March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Citizen Science Resolved: 2013 from the Birds to the Bees

Posted: Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

by Bethany Dixon

“They’re eating the berries!  The robins are eating the berries off the trees!”  My normally sleepy first-hour biology class was outside. “There are the cedar waxwings!” “ Shhh! You’re too loud –  you’re gonna scare them away! There they go!” Half a dozen waxwings flit across the parking lot from one clump of trees to another, attempting to avoid the 32 “researchers” during their ten-minute bird count.  Our students use Cornell University’s Celebrate Urban Birds Checklist to count how many of their 16 focal species are in and around our school parking lot. It’s this class’ first foray into citizen science, but those familiar with the Audubon Society’s 113-year-old Christmas Bird Count know that using laypeople to collect large amounts of data is not a new idea. What is exciting is that now anyone with internet access and fifteen minutes can tap into a huge network of citizen science projects; and it isn’t just birds.

NSTA’s December issue of The Science Teacher highlighted a potpourri of options for citizen science, and training for programs range from complex 10-week naturalist training courses to simple web-based tutorials for solar storm identification. Even if you aren’t participating directly, your computer or gaming console can participate for you through folding-at-home and other public distributed computing efforts.  Cornell’s Ornithology Lab’s Celebrate Urban Birds is a national project, but state and local projects abound close to home in California. For example, the University of California Naturalist program features 140 citizen science projects ready for participants, most of which accept students as researchers.  From monitoring squirrels, frogs, ants, or invasive spiders to counting craters on the moon, identifying Martian terrain, or searching for supernovae, the opportunities for involvement are staggering.

Citizen science projects are appropriate for all levels, and Cornell’s Citizen Science Resources page shows older students interested in research design how to “Organize and implement initiatives where volunteers are involved scientific research.”

Active participation in research builds student confidence in their scientific abilities and activities like making observations, collecting data, and analyzing results are often much more memorable to students in the field than in the classroom. Building experience and familiarity with research processes helps increase scientific literacy and even builds relationships within the community as students volunteer with other citizen scientists.  Collecting data for ongoing research also helps students understand how investigations are designed and what parameters are important for generating a fair test.  As we collect data for the Celebrating Urban Birds investigation in my high school classes, we discussed how the scientists might have selected certain species over others and ways that scientists might use our data.

As you make your teaching resolutions for the New Year, consider adding a citizen science project to your repertoire. As we trekked across the parking lot and back to the classroom, students compared checklists and watched a turkey vulture spiral around the building. “I’ll bet it’s going to eat that bird that ran into Ms. Leonard’s window yesterday during algebra!”  “Gross, no way!” “Ms. Dixon, do you think it will?” It might, I say, if it’s still there. As we head upstairs I hear plans hatching for bird-related science projects, and the next day a student rushes up to me in the hall, “I showed the cedar waxwing to my mom this morning! They’re still out in the parking lot!” All this, and fostering communication between high school students and their parents? Maybe my New Year’s resolution to make the world a better place isn’t so far out of reach.

Links:

Audubon Society: http://birds.audubon.org/get-involved-christmas-bird-count-find-count-near-you

University of California Naturalist Link: http://ucanr.edu/sites/UCCNP/California_PPSR/

Cornell’s Citizen Science Pages: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/Page.aspx?pid=708

Cornell’s Citizen Science Resources: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/citscitoolkit/resources

Celebrate Urban Birds: http://celebrateurbanbirds.org/about/resources/get-your-kit/

NSTA’s December issue blog: http://nstacommunities.org/blog/2012/12/22/citizen-science-2/

Written by Bethany Dixon

Bethany Dixon is a science teacher at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy, is a CSTA Publications Committee Member, and is a member of CSTA.

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