Save the Planet! Do a Citizen Science Project With Your Students

By Brenda Iasevoli — July 18, 2018 4 min read
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To develop a conservation attitude, it helps to spend time in nature. Yet with so much of the population living in urban areas, there are ever fewer opportunities to climb a tree or take a hike. Citizen science projects might be just the remedy, a new study suggests.

Citizen science gives volunteers young and old the chance to take part in actual research that might require them to listen at night for frog and toad calls, test water samples, or place motion-activated cameras in parks and other natural areas to capture photos of mammals. The collaborations lead to discoveries that a lone scientist, no matter how hardworking, could never achieve on her own.

Researchers analyzed 975 studies of such citizen science projects for evidence that participation helped volunteers connect with nature to the point that they were compelled to conserve it. One study the scientists analyzed revealed that volunteers for the Garden Butterfly Watch program ended up changing their gardening practices (planting native species, for instance) to make them more hospitable to wildlife. Another study found that volunteers in the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team program cleaned up beaches during surveys without any urging from the program directors.

The results are promising, but there’s more work to be done, according to the study’s lead author, Stephanie Schuttler of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She pointed out that only one of the 975 studies she reviewed looked at a most vital demographic in terms of conservation: young people. Schuttler said that’s largely because too few schools are doing it.

Scientists in the Schoolyard

Schuttler is adding to the research on young people in citizen science by studying the eMammal project, which involves participants in 21 countries who have so far reported 750,000 wildlife sightings with the help of motion-detection cameras. (The images are stored in the Smithsonian Institute’s data repository.) A number of eMammal participants are students who place the cameras in their schoolyards. In North Carolina, students involved in the eMammal project have caught coyotes, foxes, and deer on camera, and nearly every mammal native to the state.

“From teachers, we hear that students become more interested and connected to the outdoors,” Schuttler said in an interview. Her study will test that assertion and find out if this new connection to wildlife and nature eventually leads to a stronger conservation ethos.

Rachael Polmanteer, an 8th-grade science teacher at River Bend Middle School in Raleigh, N.C., helped to create lesson plans for the eMammal project. She also trains teachers across the state on how to integrate citizen science into their curriculum. Her goal is to make teaching the curriculum through citizen science seamless. For instance, 6th and 8th graders have to learn about food webs. Polmanteer has students create the webs using photos of animals from the eMammal project. Some of the animals were taken on the camera mounted in their schoolyard, while others come from schoolyards in India, Kenya, and Mexico.

“I am a marine biologist by degree and it’s important to me that my students get as much real hands-on science as possible,” Polmanteer said. “But it’s not even just about the hands-on part. It’s knowing that they are making a difference and contributing to actual research. It’s amazing to watch these 8th grade kids who usually care more about their cellphones than anything else develop such enthusiasm for science.”

How Do Young People Get Involved?

Young people end up doing citizen science through a number of routes. Girl Scouts earn badges in citizen science by tackling a series of selected projects on SciStarter, a website that connects volunteers with thousands of research projects that need the help of volunteers. Other kids might do citizen science with their family or through participation in 4H or another after-school program. And Students Discover is an initiative helping teachers bring citizen science into their classrooms.

Caren Cooper, assistant head of the biodiversity lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and one of the study’s authors, said citizen science is a great way for schools to teach real-world hands-on science, provided it is done well. “Nothing beats an authentic experience helping scientific discovery,” she told Education Week. Watch Cooper’s TedTalk on the power of citizen science below.

The idea, in the end, is to get more schools involved in citizen science and to make it their curriculum as opposed to a supplement to the curriculum or something students only do after school.

“We want participants actually collecting real data that is useful to scientists,” Schuttler said. “That makes a huge difference, especially to the kids involved, that their photos are stored forever in the Smithsonian repository to be used by scientists in the future. That really changes the importance. It gives them purpose in the classroom.”

Photo: Participants in the eMammal citizen science program mount a motion-activated camera to a tree in an effort to identify area wildlife. (Matt Zeher)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.