Kid-sourcing Teaches 21st Century Skills and Makes a Real Impact

Written by Alison Michel, Producer for National Geographic Education  

KidSourcing_Poster_K12AnalysisWinnerEricCawiVA.jpgYou’ve probably heard of “crowdsourcing,” the very 21st-century term coined in 2006 in Wired magazine. This new word, a twist on the idea of outsourcing, describes the practice of posing a question or challenge to the public, and asking for individuals to contribute a small piece to the project goal. Successful examples of online crowdsourcing include Kickstarter, a fundraising website for individual projects; National Geographic’s own search for the tomb of Genghis Khan; and the uber crowdsourcing phenomenon, Wikipedia.

All of which is to say, the concept and practice of crowdsourcing has found a place in 21st-century society. But recently, I’ve started noticing a crowdsourcing niche, one that has yet to be named but I believe deserves to be singled out as its own phenomenon. Let me give you some examples.

The revolutionary documentary A Simple Question tells the story of a
classroom turned community activist. It all started in Laurette Rogers’ fourth grade
classroom when, after watching a film on endangered species, a
student asked what she could do to help. Seizing the opportunity,
their teacher conceived a project that utilized her students’ energy,
intelligence, and time. Together, they identified a threatened species
of shrimp native to the local streams of the area. This habitat was
eroding due to agricultural development (probably livestock
management). Students collaborated with scientists and ranchers to
understand the problem and develop a solution: plant trees to
stabilize the waterways and offer shade for cattle. They fulfilled the
mission by raising funds to purchase trees, and then planting the trees
with the help of friends, family, and community members.

Then there’s Nat Geo’s own BioBlitz, a ten-year collaboration with the
National Park Service. A BioBlitz is a great adventure in which students
and scientists join forces to identify species in our national parks.
Together, they observe, identify, and record plants, animals, insects,
and birds, generating valuable data for use by the Park Service. This
year’s BioBlitz in Saguaro National Park included the discovery of a
microscopic creature called a tardigrade, or water bear, that was not
previously known to exist in the park. This information fills gaps in
the rangers’ knowledge of the overall ecosystem of the region. The
bioblitz concept can be applied on any scale–from a schoolyard to a
backyard to a neighborhood park or even inside a classroom. In every
case, the practice of observing closely and documenting what living
creatures were found in a specific place at a specific time is a valuable
experience for both the individual and for those who will access the
data in the future.

Kanekoa-Madrid_DSC08897-1.jpgTo map and archive the data collected by the students and other
participants, BioBlitz uses FieldScope, an online interactive GIS
mapping tool. (FieldScope is also used by students who take field trips
to the Chesapeake Bay watershed to gather data including oxygen levels,
pH balance, temperature and biotic communities.)

So what is the common thread through these crowdsourced undertakings? Exactly: kids.

What is the wave of the future? Kid-sourcing.

Think about it: On one hand, we have 55 million kids going to school
every day, trying to acquire 21st-century skills like self-management,
problem-solving, decision-making, and communication, that will prepare
them for a rapidly changing future. On the other hand, we have profound
challenges facing our communities, from water shortages to aging
infrastructure to erratic weather to shifting population dynamics. These
problems are hugely daunting when considered on a global level, but
taken down to the local level, there is a chance that some progress can
be made to prepare for or recover from these challenges.

At the National Council for Geographic Education conference earlier this
year, I noticed that the walls were covered with fascinating posters
illustrating research on geographic topics like energy, population,
recycling, and natural disasters. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that these
professional-looking posters had been produced by high
school students as entries into the NCGE Map Gallery contest
(coordinated by Anita Palmer). To create each poster, students used
geographic inquiry–a step-by-step process to identify, research, and
analyze information, with the goal of making wise decisions and taking
healthy actions. One of the posters used geographic inquiry to identify
the best locations for solar farms in the northeastern U.S. By
calculating GIS data sets such as land costs, distance to population,
and photovoltaic intensity, the student produced a short list of
suitable options. The student also noted that, while these locations
were the best available, solar power is not yet cost-effective as a
large-scale replacement for fossil fuels, but may be useful on a smaller
scale. This realization is a valuable lesson as well, like those
learned in research and development, and through the scientific method:
not all theories pan out like you think they will. But in a classroom,
the primary goal is educating the individual, not testing a theory or
developing a product. In this case, the student gained valuable math,
science, geography, and economic information skills, as well as
21st-century skills and strategies. (NCGE is accepting entries for 2012

Clearly, students are uniquely positioned to offer incredible
contributions to their communities: they have the potential for focused
passion, boundless energy, and perhaps most importantly, lots and lots
of time. Whereas many would-be activists are unable to make time away
from the pull of family and work, students have at least seven hours
every day, nine months out of the year, to dedicate to learning.
Students can fully explore a problem, research it from all angles, and
develop and test innovative and unusual potential solutions, with the
guidance of a teacher or informal educator. (The student engagement that
results from such project-based learning has been proven to improve
classroom management, by the way.) A fully realized community project
not only can, but must incorporate elements of all subjects, from
writing letters and proposals and calculating data to illustrating
project plans and mapping activity locations. Of course, this is not to
say that kid-sourced projects should replace an entire curriculum, but
rather to recognize the incredible opportunity offered by actively
engaging students, classrooms, teachers, and schools in community

A search for the phrase “kid-sourced” and “kid-sourcing” on the Internet
yielded results oriented toward the business community: various
opportunities to integrate children into a family business, efforts to
use kids and youths as test-groups for marketing agencies, and even a
fictitious parental outsourcing company. This last example is the opposite of
education, where information is extracted from kids in order to create
products that are more desirable and profitable. Let’s reclaim
kid-sourcing as a force for good that empowers students, encourages
communities, and enriches lives.

The bottom line: Incorporating community-oriented projects into
classroom instruction is a win-win for students and citizens. But you
don’t have to take my word for it.

What examples of kid-sourcing have you seen? Have you ever been part of a
kid-sourced project? Are you a community organizer who has an idea for a
project that could be kid-sourced? Please comment!

Poster by Eric Cawa, Loudin Academy of Science, Courtesy NCGE Map Gallery Contest
Photo by Audrey Kanekoa-Madrid

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