Learn the Ins and Outs of Citizen Science in This Brand-New Course

Dr. Brittney Beck and National Geographic Explorer Anne Haywood wrote this post.

How can we inspire learners of all ages to engage with the world and contribute to cutting-edge scientific research?

What if we said you could join teams of scientists and National Geographic Explorers without leaving your school community?

Well, you can! Explore global citizen science and its potential for teaching and learning through the new, free, self-paced National Geographic course “Learning Through Citizen Science.” The course consists of three modules designed to introduce you to global citizen science and familiarize you with key projects and tools.

Global citizen science is the worldwide practice of public participation and collaboration in research to increase scientific knowledge and engage people in learning more about the world. Projects may be local, regional, national, or international. No matter how big or small the endeavor, the idea is for volunteers to assist with the collection and/or analysis of data.

The following are just a few examples of the positive impact citizen science can have on teaching, learning, and communities.

The Citizen Scientist Project, Bakersfield, California

Mina, sixth grade: “I saw the trash around the school and like low-key hated it, but I never actually thought about it as something that could change. It just was what it was.”

Jonathan, 11th grade: “I’ve seen kit foxes around and originally thought they were cute but kind of a pest we had to get rid of. But, if we lose them, what else do we lose?”

Araceli, fifth grade: “I never thought about how other animals and plants shared our school, but they actually live here. Like, this is their home.”

Each of these student quotes represents a perspective shift sparked by participating in a global citizen science project during the past year: Mina documented the trash around her school using Debris Tracker, Jonathan analyzed photos from local camera traps on Instant Wild, and Araceli documented and identified living things at her school with iNaturalist and Seek by iNaturalist.

These moments do not happen by accident or merely from learners participating in citizen science projects; rather, these moments are the result of educators who have learned to intentionally integrate citizen science into their instruction.

Through the Citizen Scientist Project at California State University, Bakersfield, we build capacity for global citizen science in K-12 and higher education. Our hope and goal is for more educators and learners to experience these moments in which increased knowledge, empathy, and agency collide to inspire learners to build more just and informed communities.

For the past four years, we have worked with preservice and in-service teachers through college coursework, summer camps, and teacher-scientist partnerships to help visualize and operationalize what global citizen science looks like, sounds like, and feels like in the classroom. The new citizen science learning modules and infographics, developed by the National Geographic Society in collaboration with the Citizen Scientist Project, fill a gap in wide-scale, educator-focused professional development.

In a compelling example of the real-world power of citizen science, we were recently approached by a wildlife ecologist, Dr. Luke Hall, who has been studying the endangered San Joaquin kit fox for the past 10 years. He has placed camera traps around the local community, including on every high school campus. These camera traps are used to monitor kit fox behavior and assess whether the animals are showing signs of disease.

While 23 high schools had camera traps on their campuses, many educators and learners were not aware of them or Dr. Hall’s research. In an initial conversation with him, he noted he had been doing this work for a decade but that publishing his research in academic journals was not having the desired impact on the community’s understanding of and will to protect the kit fox. To address this education and outreach gap, we worked with Dr. Hall to add a global citizen science dimension to his research by creating a project on Instant Wild.

To develop a common language and set of practices, Dr. Hall, his team, and representatives from local high schools completed a global citizen science learning journey, with an emphasis on camera traps. With a sound foundation in what global citizen science is and how camera traps can be integrated into the classroom, they are now creating citizen science resources specific to the San Joaquin kit fox that can be scaled to all 23 high school campuses, which we see as a win-win-win-win: The project helps Dr. Hall increase the speed of his data analysis and scale of his outreach, enables teachers to increase the rigor and relevance of their instruction, positions learners as scientists and changemakers, and, ultimately, increases the likelihood that the community will work together to prevent the extinction of the San Joaquin kit fox.

GEN2050, Miami, Florida

Citizen science has provided our GEN2050 students with the opportunities to engage in hands-on, on-going, outdoor science research–helping to build their science identities.

Linda Freeman, National Geographic Explorer, educator, GEN2050 founder, and “Learning Through Citizen Science” guide

GEN2050 engages youth in grades 6-12 during the summer and throughout the year in learning environments designed to inspire and prepare them for entrepreneurship, self-leadership, environmental stewardship, and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). GEN2050 aspires to give students—and the educator-mentors who work with them—a broader perspective on South Florida’s complex human-environmental interactions, to better recognize the natural cycles and human actions affecting the region. As their generation will encounter social and environmental changes that affect their communities now and in the future, the learning opportunities for GEN2050 youth are designed to help them join and lead efforts toward sustainability.

GEN2050 teens have been using iNaturalist as part of their South Florida field experiences and forest habitat explorations. With guidance from expert naturalists at local environmental organizations, they have compiled observations during an insect-focused BioBlitz to better understand the terrestrial and aquatic species present in a restored habitat surrounded by agricultural land. These global citizen scientists are learning that insect populations matter for pollination and as a food source for the endangered Florida bonneted bat. They are better understanding the role of this bat species, the once rare atala hairstreak butterfly, native bee species, and more as part of their home’s interconnected web of life.

This summer, GEN2050 summer camp leadership will participate in “Learning Through Citizen Science” to earn certificates before summer starts to help them envision the potential for both being and inspiring global citizen scientists. The course, along with iNaturalist, will shape the way they teach about biodiversity, and Debris Tracker will guide their instruction on plastic pollution. Summer will begin with a “Beach Blitz” involving both apps as part of World Oceans Day.

Taking Action Through Citizen Science

If you seek opportunities for K-12 youth to…

  • spend a few minutes, a class period, or more engaging in authentic science in new ways;
  • engage in real-world science in their local area;
  • connect with global conservation projects and find experts;
  • recognize science connections to math, social studies, language, arts, technology, or engineering; or
  • develop awareness of data and data science through observations they and others contribute

… then enroll in the newest National Geographic course, “Learning Through Citizen Science,” with educators around the world. Explore opportunities to engage youth as global citizen scientists so they can illuminate and protect the wonder of our world.

Dr. Brittney Beck is assistant professor of teacher education at California State University, Bakersfield, and project director for the Citizen Scientist Project. She has composed global citizen science curricular and pedagogical materials for the National Geographic Society, My NASA Data, and the California State University system.

Anne Haywood is the project lead for “Learning Through Citizen Science.” Based in Miami, Florida, Anne is a 2018 National Geographic Fellow, founder and director of Mountain to Sea Education, an advisor to GEN2050, and co-leader of Girl Scout Troop 204, Tropical Florida Council.

Featured image: During a BioBlitz event in South Florida, learners observe wild organisms and collect data on smartphones and paper data sheets (Anne Haywood)

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