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March 17, 2021

Creating Citizen Scientists: Connecting Students to the World

On the first day of school, science classrooms around the country welcomed back their scientists, who also happen to be their students. As we’re establishing classroom cultures and norms, it’s an optimal time to celebrate citizenship — not only in the classroom, but in the community. After all, these students will someday change the world… and that day may be today.

The notion of being a scientist used to require one to go to a lab. Now, we’re able to collect and manipulate relevant data from anywhere. From the heart rate monitors in their smartwatches and accelerometers in their phones to simply taking note of the natural world around them, our students have the opportunity to connect with the outside world, which provides them with a starting point for interacting with the larger world and someday changing it for the better.

Analyzing Trends and Making a Difference

Empowering students with data allows them to become informed decision makers and policy makers long after they leave our classrooms. Providing students with authentic experiences is just the first step.

VIDEO: Citizen Science: Creek Water Analysis 

VIDEO: Citizen Science: Creek Water Analysis 

One way my students have started to change the world:

As you can see in the DIY video I filmed above, my students recently visited a local watershed and conducted tests to determine the health of the local ecosystem. But our investigation did not end at the creek. We came back to the classroom, and the questions started flowing:

  • “If the animals’ water is showing pollutants in the area, what about ours?”

  • “Is there a correlation between our home water and the creek water, and could there be factors impacting both water sources?”

Students quickly started realizing they’re citizens of the same ecosystem as the watershed and began acting as true citizen scientists. They initiated investigations into their home water, repeating the tests and then plotting points on a common Google Map with color-coded findings. As a class, my students have formed a body of knowledge that helped them to determine and examine trends. They wanted to make a difference.

Authentic Data Collection

The framework for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) identifies “Analyzing and Interpreting Data” as a science and engineering practice that all students should utilize to help them engage in a scientific investigation. Translating this into the classroom in a way that’s meaningful and engaging requires students to interact with the data like never before, and it’s important that the data becomes relevant to student lives. One way to do this is to promote students as citizen scientists.

Ways to connect students with citizen science opportunities:

  • Journey North / Monarch Watch: Journey North is a non-profit organization that allows students to report and track migrations of several different species of animals. Its resources are varied and simple enough to use with any grade band. Students can take original data and analyze past data to elicit trends. Monarch Watch encourages citizen scientists to tag butterflies, report sightings, and track migration/population trends.

  • Zooniverse: Students analyze photographic data to find new galaxies, understand chimpanzee behavior, transcribe notes from the time of Shakespeare, or search for muons.

  • SciStarter: Over 1000 citizen science projects searchable by topic and location where students can engage in science by submitting their observations of nature (e.g., photographs, measurements, data logs).

  • U.S. Government: Database with 400+ citizen science projects that is searchable by topics, agency, participant age, and outcomes.

Collaboration and Communication

Communication is the piece of the Science and Engineering Practice (SEP) Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information that is often forgotten when implementing “traditional” labs. Allowing students to communicate their results is a cross-curricular tie-in that doubles as a powerful tool to increase your students’ level of engagement. Students embrace a renewed sense of pride, quality, and deeper understandings when they know someone (other than their teacher) will see their work.

Ways to help students collaborate:

  • Google Suite: Using Google suite, students can collaborate easily in the same document or presentation. Google also offers the ability for students to track data and trends using their other tools, such as Google Maps. Google is also releasing a science journal app that allows schools with 1:1 technology the ability to collect data with their device’s internal capabilities (e.g., gyroscope, accelerometer, sound/decibel meter, light, etc.).

  • SkypeFacetimeZoom, etc.: Partner your classroom with another classroom that is learning the same content and have students evaluate one another’s work or complete a common task. A couple of years ago, I had my students partner with a school across town to design, build, and test wind turbines. Scientists and engineers in their professions collaborate all across the world; why not give students the opportunity to practice? (Looking to build your own turbines? Check out this Tch and Build from my friend and Tch Laureate Tom Jenkins).

  • Twitter: Twitter has been changing the face of professional development for teachers and can be a great way to have students embrace digital learning. In addition to having students connect via hashtag, it encourages students to think about their digital footprint while using a tool they’re familiar with in a professional manner. Twitter also enables students to communicate data, connect with professionals, and can be used as a great and quick formative assessment. Worried about safety? Try creating a class account and practice tweeting together.


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