In Yellowstone National Park, the sun beats down and grasshoppers buzz as Ecology Project International (EPI) local high school student Skyla places a headset over her ears and listens for a beep. Her eyes scan the grasslands as she slowly sweeps her arm from east to west, listening for the strongest intensity of signal. There! She notes the direction to her partner, Tyler, and the group hikes in that direction—to locate a radio-collared bison and record the current herd dynamics for park biologists. They help park biologists by being extra sets of legs on the ground.
Ready-made, immersive field science experiences for students and teachers are available through EPI’s Field Ecology Programs. But what if you want to build the concepts and practices of field science into your life or classroom every day? Citizen* science projects can help you fill that void.
The internet age has made recording and sharing data fast and easy, and this has caused citizen science projects worldwide to bloom. Through citizen science, the public can help scientists with truly large-scale data collection on everything from squirrels to light pollution. And by participating in authentic research through citizen science, you will see how scientific knowledge is built and what being a scientist means.
The revolutionary Next Generation Science Standards call for the inclusion of science and engineering practices for students in all areas of science, from kindergarten through high school. In citizen science, you learn by doing—building critical thinking and investigative skills rather than just an assemblage of disconnected facts. (It’s more fun than a lecture, too!) Teachers, take note of these fun opportunities you can build upon in your classroom!
Another benefit of citizen science is that it will drive your curiosity about your environment. Did you notice an osprey nest along the river or lake? How about those fuzzy bumblebees staggering from dandelion to dandelion? Is light pollution affecting your stargazing?
New research shows that practicing science in a variety of places may help develop agency and science identity in students, particularly in groups underrepresented in science fields.
And because the data is public for most citizen science projects, you can come up with your own questions and use the databases to help answer them.
So, are you ready to read about some exciting citizen science opportunities?
This citizen science project requires only the ability to find and take pictures of bumblebees! The majority of bumblebee species are in decline, and by helping to monitor them, you can help scientists understand where they remain and what resources they need to survive. Upload your pictures, and attempt to identify your bee using pictures and data from your state on the website, or let researchers do it for you (they’ll verify your identification regardless). Bumblebee Watch is the result of a partnership between universities and nonprofit organizations, including the Xerces Society for Invertebrates.
Great Backyard Bird Count/Feederwatch
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers two of the oldest and best-known citizen science projects in the U.S., the Great Backyard Bird Count and Feederwatch. The Great Backyard Bird Count began in 1997 and offers a four-day window in February for everyone in the world to identify and count birds, giving scientists an annual snapshot of global bird movements. Feederwatch offers a winter-long data collection opportunity—identifying birds at your home (or school!) that visit your feeder.
Globe at Night
The Globe at Night project is an “international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure & submit their night sky brightness observations.” Take a breath of fresh air from other work and approximate levels of visible stars using Globe at Night’s reference materials. If you are extra-passionate about night skies, consider “Adopt-a-Street” to guide you in taking action on light pollution in your community.
Leaf, flower, fruit—what do you see right now? Budburst began as Project Budburst in 2007, and since then has recruited more than 10,000 citizen scientists to take note of the different phenological stages of their local plants. Budburst “hopes that sharing these stories will increase appreciation of plants and the natural world and inspire conservation action." Their data is available to the public and for scientists to use in their research. Budburst is run out of the University of Chicago Botanic Gardens but encourages data collection from all 50 states.
NASA GLOBE Cloud Program
Want to lie on the grass and look at the clouds? The NASA GLOBE Cloud Program asks you to! Handy, printable data sheets help you record what types of clouds and percent cloud cover that you see. Why is it important? Because NASA uses cloud data to interpret climate, and they can only see the tops of clouds with satellite images, not the bottom. That’s where you come in. One caveat: at least one teacher in a classroom will need to complete a live or e-training.
Galaxy Zoo “works out what galaxies can tell us about the past, present, and future of the Universe as a whole.” You can work to identify the shapes of galaxies through hundreds of thousands of pictures that need to be identified.
Got squirrels? Don’t got squirrels? Project Squirrel wants to know either way. Although the majority of the data is from the Chicago Metro area, the site welcomes observations through the country, and data has been used in several research papers on distribution of native and non-native squirrels.
Ospreys are the only raptor to be found on all continents (except Antarctica) and so are a wonderful global research subject. Here in Montana, nearly every public school has an osprey nest within just five miles. They are fun to watch while hovering and diving for fish (which they eat nearly exclusively), and they build giant stick nests or use manmade platforms that they return to each year. OspreyWatch allows you to monitor local nests for the return of your local Osprey pair and follow their reproductive success.
Are none one of these opportunities sharpening your pencil? Here are two websites that can help you find citizen science projects that are a match for you or your classroom: Zooniverse and SciStarter. SciStarter holds more than 3,000 citizen science projects and events. Search by subject and location to find exactly what interests you.
If you are a teacher, once you’ve found one (or many) citizen science projects you want to work on with your class, you may be wondering how to connect them back to your classroom and the bigger picture. University of California Davis School of Education students, researching citizen science in schools, concluded that, “to contribute to impactful learning, citizen science projects should ensure students take ownership of the data quality, share their findings with broad audiences, and think about complex social-ecological systems.” They offer a framework for doing just that. And if you’d like a deeper dive into the latest research on citizen science and learning theories, check out the journal, Citizen Science: Theory and Practice.
We love citizen science at EPI, and not just for our students! Check out our video below of EPI staff working on the Wolverine Watchers program for Defenders of Wildlife in Montana.
Only your creativity limits how you can incorporate these incredible citizen science projects in your classroom—have fun with it! Do you have more ideas for great citizen science projects for individuals or the high school classroom? Please note it in the comments!
*Citizen Science can be more inclusive by being referred to as "Community Science." You will see Ecology Project International using this term in the future as more awareness grows around it.
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