Integrating Citizen Science Into Your Classroom or Organization

By December 2nd, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Comment 1

This is the first installment for a brand new series about citizen science in schools and classrooms.

Teachers often hear the term citizen science, but it’s never really clear what it is and how it might integrate into their classrooms. Citizen science is methodical scientific research conducted in part (or sometimes entirely) by non-professional scientists. These types of projects are called crowd sourcing because they source data from large groups of private citizens, amateur scientists, students, and those interesting to contributing to the larger picture of scientific inquiry. Schools and classrooms are an excellent source of data collection potential because of the large number of students that are present for extended periods of time from months to years.

Currently teachers are facing the new wave of Next Generation and Common Core Teaching Standards and the need to integrate their science curriculum with hands-on research, biology, and technology. Citizen science is a way to engage students with all of these subjects (inside or outside of the classroom) while providing a meaningful data set or outcome to scientists. The main question then arises; how do you, as a teacher, navigate all the options out there and integrate them into your classroom? In this series we’ll highlight some common questions about citizen science and then focus on different projects and how they meet Next Generation  and Common Core standards so that you can decide what types of citizen science would be right for you and your school.

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Citizen Science Butterfly Survey. (Photo: Karen McDonald)

What Grades and Ages Can Participate in Citizen Science?

Almost any grade or age level can participate in citizen science. The main limitation I’ve seen has been access to computers, iPhones/apps, experience with technology, or being able to justify a project to the administration as to how it meets teaching standards. In this series we’ll discuss choosing age appropriate projects for different classes and the project’s ease of use. I’ve had five year olds show me how to find a hidden geocache using an iPhone and a 12 year old show me how to upload to Project Noah, so it can be done!

What is the Cost?

Most citizen science projects are free so the cost is not prohibitive. There are organizations that offer low cost classroom kits, posters, and teaching supplies to supplement their projects and provide teacher support. The other concern with cost is whether or not a particular project requires special tools. We’ll explore technology shortly, but I’m talking things like tweezers, bug collectors, binoculars, or genetic sequencing devices. Yes, there are some associated tools for each project and part of choosing the right one for you will be what you have at hand, ease of use for students, and availability of equipment.

What Technology is Required?

All citizen science programs have some form of online contribution system and/or an iPhone or Android app that can be downloaded. At a minimum the technology you’ll need will be either a laptop or a computer to upload data using either a Windows Operating System or Mac OS. Windows is most common and most operate on Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome, or Safari.

What is the Time Commitment?

The time commitment is really up to the teacher. The nice thing about citizen science is that most activities can be done once or many times depending on the teacher’s time constraints and needs. Some projects lend themselves to one survey or event such as ant collecting or weighing state quarters to test fairness. For some projects you can contribute data seasonally, such as Journey North which tracks the migration of birds, whales, and flower blooming. Other events, such as weather monitoring might require weekly or even daily tracking.

How Is Citizen Science Data Used?

Most citizen science projects allow you to upload your data to a larger database that is made available to contributors. For instance, you can upload all sorts of data and information from Cornell Ornithology Lab’s e-bird database, such as which birds to find in a particular location to population numbers. The data your school contributes to the researchers helps provide information to build a more complete picture of a creature, pattern, event. You can use this data to help students with math skills, word processing, and computer skills.

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Southern Leopard Frog from Reptile and Amphibian Survey. (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Can I find Supporting Materials to Teach With?

Most of the citizen science websites have at least some background information and an “about” page to support those that want to participate in the project. Other websites are more comprehensive and offer curriculum, worksheets, and other supplementary materials. We’ll cover these websites in more details in this series.

SciStarter has also curated some projects with teaching materials for teachers on its Educators Page.

What About the Security of Students Online?

There are many ways to keep students safe. You as the teacher can be the focal point for entering all data or you can have the students enter data under your close supervision. Some projects also allow you to create student user accounts with anonymous numbers or names that you assign the students. I like Project Noah’s ability to create specific class centered challenges that only students, parents, and the teacher have access to.  This type of project is super secure.

There are many ways to integrate citizen science into the classroom, and we’ve only touched on the tip of the iceberg. Please come back and check out the next installment of this series when we explore specific programs, their alignment with Next Gen. and Common Core standards and we’ll answer some of the questions just posted as they apply to particular projects and grades.


When not writing her blog The Infinite Spider, Karen McDonald is a guest blogger, curriculum developer, science content editor, and outdoor educator with over thirteen years in informal science education. She has an MS in Biology and a BS in Environmental Science and Philosophy. Currently she works for Smithsonian and contracts for Discovery Channel.

  • Alvaro Fernandez

    Thank you Karen! We’re doing some of this in Costa Rica: last year with 40 primary and secondary public schools in seven (of 27) regional education bureaus and twelve (of 81) municipalities. Invited teachers in each school developed colaboratory, interdisciplinary units with water monitoring activities in nearby creeks and rivers, inputing data to an online GIS. See http://mgau.odd.ucr.ac.cr for an overall perspective on the project (2006-2013). We expect to continue this approach in 2014 with schools in several of the education bureaus involved last year.