Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
Spring is the perfect time of year for citizen science! It's warming up outside, students are getting antsy and exhausted, testing is underway, and breaks are badly needed. On top of that, things start to get active in the world of wildlife, especially in temperate regions like Minnesota. Animals emerge from hibernation, migrating species begin their long journeys to their summer sanctuaries, and it's breeding season for many organisms.
Citizen science is when citizens, like your students, have the opportunity to play an active role in wildlife studies or projects going on around the world that benefit from participation by citizens. Hawk Watch International, for example, hosts hawk counting events at their migration sites that anyone can participate in. Volunteers count passing hawks and record their counts to an online database.
Citizen science is a great learning tool for many reasons. One is the application of science concepts to the real world, which is an element of experiential learning. Participating in citizen science also shows students that they can play a role in improving the community and the world around them. They are active citizens, an important 21st-century skill.
One way to approach citizen science experiences is through project-based learning. It is easy to turn citizen science projects into PBL experiences because many of the elements of PBL are organically there. Students connect with and collaborate with the community, and the experience is authentic, as are the learning outcomes. Check out my PBL Toolkit for guiding materials.
The following is a list of some of my favorite citizen science projects to do with my high school students AND my own young children. The projects listed below are appropriate for ALL ages. There are many more citizen science programs out there other than the 20 listed below. I'd love to know about others! Feel free to leave those in the comments.
20 Citizen Science Projects for Students of All Ages
1. Globe at Night
The project aims to raise awareness about light pollution and its impacts on communities. Students can report their night sky brightness observations daily. All they need is a computer or phone. This would be a great supplemental learning experience to a broader PBL project on light pollution.
This website has a variety of projects to get involved in, which is nice when it comes to student-directed learning. Students can pick a citizen science project in line with their interests such as insects, mammals, migrating species, invasive species, and more.
What's really cool about this website is that it promotes communication and collaboration with naturalists and research scientists. Community experts are an important piece of the project-based learning experience, so if you are approaching citizen science through a PBL approach, this particular project is gold!
3. Project Budburst
Project Budburst focuses on plant observations. The intention of the program is to understand human impact on wildlife, particularly plants. One area of focus right now is determining how plants are and will continue to respond to climate change.
This site has a tab for educators with age-specific learning activity recommendations, as well as collaboration opportunities with other citizen groups and scientists.
4. Project Noah
Project Noah is another citizen science option that emphasizes wildlife observation and inquiry. This citizen science project specifically caught my eye because students or classes can join a mission already in place OR they can create their own citizen science mission.
That would be an awesome group PBL project or a great way to ease into self-directed project-based learning. Students can choose a local species, habitat, population, or community of interest and design a mission using the Project Noah website.
Check out my self-directed PBL starter kit PBL templates to help guide students through this self-directed project-based learning experience. It also includes a free self-directed project-based learning teaching manual.
5. Project Squirrel
This citizen science project seems a bit dull. I mean, squirrels? They're so ubiquitous and kind of a nuisance. Squirrels, however, can tell us a lot about the health of the surrounding environment. Students can get involved in this project by recording squirrel observations and photos. It's a more interesting and hands-on way to learn about ecosystems.
Note: Almost all citizen science projects that my students get involved with are in connection with a project-based learning experience. Students participate in collecting data and use the data collected as a form of authentic inquiry.
For help getting started and/or managing self-directed project-based learning, grab these free tools!
This resource is incredible. What's different about Zooniverse compared to the other citizen science options mentioned so far is that the projects cross disciplines. There are projects on climate, history, literature, medicine, and even art, not just natural science. One of the projects is called "Anti-Slavery Manuscripts". This project was added by the Boston Public Library to include citizens in transcribing their collection of letters written by anti-slavery activists.
I think the best feature of this website is that students can create their own citizen science projects to add to the site, which citizens from all over the world can then contribute to. Another cool opportunity for self-directed PBL or large group/class PBL.
SciStarter is similar to Zooniverse in that there are a variety of citizen science projects available to choose from AND students can create their own. It is essentially a massive catalog of citizen science projects, which includes far more than natural science projects. Students can find projects around human behavior, literature, language, history, and even citizen science projects around Covid-19.
One of my favorite things about this website is its blog. The blog articles illuminate the impact of citizen science on our understanding of the world.
This is a super black and white, straightforward catalog of citizen science projects in the U.S. It is not fancy and does not have a special section for educators like many of the websites mentioned so far. However, the catalog is exhaustive.
If you are having your learners do student-directed PBL projects, this website is a great place to start. They can search for ideas relevant to their interests. They can build their own citizen science projects here and crowdsource any number of documents or data points. There is also a step-by-step guide included on this website to help guide users through the process of developing their own citizen science projects.
9. World Water Monitoring Challenge
This project is fantastic for raising awareness and educating students on water issues across the globe. Students monitor their local waterways by performing water quality tests.
Consider implementing scientific open-inquiry labs on water quality in your area. Check out my inquiry-based learning toolkit for guiding materials). I also have several student-directed water pollution activities in my store including inquiry, PrBL, and PBL.
Students that are especially passionate about this issue and want to get more involved can apply to be ambassadors at this website.
The downside to this citizen science project is that it is not free. Specific water quality kits need to be purchased to participate. One upside (of many) is that it's global.
10. The Great Backyard Bird Count
This citizen science project is only open for participation a few days per year. There are four designated days for citizens from all over the world to count birds. Those days often fall in February, so if you missed it this year, get it on your calendar for next year! Students count birds, submit observations, and explore the data.
There is also a photo contest students can take part in! Your students will need access to smartphones and the eBird app to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count. Hawk Watch International, which I mentioned above, is a similar program, but specific to hawks.
11. Journey North
Journey North is a citizen science option that specifically focuses on migrating species such as the monarch butterfly and whooping cranes. There are many organisms to choose from as well as specific projects.
The Symbolic Migration project is one example where students from around the world create paper butterflies and send them to students in Mexico. Those students then care for them through the winter and return them in the spring, symbolizing butterfly migration.
This is a cool way to integrate art, geography, science, history, and culture, as well as to encourage global learning and collaboration. My kids and I participate in the loon program each spring, which is the MN state bird (my place of residence).
Connect any citizen science project with a project-based learning experience. A species migration themed PBL is especially relevant.
12. Butterflies and Moths of North America
As the title of this citizen science option suggests, this particular project is specific to butterfly and moth sightings across North America. Students can take photographs and record sighting locations of butterflies, moths, and/or caterpillars in the database. Students can open and analyze data maps.
Migrating moths and butterflies use the north as a summer sanctuary and the south as a winter sanctuary. They can be found in most environments from urban gardens to national parks. My students and children take part in this project every spring.
13. WildCam Gorongosa
This project can be found and your group is managed through Zooniverse (#6). Scientists and conservationists need help tracking and identifying species in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Students scroll through photos taken by wildcams placed in the park. Students identify organisms and their behaviors IN the photos.
Students can participate from anywhere in the world, including in a classroom. I understand some educators don't have the flexibility to get out of the building every day to view wildlife. This is a great option for those in this situation. This project is also highly collaborative, and pretty addicting once you start!
14. Nature's Notebook
This website is geared toward educators. Nature's Notebook focuses heavily on phenology monitoring, but what's cool is that you can create your own phenology monitoring program with your students relevant to your community. Your students could consider starting a citizen science program as an upper-level project-based learning experience.
15. The Wildlab Bird
The Wildlab Bird is another citizen science opportunity offered by Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Students observe birds near their learning spaces and report sightings of GPS-tagged birds to Wildlab.
One thing that is unique to this citizen science option is that they promote STEM. They put a strong emphasis on integrating technology, so much so, that they will provide iPhones to your students for this project. They will also visit your school or another learning environment free of cost to help you get started.
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16. Celebrate Urban Birds
This project encourages urbanites to observe their surroundings and appreciate wildlife. You don't have to be in the middle of a national park to find wildlife. This is a great project for urban students that don't have easy access to natural areas.
17. Project FeederWatch
I love this project! There are so many learning opportunities built into it. It is not simply a matter of counting birds in your schoolyard. You could take advantage of design thinking by having your students build their own bird feeders. The shape, structure size, color, and food included will all be dependent on the bird they're hoping to attract and count.
In order to find this information students will have to do some research on the natural history of birds in their community. You could split your students up into groups, have each team determine a bird of focus, design a bird feeder specific to the species of their choice, and then observe and count the birds to report to Project FeederWatch.
This would be a great PBL experience. Use my PBL tool kit to help organize this experience. You can also check out my design thinking PBL project "Design and Build a Wildlife Shelter."
18. School of Ants
The purpose of this program is for citizens to help create a thorough map of ant species and ranges across North America. This is a great supplemental activity or could be a PBL project in itself. Students would learn about the natural history of ants in North America, what they eat, their behaviors, distribution, and more while contributing to real science. This website has many resources for educators as well.
19. The Lost Ladybug Project
Another one on insects! The Lost Ladybug Project asks citizens to help them collect ladybugs, photograph them, and submit the images along with some basic information such as location, date, habitat, etc, to their database.
This could be a great supplemental activity to a larger discussion or unit on topics like invasive species, habitats, competition, evolution, genetics, and more. Be creative, or let your students get creative by having them conduct student-led scientific open inquiry investigations.
20. The Great Sunflower Project
The Great Sunflower Project emphasizes pollinators, a hugely important topic and one that has been in the spotlight for quite some time, as our pollinators are at risk. There are a few ways to get students involved in this program. Peruse the website for options.
Students can learn about important habitats for pollinators by literally designing and/or creating their own pollinator habitat such as a bee or butterfly garden. Check out my pollinator garden PBL project to pair up with this citizen science project for a deep, engaging, and authentic learning experience.
21. BONUS: Roots and Shoots
I discovered Roots and Shoots on the Jane Goodall Institute website when doing a little research during Women's History Month.
Roots and Shoots is a little different from the others in that the the aim of is to empower young people to make a difference through direct action. My high school students self-direct community action projects, and Roots and Shoots is a fantastic resource for those learning experiences.
Roots and Shoots has a variety of projects that students can hop on board with, or students can create their own projects through roots and shoots.
Check out my community action projects tool kit for guiding materials.
Another resource I have found helpful in successful citizen science projects is citizenscience.org. They have webinars, conferences, and Citizen Science Month (April) events that students can participate in.
Thanks for visiting! I hope you're able to get your students involved in at least one of these citizen science projects this year. As always, reach out with questions and leave a comment if your students have done any of these projects! We'd love to hear about your experiences.
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.