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Further ideas: citizen science in action

Explore ideas for how a class can contribute to citizen science projects.
A child examining a leaf
© University of Reading

You read in Step 1.4 that to care for the environment you need to experience it daily, over months and even years. Activities that require observations over time also help children to understand the importance of collecting data to build our understanding of how the world is changing, and the long-term immersive experiences are extremely effective in terms of making learning ‘stick’.

Citizen science projects – which use collaborative volunteer research to explore or collect data – are a great way to do this. Scientists based at the Natural History Museum and Biological Records Centre cite Bonney 1 in identifying three types of citizen science projects:

  1. Contributory projects – those designed by scientists, in which the role of participants is to collect or analyse data.
  2. Collaborative projects – also designed by scientists, but with participants involved at various stages (eg collecting and analysing data or communicating findings).
  3. Co-created projects – collaborative community partnerships.

Consider starting with projects that lead to taking action in response to your findings.

You might start with a contributory project and later work in collaboration with a local climate organisation or wildlife trust.

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Contributing observation data to citizen science projects provides children with a powerful demonstration of the value of their own observations.

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Here are some ideas which you may want to add to your notebook.

Biodiversity citizen science projects

A child using a guide to identify plants

©University of Reading

Share your data with scientists

Use BioBlitz to upload biological information and photographs to an app which feeds into the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, an open source database used by scientists and policy makers around the world.

Carry out a bird count

Each year in the UK, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) carries out a Big Schools’ Birdwatch. You can order a pack of resources including survey sheets, instructions for how to make bird cake to attract birds to your school site, and sheets to support with identification. Children will develop their data handling skills as well as skills in observation and identification. If you plan ahead, you can work with the children to attract a greater range of birds into the school grounds. Even better, carry out the survey in consecutive years and see if you can increase the range and numbers of birds that visit each year. Remember to keep food and water sources clean and hygienic – we don’t want poorly birds!

There are many country-specific schemes (you can find others on the National Geographic Website and zooniverse), please do share others in the discussion below.

Moth and butterfly surveys

The Butterfly Conservation organisation, Atropos, and the UK centre for Ecology & Hydrology collaborate each year to organise an annual celebration of moths and moth recording throughout the British Isles. The more data they have, the more we know about how these essential and often neglected insects can be helped. Summer evenings are perfect for taking part in Moth Night, whether it is setting up your own event in the school grounds or encouraging children to take part at home. Children need to learn how to trap and release moths without causing harm, and you will need a plan for safely releasing moths the following day at dusk.

If you want something to take place during the day, try the Big Butterfly count. To enter data you’ll need to be teaching in mid-July, but if this is too late for your school you can still use the tools to carry out a survey of your own.

Spotting observations on a map

Nature’s Calendar is a citizen science project run by the Woodland Trust. Members of the public are able to upload their own observations of a wide range of different natural events in their local area to this website to build up a country-wide database of the progression of the seasonal cycle of the natural world. At its most interactive, children could be encouraged to input their own observations from their outdoor learning into the website. They can then see their own observations plotted on maps with all the other records from around the UK.

Even if children don’t upload their observations to the website they can still use it to see observations recorded by other members of the public. The live maps in the Analysis section demonstrate the changing seasons through a variety of different events, such as snowdrops flowering and birds nesting.

Highly recommended is the date range poster that can be downloaded from the website and printed to go on a classroom wall. This gives the expected dates of a huge number of different events in the natural world that are recorded in the Nature’s calendar project. Children can use this as a prompt for which things to look out for during outdoor learning at different times of year.

Other citizen science projects

Children playing with sticks and mud

©Helen Bilton and Anne Crook. Exploring outdoors ages 3-11. A guide for schools.

Back to the earth

The soil is often overlooked but vital to understanding climate change and sustainability. You can work with the British Geological Survey using the mySoil app to find out about what lies beneath your feet and help to build a picture of soil properties throughout Europe.

All about the weather

Understanding climate change is all about building rich, reliable data that allows scientists to track changes over time, and you and your class can contribute. On the Met Office Weather Observations website you are guided through the process of entering observations at any given time in your own locality. And measuring the weather doesn’t have to be expensive: look at the Make your own weather station – Met Office guide to find out how to make a rain gauge, wind vane or temperature box using household items.

Feeling ambitious?

Scientists based at the Natural History Museum and Biological Records Centre have developed a Citizen Science Best Practice Guide UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. As well as providing examples and links to citizen science projects, this resource guides you through the process of setting up your very own project.

Many of the examples above are UK-based but there are plenty of international projects. The National Geographic list is a good place to start. Share your recommendations for worldwide citizen science projects below.

1 Citizen Science: A Developing Tool for Expanding Science Knowledge and Scientific Literacy by Bonney et al, 2009.
© University of Reading
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