Celebrate Citizen Science Month: Collect, Collaborate, and Learn from Anywhere

This post was written by educator & 2019 National Geographic Education Fellow Anne Lewis.

I might not be paying attention to the days or weeks anymore, but there’s one thing on my calendar that I’ve been celebrating in April and that’s Citizen Science Month. What is “citizen science”? It is when members of the public–like you!–participate in real scientific research. This could be anything big or small, can happen in any amount of space, both indoors and out, and can be high tech, low tech, or even no tech.

As a longtime science educator, nature lover, and citizen science professional, this is one of my favorite times of the year. While COVID-19 has certainly shifted some plans to participate, I believe these unprecedented times underscore just how important it is to connect with science and the natural world around us. Safe access to parks, nature, and wildlife is more important than ever for our well being, but rest assured that citizen science activities can even be done indoors, from a balcony or small green space, or looking out a window! I encourage all those who are curious about science and biodiversity to explore areas where it’s safe to do so and in accordance with current government and health guidelines.

So, what am I focused on this year? Here are a few of my favorite activities and places I go for inspiration, which are free, easy to access, and have a variety of ways in which you can engage:

Throughout this month, we’ve been asking educators in our community to share the ways they’ve been engaging in citizen science with their students, families, and communities, and the advice they have for educators and caregivers who want to give it a try. Check out their ideas and learnings below, and share your citizen science story on social media! Use the hashtags #TeacherStrong, #CitizenScience, and #CitizenScienceMonth as you explore the wonders of our world:

Dr. Kerryane Monahan
2019 National Geographic Education Fellow
Head of Science, Vero Beach, FL

This new world of teaching and learning we find ourselves in is challenging, but also relieves some constraints for teachers and opens up new kinds of learning opportunities. Since making the shift to remote learning, our science department has focused on incorporating citizen science as a mechanism for continuing inquiry and investigative science research for students in grades 6-12. For high school students, two projects really stand out. The first is Sourdough Science via SciStarter (note that it does require students to purchase pH strips, which are inexpensive and can be ordered online). Teachers can connect the project to the study of microbes, yeast, aerobic vs. anaerobic respiration, the chemistry of pH, molecules of life, experimental design, data collection, analysis and graphing. And students are highly engaged with creating their own sourdough starter that can be used to bake bread in a couple of weeks. The data, once submitted, will help scientists better understand how flour type influences microbial activity and the variety of wild yeast strains around the world. Here’s a video with more information.

Another favorite is Monkey Health Explorer via Zooniverse, which is a fantastic project for biology, health, or anatomy courses. Researchers need volunteers to identify blood cells in smears. Many life science courses include the study of blood and now students can view high-quality images of monkey blood and learn to discern red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Teachers can connect this project to how blood tests are used in medicine to diagnose disease and infections, to compare and contrast human blood to monkey blood, even to explore the ethics of animals in research.

Kelly Koller
Student Learning Specialist, Sobieski, WI

A simple favorite of mine is making a sound map (or an acoustic survey), where students sit in a spot outside (or inside!), listen, and create symbols that represent different sounds they observe. Adding a layer to it: students can map and define each sound with a symbol and key, and measure things like frequency, time, and any other data they can easily gather. Use this sound map template to get started, and check out this example from an educator. If you’re looking to integrate more technology, here is an app to track noise pollution. For more inspiration, check out this video about an acoustic ecologist and his Soundtracker site, and this video about capturing the songs of endangered frogs.

Another great activity is bird observations. Birds are such an accessible medium for citizen science because they are everywhere, and this time of year you will see a lot of bird activity as they are preparing to migrate, actively migrating, or nesting. Print this activity sheet to learn about birds by making observations from your window, in your backyard, or your local park. You can couple the observations with apps like eBird and Merlin Bird ID, which are free data collection and identification tools. (Plus: International Migratory Bird Day is coming up on May 9th in Canada and the U.S.!).

Sandra Reed
Learning Lab Teacher, New Albany, OH

All of our 5th and 6th grade teachers are going to ask their students to participate in a Backyard BioBlitz! BioBlitzing is not new to our students, but this time we are asking our students to BioBlitz in their backyards with an emphasis on species diversity. We are going to place signs in the yards of the top 10 BioBlitzers of each grade level, identifying them as the city’s “Top BioBlitz Citizen Scientists.” Meanwhile, our 4th graders are going to be using Seek, by iNaturalist, which is a simple, easy-to-use app with lots of ways to gamify through badges. We will be placing signs in the yards of our top ten Seek-ers, identifying them as one of the city’s best “Super Science Seekers!”

For those newer to these tools, iNaturalist recommends participants be 13 years old or older, whereas Seek is great for younger students. We do extensive training with our students and only allow school email registration for accounts. Each event will last two weeks and will outline rules that encourage home observations, social distancing, parent supervision, and family participation. Pictures and updates will be posted on our Easton E3 Learning Lab Facebook page if you want to follow along.

Amanda Hendricks
7th Grade Science Teacher, Maryville, TN

The themes of citizen science and student choice guide my teaching everyday, and I didn’t want to lose that with our transition to online learning. I chose to do a pollinator survey using Survey 123, an app for creating and sharing surveys. Survey123 is great because it’s easy to use, there is no account creation requirement to participate, and it allows for geolocation and photo uploads. However, to create a survey, you do need an account, which schools get free through ArcGIS. With the survey link, students can take a smartphone or their computers outside and look for pollinators. I chose to collect data on pollinators because the data can be used as a foundation for further inquiries about plant and animal adaptations or climate change. Since anyone can participate, I decided to make it a community based “virtual bioblitz”. I shared the link on our school’s social media and encouraged everyone to share the link with friends, family, and neighbors through text and email. So far, we have over 80 entries! The survey gathers data on several different variables, including weather, temperature, time of day, and date. This way, when the students work on the lab assignment, they can choose which data to focus on and analyze, giving them a choice in how they tell their story. I also made a low-tech version of this for our students who do not have internet access using a data sheet that can be filled out when they go on their pollinator hunt in their yard.

Another simple activity with low- or no-tech options I did with my students is BINGO! While it is a step away from citizen science, it is easy, fun, and can be integrated as a formative assessment into other work. I spent a few minutes creating a BINGO board on a Google Doc, but you can even draw it on paper. I included things that could be found indoors and outdoors, and related to what we have learned this year in chemistry and life science. It turned into a fantastic review and informal assessment, and by including things from our learning, I was able to see what students had retained and allowed me to provide quality feedback via email, phone, and Google Classroom. It inspired many higher-level thinking conversations where students needed to justify a picture and explain how it relates to the concept. Through this simple idea, the students had the opportunity for indoor and outdoor exploration, and lots of choice along the way.

Peg Keiner
Director of Innovation, Chicago, IL

I love keeping track of everyday things: date, time, weather, sunrise, sunset–anything that is easy to follow day to day! Dear Data is a great precursor to citizen science because it focuses on reflecting and noticing things that matter to you. I’m working on the “animals you can see” challenge right now by just drawing the animals I notice. Like many of you, squirrels are the number one animal I can see from my window and they are active! Start there and take a picture and document what you notice. If you’re looking for more reliable and cooperative subjects, pick a few plants to draw and track day-to-day in your area through Project Budburst. You can also collect data about the weather and your daily habitat, either with pencil and paper or through the app Mping.

Michael Leveille
Elementary Science Teacher, Ottawa, ON

Often citizen science work leads to students wanting to take action as individuals or a collective, and I have formalized this process through writing accords. An accord is a consent or concurrence of opinions and agreements. I have a long, wonderful history of working with my students to create accords that capture their commitments towards promoting biodiversity and conservation (check out the Youth Accord for Biodiversity, which was translated into 25 languages and had over 5,000 signatures of support from 83 countries and has morphed into the Global Youth Biodiversity Network and a new International Youth Statement on Biodiversity!). We have made many steps forward towards a sustainable, fair, and equitable world; how can young people commit to small or large acts to continue the healing process? Challenge students to write an accord with their family, school, or community as a way to document opinions and agreements to protect their world. We can move forward towards the future by giving youth a voice today.

While we are all making adjustments to ensure our safety and respect social distancing during this time, these stories—shared from fellow educators around the country—highlight just how many meaningful and exciting activities there are to take part in during Citizen Science Month. No matter where we are in the world, we can continue to discover and learn more about nature and contribute to global scientific knowledge, even if it’s from inside our homes, from a window, or on short walks in our neighborhoods. And that is truly something to celebrate.

Anne Lewis is the Director of Special Projects and Professional Development at the South Dakota Discovery Center, and a 2019 National Geographic Education Fellow. Follow Anne on Twitter: @BadlandBison

Feature image by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

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