked at a picture of a galaxy before, the website offers a simple training tutorial before beginning. As you classify, a series of multiple-choice questions allows you to come to a better conclusion as to the correct classification. The data contributed helps scientists understand how our galaxy formed.
This project not only exposes students to space research, but it also helps them understand how the Earth fits in to the Universe and what makes it unique. Integrating GalaxyZoo would be a great way to connect students to solar system research. In teaching about how galaxies are classified according to shape, an intrepid teacher could create one class log-in for Galaxy Zoo and project the images on a screen. After viewing the tutorial and practicing, the class could classify images of galaxies, both applying their new knowledge as well as contributing to actual solar system research. Interested students could then go on to make their own accounts and continue to participate on their own time. Years down the road, upon hearing of a new discovery about the origins of our galaxy, one of your students may recall helping to contribute the data leading to that discovery.
Clouds are the stars of this NASA project. In S’COOL, students observe clouds at particular times and report their data online. This citizen science project is tied to NASA’s CERES (Clouds and Earth’s Radiant Energy System) project, which seeks to understand how clouds affect Earth’s climate. The CERES instruments orbit Earth in several satellites and measure the differences in energy that reach it in cloudy versus clear areas. S’COOL seeks to verify from the ground some of the information that CERES collects. Students observe cloud types, height, percentage cloud cover, and cloud thickness at times when the satellites are passing over their locations. This data is submitted and then used to verify the data that the instruments in the satellite are measuring.
This is another great example of a project in which scientific skills and practices are integrated into content instruction. As they gather data, students learn about the cycling of water in the atmosphere and how it relates to weather and climate. These fundamental concepts are critical for students to grasp in order to understand other topics in science. Through S’COOL, students learn how to identify clouds and collect weather data. As befits NASA, extensive teacher resources are available to help you integrate this project into your classroom. There are pre-made PowerPoints to help introduce the project and explain how the students will contribute, lesson plans that build upon the weather and atmosphere concepts under study, and high quality instructional materials like cloud identification posters and bookmarks. I used this project in my classroom when I taught 7th grade, and the students thoroughly enjoyed getting to go outside to make the observations. They felt like they were doing important work in verifying data for an organization as large and important as NASA.
These final two projects are the most advanced and thus most suitable for high school students. As with the other projects, they use an inquiry approach to teach important science content. Students collect and analyze data in order to come to critical conceptual understandings.
Proteins take the center stage in FoldIt, a project that capitalizes on human puzzle-solving skills to figure out how proteins fold. Proteins are the organic molecule for nearly every process in every living organisms. Knowing how they are folded helps researchers understand how they function, which in turn may lead to more effective drug treatments, and maybe even more efficient biofuel production.
The creators of this project turned the process into a downloadable game called FoldIt. In the game, a protein is turned into a puzzle, and players attempt to put it together into its most efficient form. It turns out that humans have much better pattern recognition and puzzle solving skills than computers, so the collaborators on this project decided to tap the human brains on the internet to help them with their research. There have been several instances so far in which the researchers have used the designs created by top FoldIt players to attempt to synthesize an appropriate protein. The complexity of protein structure is what makes this project particularly suitable for older students.
Participating in FoldIt will help students understand the synthesis and breakdown of proteins, as well as how their shapes determine their functions. By playing the game, students begin to understand important features of protein structure — specifically the tertiary structure, which is what makes proteins so specific in their functions. The other skills involved in this project — pattern recognition and puzzle solving — may seem tangential to the real work of science, but they aren’t. Lab scientists examine loads of data on a daily basis looking for patterns and trends. Engineers are constantly looking for unique ways to solve problems. Students will develop both of these critical scientific skills by participating in FoldIt.
USA Phenology Network
Phenology is a pretty hot topic these days. Phenology is the study of nature’s cycles — the timing of things such as bird migration, insect emergence, and fall leaf color change. Many important things are determined by phenology — the application of herbicides and pesticides by farmers and managing natural resources such as water and timber, for example. Global climate change is affecting these natural cycles, and getting data regarding the changes is an important way to see whether and how plants and animals are adapting.
The USA Phenology Network offers two ways to involve students. First, students can be observers. To be an observer, the site guides you to identify plants and animals to observe in your region, to select an appropriate site for observation, and to sign up for an online account in Nature’s Notebook for submission of data. Becoming an observer in this project is appropriate for high school students because they require more specific observations than some of the other projects. Students select a specific individual from a specific species of plant on which to record fairly detailed information.
The second way that students could be involved is by “rescuing” historical data. There is a great amount of data on the phenology of birds dating from the late 19th century through World War II that currently resides on handwritten cards. These cards are being scanned and digitized, but the data on the cards needs to be entered into a database. Volunteers can sign up to do just this. This might be a good “community service” type project for students to get involved in, as they would be saving very valuable historical data.
Both projects help students to examine global issues, their causes, and their consequences. Observing phenological cycles is a way to conduct research about global climate change – which is obviously a hot topic these days. Using the collected data available through the website, students could analyze the effects of global climate change. Contributing to data that will be used by climate scientists can help students feel a sense of empowerment in the face of an issue that can seem overwhelming.
From an instructional standpoint, these projects offer plenty of opportunities to engage with curriculum objectives: Because the study of phenology is heavily reliant on understanding the seasons, it would be easy to tie in the causes of the seasons. In observing the changes of plants and animals as seasons change, the concepts of animal and plant adaptations would be relevant. By looking at data such as when insects emerge and when migrating songbirds arrive, students could also learn about the interdependence of plants and animals, and possibly more importantly, the consequences of when that interdependence is interrupted by human activity.
Citizen science is rigorous science
Clearly, no matter what level you teach, there are multiple ways to get your students involved in real science. If none of the projects listed here suit your fancy, The Network for Citizen Science can help you find a project more to your liking. At the Network for Citizen Science website, you can search for a project by topics as varied as archaeology or chemistry or even science policy.
The point of all of these citizen science projects is to expose students to learning opportunities relevant to the real world, and to get students to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge. These projects offer great opportunities to seamlessly integrate inquiry into the teaching of content. Perhaps more importantly, they help students to understand that science is much more than just memorizing facts. Science is a way of thinking about the world that involves observing, questioning, analyzing, revising, and collaborating. When your students understand how these skills are linked to the concepts they are learning, they’re far more likely to see that the question “why are we doing this?” has a real and relevant answer.