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Citizen science with children and families

Citizen science with children and families

As scientists continue to try to get a better understand of wildlife and environmental changes, they are unable to do all the field work necessary to acquire the data they need to analyze. Children in school, homeschoolers, and even scout groups and families, can adopt a project and make a real contribution to science by participating in the scientific method.

Selecting a Citizen Science Project

From insects to birds, amphibians to plants, volunteers can select the environmental topic that would most interest them. The best time of year to investigate topics may be in the winter as many projects seek data in the spring, summer, or fall (some continue year-round). A class may be limited by when they can participate in a project, where homeschoolers and families may have more flexibility.

Start by scrolling through websites that list citizen science projects. Note projects that look interesting and then click on that specific project. Important considerations include investigating if this project can be completed in the area the students live in. Next, look at the time frame for participation – make certain that school is in session or that there isn’t a conflict with a family vacation.

Then look at the time commitment. Some projects require a single day’s work, ten minutes once a week throughout the summer where other projects request twenty or more hours of time.

Be fair – if a student or family knows that they can’t complete the required time, don’t supply scientists with partial information unless their site accepts incomplete data. Also, submit information to the project’s site in a timely fashion.

Teaching Children About the Environment

Citizen science is a great way to get children outside. Perhaps even more important is that the projects can train both children and adults into using and developing their observation skills. The sheer repetition of returning to the same location pushes individuals to notice the changes to the location.

Instead of spending time outside hiking, playing sports, or traveling from place-to-place, citizen science projects encourage individuals to slow down and really notice parts of nature they may have scarcely noticed in the past.

Keeping a Nature Journal

If citizen science doesn’t work for certain individuals due to time constraints – or they want something to do while waiting for a project to start, children and adults can begin keeping a seasonal or phenological journal.

A nature journal can rely on the written word, sketches, or a combination of the two. Start by going to one spot over and again, even if that is a tree in the backyard visited for ten minutes before going to the bus stop. Notice how nature changes each day – a moth resting on the tree bark one day and caterpillars munching the leaves a couple of weeks later.

Working on a citizen scientist project can get children and adults interested in nature to turn their observations toward a purpose that can help scientists get a better sense of changes in the environment.

Creating a Science Nature Journal

A nature journal allows students to make observations and make connections about the natural world in which they live. By developing their own nature journals, students develop a concrete understanding of what is going on in the part of nature they are studying, for example, the impact of global warming on animals which live in a specific ecosystem.

Nature journals let students build upon their experience, remember a certain order of recorded events, and link data with events to develop relationships. Students look closely at nature and then look again as they recall patterns and motions, along with considering the weather, sky, sounds, and temperature as they reflect upon nature’s disposition.

Writing in a Nature Journal

Nature journals assist students with learning how to write about science as they follow these guidelines:

  • Begin writing and often. Do not be too critical or edit writing at the beginning to let the writing flow naturally.
  • Write as if writing a letter to yourself, close friend, or family member by creating a narrative account.
  • Complete sentences are optional; the important point is to record pictures, observations, and data.
  • Draw pictures (if a paper journal) or incorporate photographs (if an online journal).

Nature Journals and Technology

Developing a class nature journal using a free Wiki allows teachers and students to view and make comments. Using Wikis to engage students by integrating technology provides them with their own online journal page in the class Wiki to update and maintain. Advantages of using a Wiki for nature journals include:

  • Students have the ability to embed links to online resources to support their journals.
  • Students can upload images into their Wiki page.
  • Students can work collaboratively to complete a group journal.
  • Students can access and update their nature journal from home.
  • Teachers can monitor their students’ progress at their convenience.
  • Teachers can limit access to class Wikis, which eliminate concern for open access.

Migrating Animals Nature Journal

Students select a specific migrating animal to track during the animal’s migration. Each student keeps an online journal, much like a blog. Students collect data during their animal’s migration, such as interesting points along the migration route and migration route weather. There are many animals both land and sea that migrate, which students can select. Examples include all types of whales, wildebeests, sea turtles, birds, elephants, seals, polar bears, etc.

For students to track animals during migration periods, they need access to the Internet to find websites that support their nature journal. A good resource is Animals in Curriculum-based Ecosystems Studies for tracking migrating animals in ocean environments. Google Earth is free and provides resources for students to capture and download images of land animals as they migrate, in some cases even ocean mammals.

Additional Examples of Nature Journals

The options for developing a nature journal are unlimited. Students can create a nature journal focused on their neighborhood’s ecosystem, specific insects, animals at a local or national zoo, nature trails, local parks, and more.

Making Connections

Using Wikis in science class is a secure method for allowing students to create a nature journal that they can share with classmates, teachers, parents, and anyone else the teacher provides access to. As students create and develop their own nature journals, they are following the tenants of inquiry-based learning. Students are asking their own questions, designing their own investigations, formulating their own explanations, and more as they focus on the topic of their nature journal.