Donning safety goggles inside a school laboratory may make some students feel like scientists, but elsewhere, they are actually going outside the classroom to perform the work of real scientists.
Listening for frog calls, counting ladybugs, observing birds, and testing water samples are just a few of the activities K-12 students are now taking part in through “citizen science” projects, in which everyday people collect data and perform other tasks that contribute to scientific research.
Aided by technology that makes data collection easier than ever before, groups like the Girl Scouts and the Boys & Girls Clubs and schools are increasingly looking to these experiences to provide students hands-on science learning with real-world applications.
The hope is that the practical purpose of the work helps students become more interested in its execution. In addition, more citizen-science projects are now structured to collect information as well as improve participants’ knowledge and understanding of the discipline itself.
“Citizen science focuses now on how we can move from projects that are just about going out and collecting data to projects that involve analyzing and interpreting data as well as asking new questions and leveraging technology in new ways,” said Ellen McCallie, a program director at the National Science Foundation who manages its citizen-science grant portfolio.
For the Birds
Citizen-science projects are by no means new. While it would be tough to pinpoint the start of efforts in which amateurs help scientists perform research, many credit the Audubon Society’s well-known Christmas Bird Count, which began on Christmas Day 1900, as the oldest ongoing project.
The bird count has the public observe and record over a three-week period the presence of various species in any location.
According to Chuck Remington, the director of field support for the New York City-based Audubon, the count was established as an attempt to move away from holiday hunting traditions—"from using firearms to using eyeballs"—and instead engage in bird conservation efforts.
The decades of data amassed in the count has helped in chronicling bird-population changes over time, such as the impact of disease on the house finch, and the shift of bird-migration patterns farther north, which the conservation organization attributes to climate change, Mr. Remington said.
Audubon also supports a project focused on puffins and a new one on hummingbirds, as well as a second, shorter bird count over President’s Day weekend, which has activities targeted toward children. This year, 104,000 volunteers observed birds over the four-day block, entering data into Cornell University’s online database for bird research.
The E-bird database is supported by the university’s ornithology lab, opened in 1915, that has also been credited as a leader in citizen-science programs, which they started running in 1965. Today, the lab supports several national citizen-science projects, including student-centered ones, with 200,000 participants estimated a year.
Since the late 1980s, the lab has tried to make citizen science more meaningful to participants by using it to help improve the public’s understanding of science, said Rick Bonney, the director of program development and evaluation at the lab in Ithaca, N.Y.
A large part of that education outreach focuses on setting up projects that can expand the socioeconomic diversity of those who take part in citizen science, particularly among young people. The lab also produces a K-12 science curriculum guided by citizen-science concepts.
Those very ideals were behind the creation of Celebrate Urban Birds, a program that targets disadvantaged students, particularly Latino youths in urban areas.
Begun in 2007, the project, funded by the NSF, has participants define, and, in some cases create, a small, green-friendly area, and monitor it for 10-minute increments, looking for the presence of 16 species of birds. Findings are recorded using a data kit and sent back to Cornell for recording; much of the participation is ongoing.
According to Karen Ann Purcell, the project director, Celebrate Urban Birds has students engage with science and nature in spaces half the size of a basketball court in their home environments, the kinds of places many of the students had not encountered in the past.
“Many of the participating youth have never had positive experiences with birds or mentors to show them the joys and beauty of birds. To them, birds equal pests,” she said. “This project is a way for them to get to know birds, nature, and science in a completely new way.”
Partnering organizations have ranged from 4-H clubs and after-school programs to community centers and businesses. In the past, even an ice cream shop and a hotel participated. (The hotel built a rooftop garden.)
Last year, more than 125,000 people and 1,000 partnering organizations from all 50 states were involved.
While some citizen-science projects focus solely on helping scientists increase the number of eyes and ears observing data, projects like Cornell’s have made public education a dual priority.
The National Geographic Society is another such example. It runs several citizen-science projects currently that target not just the public and students, but the teachers and instructors who guide them through informal and formal learning environments alike.
In the Chesapeake Bay Water Quality Project, teachers in eight states go through an outdoor education program. They learn how to test and monitor water in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—the rivers and streams that lead to the bay—and then teach those practices to their students, both off site and in the classroom. The program is geared toward middle-school-age students.
As in other citizen-science projects today, technology has enabled the water-quality study to have a wide reach: Participants use FieldScope, a Web-based platform, to enter the water-quality data and conduct some of their own analysis, through the help of graphing and mapping tools.
“FieldScope allows students to see the impact the entire watershed has on the quality and health of the bay and think about their own personal impact and connection to it in the process,” said Cara LaFlamme, a 7th grade science teacher in the Fairfax County, Va., district, who has participated in the program the past three years.
Ms. LaFlamme said she teaches her students to use FieldScope to make connections from the data and analysis they perform on water collected from a nearby lake.
While providing a number of features, the software is actually simple to use, said Daniel Edelson, the vice president of education at the National Geographic Society. Additionally, it makes data collection more accurate, and, importantly, helps students visualize and understand the impact and relevance of the science they perform, he said.
One feature, for example, shows students how the location of the water they collect connects to other watersheds and eventually travels to the bay.
Since December 2012, over 10,000 people have visited the Chesapeake Bay FieldScope site. The software is also being used in a few new citizen-science projects, such as one on documenting frog calls and another on seasonal changes in fruit and flower populations.
Making It Count
Technology is also providing capabilities for increasing the size and scope of citizen-science projects. In the Lost Ladybug project, for example, citizens submit photographs of ladybugs in their locales that help only three scientists draw conclusions on the presence and absence of ladybugs in locations throughout the country.
Although technology can increase the reach of citizen-science projects, its impact depends significantly on a project’s research goals and participants, according to John Fraser, the president of the New Knowledge Organization, a New York City-based think tank focused on science and social change.
Students are just as capable as adults of generating accurate and relevant scientific data, but to be of significant value to students, citizen science should have a scientific purpose in which students feel their contributions are worthwhile to society at large, said Mr. Fraser, who has studied citizen-science projects.
“Trekking through the mud and rain with hip waders to look at frogs is the kind of thing that helps kids develop deep knowledge about themselves and the world around them,” he said. “Will all kids [performing citizen science] work with bugs and animals their whole lives? Probably not, but when they know their work has concrete impacts on the world, and the people care about the data they collect, the learning outcomes can be magnified.”
Coverage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education is supported by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, at www.noycefdn.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2013 edition of Education Week as Students Conduct Fieldwork for Scientists’ Research