Toolkit

Citizen Science

A Learning is Open toolkit written by the California Academy of Sciences. Download an updated version of this toolkit here.

What is Citizen Science

Citizen science is a process by which everyday people take an active role in scientific discovery, joining forces with researchers to answer important science questions. Harnessing a collective curiosity and employing common technology, citizen scientists work with professional researchers to learn about our world more quickly and comprehensively than ever before. Anyone can participate in citizen science and projects can take many forms: counting backyard birds to assess climate change, searching satellite images for new galaxies, and playing video games to fight diseases are just a few ways that citizen scientists directly contribute to cutting edge research spearheaded by universities, museums, and other major institutions.

Citizen science projects often arise when a research team makes a public call for assistance to help answer a question. For example, in July 2007, astronomers faced the task of classifying one million galaxies that had been imaged by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. They realized that even if all the astronomers in the world only classified galaxies for the rest of their lives it would still take 200 years to complete the work, so they created the Galaxy Zoo project and invited the public to help. Within 24 hours, they were receiving 70,000 classifications per hour; by the end of the first year, more than 50 million classifications were made by 150,000 people. That meant each galaxy was seen by many different participants, which helped ensure the classifications were reliable, accurate, and just as trustworthy as those made by professional astronomers. Citizen scientists not only correctly identified the shapes and features of the galaxies, but also discovered brand-new astronomical objects and brought to light a whole new class of galaxy. These remarkable achievements could not have been made without this tremendous response from the public.

Collaborative efforts like these offer communally beneficial experiences for everyone involved. The scope of scientists’ research is often limited by time, budget, and people power. With the help of citizen scientists, research can be done more quickly, information can be shared more readily, and our database of knowledge can expand exponentially. By working directly with the public, researchers can think bigger and collect more data than ever before. For student participants, the immersive experience of citizen science makes learning fun and offers a clear integration of science understanding with real-world application. Working together, citizen scientists and professional researchers help create a community of more knowledgeable and better-informed community members who can respond quickly and effectively to issues that arise in our rapidly-changing world.

Here are some other notable citizen science achievements:

  • The nine-spotted ladybug, Coccinella novemnotata, is the state insect of New York, but had not been seen since 1982. The species was thought to be extinct until a citizen scientist participating in the Lost Ladybug Project rediscovered it in 2011 on a sunflower at an organic farm in Long Island.
  • Scientists had been struggling to model an enzyme critical to AIDS research for ten years.  Once they brought their problem to the online protein-folding game called Foldit, players found the solution in only three weeks.
  • A project called Digital Fishers invites citizen scientists to help classify organisms seen in videos taken of the seafloor off Vancouver Island. A teenager in Ukraine was watching a clip of a hagfish swimming along, when a whiskery nose suddenly came into frame and slurped it up. His curiosity piqued, the student contacted researchers to ask what he had seen. It turned out to be an elephant seal, but scientists had never before known that they dive so deep or that they eat hagfish!

Engaging Students in Citizen Science

Integrating citizen science into the formal classroom presents both an opportunity and a challenge. Outside of school, citizen science is an interest-driven experience, fueled by self-motivation and personal passion. Citizen scientists form a community of enthusiasts that channel their love of learning into active civic engagement: participants choose to spend their free time collecting dead bees and documenting the biodiversity of intertidal reefs to better understand and protect our planet. As a mandatory assignment within an academic curriculum, citizen science may not hold the same intrinsic allure for middle and high school students. Yet with appropriate context, structure, and scaffolding, citizen science can be a powerful tool for engaging students in authentic investigations that address real world questions, strengthen essential science literacy skills, and foster critically important habits of minds.

It is important to note that most existing citizen science projects, especially ones with resources to promote student involvement, focus on data collection as the primary form of contribution. Tasks like counting birds, observing bees, and documenting trees are easy ways for students to participate, but limiting youth to this one point in the inquiry science process can obscure their understanding of the big picture. This toolkit contains a suite of resources that teachers can use to more accurately represent science as a multifaceted endeavor, and to help students see the value and authenticity of their work in light of a larger research question.

Taking the time to provide context will help students understand the scientific relevance of the project and recognize the significance of their own roles within it. Building concrete scientific skills will increase students’ awareness of and confidence in their own ability to contribute meaningfully to scientific research. And selecting projects that meet particular criteria will enhance the academic integrity of the experience.

Below are four steps to integrating citizen science into the classroom: Set the Stage, Build Skills, Select a Project, and Do Citizen Science. These steps do not need to be carried out in any particular order, though it is likely that Do Citizen Science will be last. For example, you might choose to build scientific inquiry skills prior to launching and framing the citizen science project. Or, you might select the project first, then frame it and build relevant skills. The choice is yours.

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Set the Stage

Citizen science is the democratization of scientific research: it allows people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities to make new discoveries and impact public understanding of science and nature at a level on par with professionals. It is real, practical, and authentic work: it exists to answer genuine questions and overcome true limitations. In these ways and others, citizen science has the potential to radically transform science education. But this may not be clearly evident to every student. To understand the significance of the project they will tackle and the relevance it holds in their own lives, students may need to be guided through a process of framing: What is citizen science? Why is it important? What might be fun about it? What might be challenging and why is it worth the struggle? This toolkit contains a number of resources, including activities, readings, and videos, to help educators communicate the value of citizen science, and help cultivate in students a sense of empowerment and impact.

Build Skills

Citizen science projects provide wonderful examples of the scientific inquiry process at work. Each project inherently arose from a desire to better understand some unknown in the world, and the investigation was shaped by thoughtful choices regarding best methods for gathering data to address that question. While the project may invite participants to engage in only one aspect of the scientific process, students can be guided through activities that help foster the full range of skills. This will not only help further frame citizen science as a holistic process of exploration, but will also enhance the quality of students’ contributions and build confidence in their own ability to contribute meaningfully to authentic research.

Select a Project

To preserve the interest-driven nature of citizen science and foster necessary buy-in, it is recommended that teachers allow students to participate authentically in the project selection process. Clear parameters will ensure the academic integrity and logistic feasibility of the project, while a range of options will offer the chance for students to connect with a cause that is personally meaningful to them. Teachers may wish to articulate specific requirements and the resources available, or instead to provide broader guidelines, placing the onus on students to develop the plan. Important factors to consider include curricular or academic goals, desired length of project, available technology, budgetary restraints, and ability to travel off campus.

Do Citizen Science

The last step is to carry out the project, but you’ll want to make some final arrangements before you jump right in. Be sure to explore what resources the project itself provides in the form of curricular materials and background resources. Most projects will require you to interact through a digital platform, each of which varies in degree of intuitive accessibility. Make certain you’re familiar with the data submission process. You may need to set up an account and/or user profile. Also consider if students will be working individually or in groups, and what jobs or responsibilities they might rotate through. Once you feel prepared with your tools, resources, schedule, and plan, embark and your project, and enjoy!

Citizen Science & The Classroom

Citizen science engages students in authentic, meaningful science research that addresses real world issues, leads to scientific advancement, and fosters scientific literacy. It exposes participants to a world of curiosity and discovery, challenging common misconceptions about the nature of science while fostering the development of critical 21st century skills. The following statements describe mindsets that develop through direct participation in science inquiry and exploration.

There remain unanswered questions in science.

Scientists have described less than 15% of all the species believed to exist on Earth and we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about our own ocean floor. Though science has made tremendous progress in the effort to understand the diversity of life and how things work, there is still much to learn, and every thrilling discovery raises equally exhilarating questions. Citizen science gives participants insight and exposure to the idea that there remain mysteries to solve, that the Internet does not hold all the answers, and that science is a dynamic and ever-changing process of pursuing curiosity.

Science serves society. Society needs science and a scientifically literate populace.

Science is a framework and method for the exploration and understanding of how the world works. Science is more than just learning for learning’s sake; we rely on scientific knowledge to help identify and solve societal problems. When we understand the processes of decomposition and energy cycles, we are better equipped to make decisions about waste management; when we comprehend the chemical interactions of commercial by-products and the surrounding environment, we can develop or vote for policies that protect our clean water supply. Through citizen science, students strengthen their scientific literacy and use their skills to assess and address real issues.

Anyone can be a scientist.

Citizen science democratizes the scientific research process by lowering the barriers to entry and raising the impact of civic engagement. Using simple tools and everyday technologies, novices with little expertise living anywhere in the world can make and share critical contributions to authentic investigations, no lab coat or Ph.D required. The citizen science experience makes science more accessible, expands the view of science beyond steamy bubbling beakers, and empowers students both to carry out meaningful investigations in their own backyards and identify as active agents of scientific discovery.

Scientists are global citizens.

Citizen scientists around the world collaborate with each other to work toward a common goal. Though they may never meet in person, digital technology enables and enriches global connections and facilitates the sharing of resources. In this way, the impact of participation moves beyond a single classroom or school, broadening students’ understanding of community and stretching the boundaries of their impact. Finding themselves part of a greater civic and scientific movement, students may better understand and value the significance of their own contributions.

Curiosity and agency drive scientific research.

All that we know about the nature of the universe is a result of human curiosity and agency: over the course of history, people have posed questions and pursued investigations. Students who participate in citizen science recognize that new scientific discoveries can be made by anyone and that systematic follow-through can yield satisfying results. This sense of promise drives motivation, encouraging young people to actively inquire about the world and persist in their quest for knowledge.

Science is work and play.

Beyond bunsen burners and safety goggles, science investigation can happen anywhere – in schoolyard puddles, under rotting logs, even inside your own bellybutton – and there are people who find that to be exhilarating. For many, the process of exploration and discovery is delightful, enthralling, and a tremendous amount of fun. Whether you choose to make science your career or engage in it as a hobby, citizen science provides everyone with the chance to learn about the world while contributing to greater good

Citizen Science Skills

Citizen science supports the latest research in science education, which advocates for reduced emphasis on rote memorization of facts-based content and increased engagement in the process of inquiry. The following pages describe how citizen science fosters these foundational skills, which align closely with the NGSS scientific practices (see Citizen Science & The Standards section below for skills alignment).

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Making Observations

All scientific progress begins with observation. Citizen science offers students the chance to recognize the importance of looking closely, noticing details, identifying patterns, and making connections. Because many citizen science projects rely on the ability to discern differences among similar-looking objects or organisms, students naturally train their eyes to recognize important features. Whether they identify ladybugs in the park, record different types of clouds, or spot a whiskered mammal slurping up a hagfish, citizen scientists use their observational skills to amass critical data points that inform authentic research.

Asking questions

As they make observations and gather data, students can be guided to think critically about their findings and begin to ask questions. For example, in searching for the sixteen focal species of the Celebrate Urban Birds project, students may wonder why they find an abundance of pigeons in their schoolyard but very few killdeer. They might develop a hypothesis and design a testable question to determine the cause of this behavior. As always, additional observations will answer some questions, while raising new ones. Through citizen science, students will learn firsthand that science is not a linear process, and that questions and hypotheses may arise and be revised over and over again.

Planning and carrying out investigations

To successfully participate in a citizen science project, the class will need a realistic, comprehensive plan. Will students work individually or in groups? What tools will they need? How will they collect and record their data? How much time will the project require? Putting the power of decision-making into the hands of the students will allow them to take ownership of their experience and feel empowered to troubleshoot obstacles. Citizen science projects also provide the opportunity to explore different data collection methods and consider what information is necessary to answer the question at hand. How will they determine how much data to collect? What kind of information is most relevant? Do they need to know the number of bees observed or just the type that was found? Is it necessary to record location? Time of day? This is also a chance to discuss how students can make sure their data are accurate, and what evidence would allow them to defend their data against skeptics.

Analyzing and interpreting data

Through citizen science, students can learn how to analyze, interpret, and critically extract truth and meaning from a variety of information. Students might examine their own results or mine the data contributed by others to draw and defend scientific conclusions. They might analyze findings to support or challenge hypotheses posed. They might critique each other’s work and offer suggestions for enhancement. And they might assess the political and civic implications of a particular set of data to develop a stronger understanding of how science can inform everyday choices. In each of these ways, students have the opportunity to explore multiple perspectives, employ logical reasoning, and build understanding from evidence.

Constructing explanations, engaging in argument from evidence, and communicating information

The power of scientific discovery rests on its ability to impact scientific understanding, public policy, and social culture. To garner support and foster change, scientists must communicate the implications of their findings in a clear and effective manner. Once students analyze and interpret their data, they can begin to construct scientific arguments and share them with classmates, family members, even local policy-makers. Students can submit opinion articles to the school newspaper, make a video presentation of their work, write letters to government officials, present at an assembly, post on social media, or explore any number of other avenues to reach a larger audience.

Citizen Science & The Standards

Though different citizen science projects will address different content standards, by framing citizen science in the context of the scientific inquiry process, all of them will meet the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)’s Scientific Practices and Crosscutting Concepts, as well as the following Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Next Generation Science Standards

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices

  1. Asking questions
  2. Developing and using models
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
  6. Constructing explanations
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence
  8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

NGSS Crosscutting Concepts

Citizen science projects are rich, complex experiences that involve real world data collection, observation, and analysis. The NGSS Crosscutting Concepts listed below are commonly addressed in citizen science experiences.

Patterns

Observed patterns of forms and events guide organization and classification, and they prompt questions about relationships and the factors that influence them. Through the process of close and continuous observation, students gain increased familiarity with specific objects or study sites, which allows them to notice details, recognize commonalities, and identify changes over time. Documenting biodiversity, categorizing satellite images, and observing animal behavior are just a few examples of citizen science activities that train students to see patterns and begin to ask questions about form, function, and relationships.

Cause and effect: mechanism and explanation

Events have causes, sometimes simple, sometimes multifaceted. A major activity of science is investigating and explaining causal relationships and the mechanisms by which they are mediated. Such mechanisms can then be tested across given contexts and used to predict and explain events in new contexts. As students wrestle with the questions that arise from extended observations and the identification of patterns, they may naturally begin to consider causality, correlation, and the processes that inform those relationships. For example, over the course of a citizen science cloud study, a student may notice that the sky is often overcast during recess but clear by dismissal. Encourage this curiosity and press the student to conduct background research, postulate a hypothesis, and then launch an investigation that could explain that phenomenon or help refine understanding of its characteristics.

Scale, proportion, and quantity.

In considering phenomena, it is critical to recognize what is relevant at different measures of size, time, and energy and to recognize how changes in scale, proportion, or quantity affect a system’s structure or performance.Scale, proportion, and quantity are fundamental measurements in science. As foundational characteristics of an event, system, or phenomenon – how big ? how much? compared to what? – they contextualize data, providing a backdrop against which scientists can assess results and draw conclusions. Changes in these qualities can shift understanding dramatically. For example, one citizen science project examines leaf damage in the Amazon rainforest; when only the forest floor was studied, herbivory levels were assessed at 13% (of tree damaged), but increased to more than 30% when expanded to include the canopy. Students engaged in authentic, real-world data are better equipped to consider how these shifts in scale, proportion, and quantity impact scientific understanding.

Systems and system models.

Defining the system under study—specifying its boundaries and making explicit a model of that system—provides tools for understanding and testing ideas that are applicable throughout science and engineering.
When a known system is too large or small to study with available tools, models prove extraordinarily useful. Students participating in citizen science projects that address widespread distribution of scientific phenomenon – either in space or on Earth – benefit from creating and investigating models. Many citizen science projects also offer interactive data visualization tools that students can populate and manipulate to better understand their topic of focus.

Common Core State Standards

As with NGSS, different citizen science projects align with a variety of specific Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English Language Arts and Math. Below are some of the Common Core standards that will likely be addressed in many or most citizen science projects.

English Language Arts Anchor Standards

Communication is important throughout all stages of a citizen science project. From digital information coming in to the discussions students have in class to the conversations they will have outside of class with their communities to the final presentations, students have a plethora of opportunities to practice their speaking and listening skills.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

In all aspects of citizen science, from picking a project to participating to analyzing results, students collaborate with each other, and possibly with researchers and community members. They practice clear and scientific communication skills they can use with their peers, as well as with others. The answers they seek that relate to the project will likely come from outside a text book, so students need to discuss different sources of information they find within a group or class setting.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Through citizen science projects, students have the opportunity to communicate results in multiple, valuable ways, from professional-style tweets and social media posts, to posters, and even in passing conversation. They can share what role they have played in the citizen science project, why their role and the whole project was important, and what the results of the project were. All are integral components of the citizen science experience.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

As part of the scientific inquiry process, students construct arguments to support their conclusions drawn from participating in a citizen science project. In making these arguments, students must draw on evidence, research, and data, and present them clearly in a logical sequence to support their claims.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Citizen science projects encourage students to develop skills to communicate scientific processes but also to understand and discern the information they come across throughout the experience. Textbooks and printed articles no doubt build useful background information for a citizen science project, but students also need to gather information elsewhere and are likely to turn to the Internet and digital media. As they gather this information and find contrasting accounts from many well-known sites, it will be important for them to analyze the information for accuracy and validity.

Mathematical Practices

Citizen science projects foster vital math skills that are relevant and applicable to the project and beyond.

CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

This is citizen science! Students are presented with a question and then they seek the answer. Even if they are not involved in the analysis or final outcome of the research project, they still contribute to the solution. Furthermore, the mindsets of curiosity and agency come to life as students dig deeper into a citizen science project to develop solutions.

CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP2 Reason abstractly and quantitatively.

Students may have an opportunity to analyze or collect data through a citizen science project and become immersed in the quantitative side of science. But the more abstract qualitative side of science is important as well. Students readily experience this important duality through citizen science projects and have the opportunity to compare the two methods of reasoning that it demands.

CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP3 Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

Citizen science projects help students draw their own conclusions and evaluate information that comes to them from multiple sources. The nature of the projects encourages students to analyze mathematical statements and to be constructively critical of statements made by their peers.

CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP6 Attend to precision.

Citizen science projects hold students accountable for their attention to detail. Shared contributions with a professional scientist or even an entire research community add another dimension to the project that motivates students to be meticulous and precise. In citizen science, students are neat, accurate, and precise in measurements, observations, notes and more because they know their work has real world relevance and effect.

Project Example: Ecology

Montgomery High School Ecology Project
School Name | Montgomery High School
Location | Santa Rosa, CA (North San Francisco Bay Area)
Total Time | 3-4 weeks
Subjects | Biology (all levels)
Grade Level | 10th grade – high school
Number of Participants | 150 students (all class sections)

Impact

The afterschool environment provides a unique opportunity for young people to get outdoors, explore the natural world, and participate in authentic science research without the constraints of regular school day structures. In Science Action Club, middle school youth at more than a dozen afterschool programs across the Bay Area build their science skills through fun hands-on activities and contribute to citizen science projects like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Celebrate Urban Birds project, NASA’s S’COOL project, and iNaturalist. As students observe and document nature in their local environment, they join a community of global citizens that work together to protect the planet.

Process

Set the Stage

Afterschool Activity Leaders introduce Science Action Club youth to the world of citizen science through the use of resource-rich curricula, materials, and custom-configured digital technology provided by the California Academy of Sciences. Interactive games, videos, and data visualization tools help youth see themselves as integral members of a widespread scientific community collectively contributing to national and global research projects.

Select a Project

The Science Action Club program focuses on citizen science projects that offer low barriers to entry and are broad in both temporal and geographic scope. They are accessible across seasons, in big cities and small towns, and to youth of varying ages and abilities: in other words, anyone can participate anytime, anywhere. Additionally, each project contributes to a better understanding of the environment, in line with the California Academy of Science’s mission to explore, explain, and sustain life.

Building Skills

Each Science Action Club module guide includes plans for one kick-off activity followed by ten investigations that strengthen participants’ environmental science content and process skills. The activities are carried out concurrently with the citizen science project for a holistic learning experience. As youth design bird habitats, construct functioning anemometers, or explore variation within species, they broaden their understanding of ecology while improving their ability to think critically and solve problems. In addition to serving as tools for background research and data submission, the custom-configured iPads included in each kit allow Science Action Clubs to communicate with one another so they can share and compare findings.

Do Citizen Science

Equipped with some background content knowledge and a general understanding of the task at hand, youth spend about twenty minutes of each club session observing their natural world, documenting their findings, and submitting their results to nationally-recognized citizen science projects. Scientific tools like binoculars, hand lenses, and ID-guides help youth locate birds, ground-truth the presence of clouds, and identify living organisms in their neighborhoods. Working in small teams to cover a designated observation area, youth record their data on collection sheets and upload their results to each project’s website or mobile app. Clubs have the opportunity to discuss the implications of their findings with each other, as well as showcase their work to members of their school, after school, and local communities.

Project Example: Science Action Club

Science Action Club
School | Several middle school afterschool programs
Location | San Francisco Bay Area
Total Time | 8-15 weeks
Subjects | Science
Grade Level | 6-8
Number of Participants | 20 students per site

Impact

The afterschool environment provides a unique opportunity for young people to get outdoors, explore the natural world, and participate in authentic science research without the constraints of regular school day structures. In Science Action Club, middle school youth at more than a dozen afterschool programs across the Bay Area build their science skills through fun hands-on activities and contribute to citizen science projects like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Celebrate Urban Birds project, NASA’s S’COOL project, and iNaturalist. As students observe and document nature in their local environment, they join a community of global citizens that work together to protect the planet.

Process

Set the Stage

Afterschool Activity Leaders introduce Science Action Club youth to the world of citizen science through the use of resource-rich curricula, materials, and custom-configured digital technology provided by the California Academy of Sciences. Interactive games, videos, and data visualization tools help youth see themselves as integral members of a widespread scientific community collectively contributing to national and global research projects.

Select a Project

The Science Action Club program focuses on citizen science projects that offer low barriers to entry and are broad in both temporal and geographic scope. They are accessible across seasons, in big cities and small towns, and to youth of varying ages and abilities: in other words, anyone can participate anytime, anywhere. Additionally, each project contributes to a better understanding of the environment, in line with the California Academy of Science’s mission to explore, explain, and sustain life.

Building Skills

Each Science Action Club module guide includes plans for one kick-off activity followed by ten investigations that strengthen participants’ environmental science content and process skills. The activities are carried out concurrently with the citizen science project for a holistic learning experience. As youth design bird habitats, construct functioning anemometers, or explore variation within species, they broaden their understanding of ecology while improving their ability to think critically and solve problems. In addition to serving as tools for background research and data submission, the custom-configured iPads included in each kit allow Science Action Clubs to communicate with one another so they can share and compare findings.

Do Citizen Science

Equipped with some background content knowledge and a general understanding of the task at hand, youth spend about twenty minutes of each club session observing their natural world, documenting their findings, and submitting their results to nationally-recognized citizen science projects. Scientific tools like binoculars, hand lenses, and ID-guides help youth locate birds, ground-truth the presence of clouds, and identify living organisms in their neighborhoods. Working in small teams to cover a designated observation area, youth record their data on collection sheets and upload their results to each project’s website or mobile app. Clubs have the opportunity to discuss the implications of their findings with each other, as well as showcase their work to members of their school, after school, and local communities.

Project Example: Beach Monitoring

LiMPETS Sandy Beach Monitoring
School Name | Half Moon Bay High School
Location | Half Moon Bay State Beach
Total Time | ~4 hours per monitoring event
Subjects | Marine Ecology, AP Environmental Science
Grade Level | 11-12
Number of Participants | 30 per class

Impact

Students learned a protocol for monitoring Pacific mole crab populations and were able to collect data that became part of a long-term data set on California’s beach ecosystems. Students were able to develop their field science skills and apply them toward a project that helps assess the well-being of our coast.

Process

Set the Stage

Plans for this project started several weeks ahead of time when students received paperwork for the field trip portion as well as several preparatory reading assignments; at this time the class discussed the idea of citizen science and the value of contributing our knowledge of marine ecosystems. Before the day of the field trip, one class period was devoted to introducing students to the details of the project, expectations for field-data collection, and skills practice (sand crab sex identification and measurement with calipers). The overview lesson was led by staff from LiMPETS (Long-term Monitoring Program and Experiential Training for Students). Students were shown a map of all the monitoring locations, graphs of some monitoring data that has already been compiled, and photos relating this data to environmental changes and human activities such as oil and sewage spills, which highlight the need for consistent long-term data sets as well as the ways they may be used by scientists and policy-makers.

Select a Project

Students absolutely love participating in this project and want to do multiple monitoring events during the year. This project is extremely concise; students learn new skills and science content and are able to gather a large data set to contribute to the monitoring program on one 1.5-2 hour field trip. At the end of just a few days students have learned details of Pacific mole crab biology and sandy shore ecosystem structure, they have learned how to measure accurately with calipers and create a detailed field log, they have learned how to set up a randomized sample area using transects, they’ve contributed data to the scientific community, and have been able to query that dataset to answer student-generated questions. It works extremely well as a stand-alone project, or as part of a marine science or sandy shore unit of study and can easily be expanded into a year-long class project. The LiMPETS program provides training, materials (lesson plans as well as the tools for the monitoring event), and can often schedule staff to teach the preparatory lesson or even join the class in the field (which is especially helpful the first time conducting a monitoring event).

Building Skills

In class, students filled in practice data tables based on their own measurements of either live Pacific mole crabs that were brought into the room, or using a set of photographs of mole crabs. This provided them the chance to practice measuring with calipers as well as determining the sex of the crabs. They also learned how to follow a data entry protocol to assure that their data would be entered in the same format as all other groups throughout the state. In class, students were also taught the method for setting up the sample area using randomized transects, and the protocol for collecting sand crabs using cores and sieves (they also practiced using the cores and sieves in the field prior to setting up the sample area). Prior to explicitly teaching and practicing the methods, students read two short articles about sand crabs and about sandy shore ecosystems.

Do Citizen Science

Anticipation of the field study portion of this project is motivation enough for students to engage in the preparatory activities. Once in the field, students have the chance to practice using the materials (cores, sieves, calipers) before collecting data. As a class, we work to complete a field log that includes details on the location and weather conditions before setting up the sample area in the swash zone with ropes, meter tapes, and flags. Students work in 5 small groups where each is in charge of one transect line containing 10 sampling locations. Groups collect a set volume of sand from each meter down the beach and use sieves to isolate the mole crabs. Each set of mole crabs is sexed, measured, and logged in the data table. In class on the following day, students enter their data on the LiMPETS program website. Groups are then asked to develop a question about either long-term population changes at our monitoring site or about comparisons between sites. They then query the data, use the LiMPETS web portal to create graphs appropriate to their question, and put together a presentation to the class about what they were able to discover.

Next: 2. Get Started

Plan Your Citizen Science Experience

While participating in an existing citizen science project may seem straightforward, having a clear vision of how citizen science fits into the larger science inquiry process is key to maximizing the learning potential and success of the project. This could seem like a daunting task, especially when working with a citizen science project that may still be unfamiliar.

The steps in Engaging Students in Citizen Science offer a structured way to plan and organize participation in citizen science in the context of the science inquiry process. From Set the Stage to Do Citizen Science, each step of the Engaging Students in Citizen Science method is in place to help students better understand how citizen science differs from typical science engagement and how their contribution as a citizen scientist helps to answer a real research question.

The following section offers both concrete tips and tools for integrating citizen science into your instruction.

Explaining citizen science

This is the chance for you to help your students understand the inherent values of citizen science and what makes it different from usual classroom science engagement, as explained in Citizen Science & The Classroom in the Understand section of this toolkit. Without this context–contributing answers to a real research question as part of a community of other citizen scientists–citizen science will seem no different from the typical school experience.

Explore preconceived notions of “science” and “scientists”

One way to frame citizen science is through ideas about what science is and what scientists do. Stereotypes often lead to mindsets that science only happens in a lab with microscopes and beakers, and that scientists all wear lab coats and latex gloves and have Ph.Ds. Talk with your students about their thoughts on where science happens and what scientists look like and do. Be prepared with examples of non-laboratory science and the scientists who do that work, for example: ecology, zoology, marine biology, geology, astronomy, climatology, etc. Talk about why people might be interested in those scientific disciplines – what might be fun about that type of science? Follow this with examples of citizen science and citizen scientists to enforce the notion that anyone can be a scientist, and that science is both work and play. You could start this discussion with the activity Draw a Scientist and have students explain their work.

Why do scientists want us to do their work?

This question may come up when talking about citizen science with your students. Focus on scale: one scientist may be able to do research in one area, but what if she has a question about species that are distributed throughout North America, or even globally? What if she has a question about when plants bloom in many different places? What if she’s collected hundreds of thousands or even millions of photographs and needs information from each one? Citizen science is a chance for people to help answer BIG scientific questions, while hopefully doing something that interests them as well.

Selecting a project

There are many ways to select a citizen science project. You can choose the project that your students are going to participate in, your students could select a project that interests them, or you could give your students a suite of projects to choose from. No matter how the project is chosen, there are some important things to keep in mind that can facilitate the selection process and make the project easier to execute with your class.

Outline constraints

Whether you or your students choose the citizen science project, you will first need to determine your constraints; it’s likely that not ANY citizen science project will work for your class, so first decide what you’re looking for in a project, based on the following four factors:

Goals: What are your curricular or academic goals? Are you focused on a particular content area or on specific inquiry skills?

Time: How much time will students have to engage in citizen science? How much time is available for data collection and submission? What about collaborative group work? Skill building? Presentations? What are the start and end dates of the unit?

Travel: Do you need to stay within your classroom or on campus? Can you take field trips? Can and will students do work on their own, in their homes, or at other study sites?

Resources: What technology is available? What scientific tools can you access? How much money is available within the budget to support travel or materials?

If you’re having your students research possible citizen science projects, use the What Project Should We Pick? template listed below to help them find projects that fit the class constraints.

What will excite your students?

If you’re going to select the citizen science project for your class, or if you’re going to offer a selection of projects for your students to choose from, keep in mind that different citizen science projects will be compelling to different types of kids. Some students might be interested in the subject matter of the project, while others might be more compelled by the tools used to participate. For example, the Zooniverse project Snapshot Serengeti involves identifying mammals in Africa, which might excite some students, and participation is entirely online with a beautiful and engaging interface, which might hook other students.

Consider COPPA

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) applies to any individual under 13 years old and is designed to protect their personal information. To address this, many websites and smartphone applications, including some for citizen science, do not allow those under 13 to have personal accounts. If you’re planning to participate in a citizen science project that has an online or app-based component, check their policies and how they address COPPA. Your students may be able to create their own accounts, you may need to get parental permission, or you may have to create one login for the entire class that is in your name. Here are a couple articles to help you better understand COPPA compliance:

Keeping the Kids Involved: A Look at COPPA and Citizen Science
Six Ways to Survive Under 13 Guidelines that Threaten Academic Freedom K-6

Prepare students

It will be important to provide some training specific to the citizen science project that you or your students choose. This might include content information about the species being studied or the type of habitat being investigated, practice with the specific skills needed to collect the data, or context about the research question(s) being asked.

Utilize existing resources

Many existing citizen science projects (including those included in the Projects section of this toolkit) have tools and tutorials for preparing and training volunteers, and some have resources for teachers. Make sure to fully investigate the website of the project you’re interested in starting to see what is available.

Modify activities

Adapt the activities in this toolkit or from other sources to align with the subject matter/skills associated with the citizen science project you choose.

Create new activities

If the citizen science project you’ve chosen does not provide resources for preparing and training participants, develop original lessons and activities to help students practice the specific skills they need.

Get Organized

To be effective citizen scientists, having a plan is key. Help your students think carefully about what is being asked of them and how they can best prepare to participate. Help your class create a timeline to organize a plan of action by using the Planning and Timeline template in resources section below.

Create a timeline

What steps are necessary to prepare for and carry out your citizen science project? In what order do those steps need to happen?

Gather tools

Have your students brainstorm what supplies they will need and what potential tools might make their participation easier. Will they need clipboards, ID guides, measuring tape? Some resources may be supplied by the citizen science project, while others could be made or acquired.

Assign jobs

Having a specified job empowers students to feel responsibility toward and ownership of the citizen science project. What roles will need to be filled to make sure the project runs smoothly? Possible jobs could include:

  • Supply gatherer(s)
  • Supply checker(s)
  • Environmental data (temperature, wind speed, etc.) or supplementary data (number of participants, time participating, etc.) recorders
  • Primary data recorder(s)
  • Project manager (someone to keep track of the steps and let students know what to do next)
  • Data checker(s)
  • Data uploader(s)

Make a checklist

It’s important for instructors to prepare as well, especially if the citizen science project involves students being off campus. Even if you stay on school grounds, having a checklist to remember key information could help. Items might include:

  • First aid kit
  • Supplies
  • Transportation
  • Rules
  • Buddy system
  • Chaperones
  • Notify your administrator

See the checklists listed below for templates and useful guides.

Extend the Experience

Where can you build on or add in the aspects of the scientific inquiry process that the citizen science project does not explicitly address?

Maintain a Scientist’s Notebook

Have your students keep a log while they are participating in the citizen science project. What you ask them to document can vary, but should include recording what they noticed, anything new they learned, and especially what questions they thought of while participating [see Scientist’s Notebook template included in Tools below]. Once the project is complete, you can use these logs to have your students categorize their questions as: (a) a question they could try to answer based on the data they collected, or (b) a question related to the project that would require different data to answer. Follow up could include:

  1. Questions to answer based on data collected: Have your students come up with hypotheses based on their question. Then analyze their data. This could be as simple as looking for trends, or as complicated as running statistics. Students can graph data in a variety of ways to help visualize results.
  2. Questions related to the project that would require different data to answer: Have your students come up with hypotheses based on their question. Students can then brainstorm what methods and protocols they would have to follow to accurately answer their question. What sort of data would be needed to support their hypotheses?

Communicate results

Have your students communicate the results of their participation in a citizen science project using the evidence from the data to support their conclusions. How you’d like them to communicate these results is up to you: they could write a report, could create posters, give a presentation, or start a social media campaign, to name a few examples. You can also use or modify one of the activities listed under Build Scientific Skills > Constructing explanations, engaging in argument from evidence, and communicating information as a way to guide students through the communication process.

Resources to Help You Plan

The following tools may be helpful in planning your project.

Selecting a Project

Citizen Science and Science Inquiry Skills (PDF)

This matrix of science inquiry skills and citizen science projects can help to organize your thoughts and encourage you to think about how specific citizen science projects will build specific science inquiry skills.

What Project Should We Pick? (PDF)

This template is designed to help students find projects that fit within the constraints/requirements of the class, as determined by the teacher. The teacher should fill out the left column of the table; the students will fill in the remaining columns. Preparing to Participate

Checklists

Checklists are a great way to organize resources and ensure nothing is forgotten. Here are some samples to get started.  Most of the Citizen Science projects in which you will take part will provide checklists, planning tools, and equipment lists. It may be helpful for you to consider all of the situations that may apply to your situation. Some of the sample lists are far more detailed than will be needed, others may be too simple, but all are good examples of thoughtful and thorough planning:

Planning and Timeline (PDF)

This template is designed to help plan out the steps in getting ready for your citizen science project and for participating in the project. Students can assign jobs, create a timeline, and think critically about what they need to do to make the project a success. It may be easiest to work backwards on the timeline.

Extend the Experience

Scientist’s Notebook (PDF)

This template can be used alongside the citizen science project to help your students think more deeply about what they’re doing and what they’re learning, and asks them to develop new questions while participating.

Construct a Scientific Explanation (PDF)

Use this template to help students construct a strong scientific explanation using three essential elements: a claim, evidence, and reasoning.

Assessment

Assessing what students are learning is a crucial part of any science engagement unit. Meaningfully integrating citizen science into the classroom requires guiding students through the full cycle of scientific inquiry, so it is important to assess progress and understanding throughout the process and to look at the parts as well as the whole. This section of the toolkit is designed to offer tips and support to develop tools.

The purpose of assessment is to improve student learning through effective feedback. Assessment provides an effective means for communicating expectations and progress toward accomplishing those expectations. Assessment should be ongoing, collecting and interpreting data for the purpose of improving understanding and adjusting teaching. You can imagine assessment and learning as two sides of the same coin; as students engage in an assessment exercise, they should learn from it as well.

Here are some ways to think about assessment of learning and attitudes through citizen science:

Assessment as feedback

Assessment is not just a grading tool. Assessment is most powerful when it is approached as a tool for offering students information about what and how they are learning. Successful assessments highlight not only what the students have learned, but let them identify topic areas to focus on for better understanding or further inquiry.

Assessment is ongoing

Assessments can and should be administered both during [formative] and at the culmination of the learning experience [summative]. This allows for change in teaching tactics during the process of engagement in citizen science if needed to ensure students are getting a full and comprehensive experience in science. This is key while teaching the science inquiry process since each part is related to all the other parts; for example, if students can’t articulate the question being asked that they are helping to answer through citizen science, then they lose the key lens with which to view and understand the rest of the science processes they engage in.

Assessment as a system of interrelated feedback tools

These tools may include rubrics, checklists, observation, portfolios, or quizzes. Whatever the matrix of carefully selected tools, they are created to optimize the feedback that students receive about what and how they are learning and growing.

Assessment as feedback delivered by a facilitator, peer, or self

Assessment should not only be offered by the facilitator to student. Assessment is most effective when it is diverse in scope and delivery. It is most empowering when students are equipped with the skills to assess themselves and each other.

The following tools can be used to assess the citizen science learning experience, including evaluation of both the mindsets and skills developed along the way. Some of these tools can be used as-is or modified slightly for individual classes; others can be used to develop new, original assessments.

Citizen Science Impacts Rubric (PDF)

This rubric is designed for you to determine your goals and intended outcomes around engaging students in citizen science prior to participating in a project. As you set your goals, you will then decide how to assess and measure those outcomes.

Student Scientific Inquiry Skill Building Indicators (PDF)

This tool can be used in many ways. It can guide your ongoing assessment of the inquiry skills outlined above in the Understand section. It can also be deployed to inform your assessment of the inquiry skills included in the Citizen Science Impacts Rubric. Be creative! (Modified from University of Minnesota Extension Driven to Discover: Facilitator’s Guide to Citizen Science, which is based on documents from the Institute for Inquiry at the Exploratorium)

Assessing Subject Matter Knowledge and Competency

When selecting a project you took your desired subject matter content goals into consideration. You can build your own rubric and assessment with those goals in mind.

Mindsets and 21st Century Skills

In addition to assessing subject matter content, it may be helpful to consider the mindsets and skills that participating in citizen science fosters and strengthens. These include curiosity, agency, critical thinking, civic engagement, collaboration, and fun!  While being a citizen scientist does support the development of a large suite of 21st century mindsets and skills, it may be helpful to focus on one or two that are most relevant to the project experience itself for the purposes of the assessment. Some helpful tools may include:

  • Citizen Science Student Reflection (PDF)
    This resource includes three options for students to reflect on the citizen science experience and communicate their thoughts in writing.
  • Citizen Science Attitudes Pre- and Post- Survey (PDF)
    To gauge changes in students’ attitudes toward science, this survey should be administered before and after they participate in the citizen science unit. Included here as a Word doc, consider transferring these statements into a web-based survey tool for ease of data analysis.
  • Collaboration (PDF), Critical Thinking (PDF), and Rubrics for Rubrics (Word Doc) from the Buck Institute are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. While they are easily tailored to your desired learning outcomes, they are also sufficient to be used as-is.

Post-Project Reflection for Teacher (PDF)

Borrowed from the Design Thinking Toolkit, but useful for reflecting on participation in Citizen Science, this document will provide support in assessing your project for strengths and areas for potential improvement shortly after it has been implemented. View a sample here.

Next: 3. Train Your Peers

Host a Teacher Workshop

Teachers are instrumental in sharing and spreading best practices and innovative strategies to other teachers. Once you are confident in your conceptual and practical grasp of citizen science, share your knowledge and expertise with others.

The following presentation decks are tools for spreading the word. While structured as a series that builds on the previous presentation, each one can also be used individually as appropriate. Each deck is structured as a 60-minute engagement and is designed to be interactive and participatory.

Get Started with Citizen Science (PPT)

A presentation deck for introducing educators to Citizen Science during a 90-minute peer workshop.during a half-day peer workshop.

Dig Deeper with Citizen Science Projects (PPT)

A presentation deck for introducing educators to Citizen Science during a half day peer workshop.

Dig Deeper with Citizen Science Projects (PPT)

A presentation deck for introducing educators to Citizen Science during a full day peer workshop.

Next: 4. Related Links

Related Links

The resources below include toolkits for getting started with your own citizen science projects, indexes to existing citizen science projects that you can join, and a wide range of educational resources that accompany citizen science projects. The majority of the examples here are focused on life science, with some additional examples taken from astronomy. However, the resources for getting started apply to citizen science in whatever subject matter you decide to pursue. The resources below are listed alphabetically by title. Enjoy.

Choosing and Using Citizen Science: A Guide to When and How to Use Citizen Science to Monitor Biodiversity and the Environment (PDF)

A handbook for educators, community members, and scientists with step-by-step guidance on designing effective citizen science projects.

Type: Handbook/guide (PDF)
Source: Scottish Environment Protection Agency
Pocock, M.J.O., Chapman, D.S., Sheppard, L.J. and Roy, H.E.Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.
ISBN: 978-1-906698-50-8, 2014, 28pp

Citizen Science Academy

An online professional development resources for educators to support effective implementation of citizen science projects and activities that focus on ecology and environmental sciences. Includes courses for informal and formal educators, modules, tutorials and community forums.

Type: Online course platform, blog and website
Source: National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)

Citizen Science Association

An organization of science and education professionals who design and implement citizen science programs, designed to share best practices, ideas, and to foster collaboration.

Type: Website and discussion blog
Source: Citizen Science Association, led by a multi-organization governance committee

Citizen Science Central

Serves educators, scientists, and others supporting citizen science at any stage, from just getting started to evaluating project outcomes.

Type: Website
Source: Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology

Citizen Science: 15 Lessons that Bring Biology to Life, 6-12

Offers flexible classroom activities for indoors or outdoors, designed to make data collection and analysis easy.

Type: book
Source: Trautmann et al., eds; NSTA Press (2013)

Citizen Science: Real word applications for science students

A short and easy-to-read index to some notable citizen science projects organized by grade level.

Type: Website with links to citizen science projects
Source: University of North Carolina School of Education

Citizen Science Toolkit

An online toolkit for all that can be used to guide the design of a citizen science project from scratch.

Type: Online step-by-step guide
Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Citizen Scientists: Be Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard

Covers four seasons of citizen science, with kid-friendly outdoor activities.

Type: Book
Source: L.G. Burns; Henry Holt and Company (2012)

CosmoQuest

An online citizen science project in which the public identifies and categorizes features in astronomy data sets, contributing to real astronomy research projects.

Type: Online citizen science project
Source: CosmoQuest.org

Encyclopedia of Life

A free online resource bringing together information about all life on Earth including text, images, video, sounds, maps, classifications and more. Information and resources are organized by taxonomic groups, species pages, and collections. EOL has online podcasts, species identification games, field guides and other educational tools.

Type: Online biodiversity resource and educational resources
Source: Dozens of organizations including Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution.

Field Investigations: Using Outdoor Environments to Foster Student Learning of Scientific Processes

A guide for K-12 teachers to introduce their students to the methodologies used for scientific field research and to guide them through the process of conducting field studies.

Type: Educator guide
Source: Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ North American Conservation Education Strategy; Pacific Education Institute

Fold It

Fold It is a computer game designed to involve anyone in figuring out the puzzles of protein folding—how the amino acids making up proteins (the building blocks of living organisms) are arranged, affecting their function. Insights from volunteers who play the games are used in science research. Contains instructions for teachers.

Type: Website, blog
Source: Center for Game Science at University of Washington in collaboration with UW Department of Biochemistry

Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment Special Issue: Citizen Science – new pathways to public involvement in research

The August 2012 issue is entirely devoted to citizen science, with articles ranging from data quality to engaging students to case studies.

Type: Journal issue
Source: Ecological Society of America; various authors; Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (2012): 10(6)

GLOBE at Night

An international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure their night sky brightness and submit their observations to a website from a computer or smart phone.

Type: Website
Source: National Optical Astronomy Observatory, Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), National Science Foundation.

Guide to Citizen Science

Written by scientists and educators, covers developing, implementing, and evaluating citizen science for biodiversity studies.

Type: Guide
Source: Natural History Museum of London; Natural Environment Research Council’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

How Science Works

An in-depth look at the complexities and processes of the scientific method. Includes information for teachers and a resource library.

Type: iTunesU course and website
Source: California Academy of Sciences; University of California Museum of Paleontology

iNaturalist

A platform for people to record observations of plants and animals in nature, share what they’ve found, meet others with similar interests, learn more about nature, and contribute to a global dataset of biodiversity information.

Type: Online observation platform and app
Source: iNaturalist and California Academy of Sciences

LiMPETS

An environmental monitoring and education program for students, educators, and volunteer groups throughout California, focused on rocky intertidal and sandy beach ecosystems.

Type: Program/project and resource website
Source: NOAA, National Marine Sanctuaries, Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, Pacific Grove Museum, California

Nature’s Notebook

An online program for amateur naturalists to record observations of plants and animals to create long term data sets that can be used for conservation. Includes curricula for use by teachers in classrooms.

Type: Website with ready-to-use science and citizen science curricula related to season changes in plants and animals
Source: USA National Phenology Network

Project Noah

A platform for people of all ages to document wildlife with photography, connect to nature, and join “missions,” or scientific investigations using observations submitted by the public and other science datasets. Contains resources designed for teachers.

Type: Website
Source: National Geographic and NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Dept.

Public Lab

An online community where you can learn how to investigate environmental concerns, using inexpensive DIY techniques.

Type: Website resource and online community
Source: The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science

Schoolyard Biodiversity Investigation Educator Guide (PDF)

Provides students with the opportunity to learn about biodiversity in a tangible and available environment – their own schoolyard. Designed as a guide for educators to take students through the process of observing and collecting data about biodiversity.

Type: Educator guide (PDF)
Source: Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ North American Conservation Education Strategy; Pacific Education Institute

Scientific American Citizen Science

An index to science research projects that are actively recruiting citizen science volunteers

Type: Website
Source: Scientific American

SciStarter

Matches people with projects that suit their interests and is a resource for finding citizen science projects of all types. Structured with project descriptions and accompanying blog by educators who have used the projects.

Type: Website
Source: SciStarter

SETI@home

SETI@home is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Individuals can participate by running a free program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data using your computer’s “free time.”

Type: Website
Source: University of California

Your Wildlife

A portal to citizen science projects that explore the microflora and fauna that live on and in our bodies—our own human microecosystems. Students and members of the public explore “their wildlife” in projects such as The Bellybutton Biodiversity Project.

Type: Website and blog and portal to projects
Source: North Carolina State University, National Science Foundation

Zooniverse

A collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators who collectively develop, manage and utilize internet-based citizen science projects in order to further science, and the public understanding of science and of the scientific process. Projects hosted on Zooniverse range from astronomy to climatology to archaeology. Signature projects include Galaxy Zoo, Old Weather and Planet Hunters.

Type: Website and blog and portal to citizen science projects
Source: Citizen Science Alliance