Citizen science is a great opportunity for kids to participate in hands-on or observational activities that help the natural world (and science!), all while spending time outdoors.
If you’ve heard the term citizen science, there’s a chance that you felt intimidated, unqualified or unprepared to participate. “I’m not a scientist!” (Unless you happen to be one.) Or, “My kids aren’t scientists!” (Even if they aspire to become one.)
But the fact is that citizen science is open to anyone and everyone. It doesn’t matter if you can’t identify a bird species from its call, name a tree from its bark, or use the latin name for an insect. If you can count and use a camera, you can do citizen science!
So… What is citizen science?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, citizen science is “the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists”. Or, in simpler terms: citizen science is the opportunity for an ‘ordinary’ person to study the natural world around them and send their observations to scientists.
Why citizen science?
How does citizen science help nature and the environment?
The data you collect helps inform conservation decisions and efforts. “Citizen science uses the collective strength of communities and the public to identify research questions, collect and analyze data, interpret results, make new discoveries, and develop technologies and applications – all to understand and solve environmental problems.” (EPA)
Citizen science also helps children engage with nature in a hands-on and focused way, giving them a sense of responsibility and sparking passion for a particular cause. (Help the bees! Eradicate invasive plant species! Protect bird migration!)
Through citizen science, children experience and explore the process of inquiry and scientific investigation. It’s experiential learning that helps kids become invested in the topic at hand.
“Children are born with a sense of wonder and an affinity for Nature. Properly cultivated, these values can mature into ecological literacy, and eventually into sustainable patterns of living.”Zenobia Barlow, director, The Center for Ecoliteracy
Citizen science helps capture that wonder and curiosity, helping them become more environmentally aware and helping to foster their ecological literacy.
Who should do citizen science?
Citizen science can done by anyone who is interested. That being said, is especially well suited for kids who are:
- passionate about the environment,
- curious about the world around them, and/or
- interested in helping others.
When children get involved in citizen science, they learn how science applies to the real world. They can see how the observations they make in their own daily lives can help scientists, and in turn help something they care a lot about (the environment, birds, insects, etc.).
What kind of projects are there to choose from?
There are many options available!
You’ll find projects that are local or global, seasonal or year-round. Some projects may be as simple as taking photos of or counting what you see, others are more hands-on and may involve tagging species or removing invasive plants. Projects can be done:
- in your backyard
- at the beach
- in the woods
- at a park
- in the city
- in any location you choose!
- water quality
- and so many more!
How do we get started?
How do you find a project to participate in? Helpful resources include online project databases which feature a variety of citizen science projects for kids to choose from, for a variety of different regions, topics, and challenges.
- SciStarter is a great starting point, as it allows you to search projects according to topic, location, activity, age, and goal (among other criteria). (global)
- Zooniverse also features a collection of projects from all over the world covering a variety of disciplines.
- citizenscience.gov features a compilation of US-based projects that can be searched by field of science.
- CitSci is a platform that helps support the logistics of new citizen science projects, also listing 1000+ different projects to explore.
- iNaturalist is a platform for science and conservation efforts. It is a social network of sorts, connecting naturalists, citizen scientists and biologist. Sign up and check out their list of global projects.
- National Geographic also offers a list of many citizen science projects for children (grades 3-12+) to explore.
Here is a sampling of citizen science projects for kids to explore, including a range of topics and locations.
- Monarch Watch – Learn to mark and recapture monarchs to help track their migration. (North America, east of the Rockies)
- Southwest Monarch Study – Report sightings and help scientists tag migrating monarchs, monitor milkweed and monarch habitat. (Southwestern US)
- Butterflies and Moths of North America – “[A]n ambitious effort to collect, store, and share species information and occurrence data.” Take and submit photos of butterflies, moths and caterpillars.
- Lost Ladybug Project – Look for ladybugs, take photos, and upload your digital images (along with time, date, location, habitat). Their website includes tips on collecting and photographing the insects.
- Firefly Watch – Spend 10 minutes once a week during firefly season, counting the number of fireflies you see flashing. Take it a step further and also count and the number of flashing patterns you observe! (North America)
- Bumblebee Watch – Take and submit photos of bumblebees. Identify your species with help from the organization. (US & Canada)
- Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper – Take and submit photos of monarchs and milkweed. You can also identify the milkweed species using their milkweed key. (Western US)
(If your child isn’t very comfortable with insects, check out our thoughts on the subject: 7 Ways to Help Your Kids Overcome Their Fear of Insects.)
BIRDS and MAMMALS
- Great Backyard Bird Count – This global event happens over four days every February and is a great way to introduce kids to birdwatching (or engage those who already enjoy it). Watch birds for 15 minutes or more, at least once over the four days, count all the birds you see or hear within your planned time/location and share your bird sightings.
- eBird – “The world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project”. Use this online platform to record, share and explore your bird observations. Check out BirdQuest, a resource specially designed to help kids engage with eBird. (year-round, global)
- Celebrate Urban Birds – designed to be a “bilingual inclusive, equity-based community science project“. Spend 10 minutes (on 3 separate occasions) watching for specific birds (a list will be provided to you based on your location), then record your observations. Instructions are here. (South, Central and North America)
- Project FeederWatch – This bird survey takes place November – April (and doesn’t even require a feeder). Timing and duration are flexible, but there is a minimal cost involved. (US & Canada)
- Project Squirrel – Submit squirrel observations (observations, photos, stories), both where they are observed and where they aren’t. Good for kids of any age, almost any location — home, schoolground, park, etc. (US & Canada)
- Global Big Day: May 14 – Look for birds anywhere in the world on May 14; spend as much time as you like (at least 30 minutes), then record your observations in eBird by May 17.
- Nature’s Notebook – Send in observations of the life cycles of plants and animals — even just from your backyard.
- iNaturalist – Share your sightings of plants, fungi and animals; connect with experts who can help identify the organisms you observe.
- BioBlitz – organize your own citizen science project by getting your community involved in a BioBlitz: “A bioblitz is a species inventory that involves observing, recording and documenting living things in a short period of time.”
- Journey North – Their mission is to “inspire people from across North America to help track wildlife migration and seasonal change to foster scientific understanding, environmental awareness and the land ethic”. Choose from 18 different projects that range from whales to monarchs, tulips to hummingbirds.
- The Great Sunflower Project – Record and share your observations of pollinators and the flowers they enjoy (including sunflowers, of course!).
- Project BudBurst – Using the BudBurst app, you can “find and observe plants in your area…; monitor plant life cycles and plant-animal interactions over time; collaborate in groups with [their] community scientists.” Reporting the first blooms on your apple tree might just help scientists determine how plants are being affected by climate change!
- EDDMaps (Early Detection and Distribution Mapping Systems) – Report your observations of invasive plant species.
- Bloomwatch – Look for and report cyanobacteria bloom.
- Globe at Night – Help measure light pollution from your own backyard by identifying how clearly you can see a particular constellation.
- Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network – Help measure and map precipitation in the US, Canada, Bahamas.
There are so many projects to choose from! You could also count sharks in New Zealand (Shark Spy), count butterflies in North America (Butterfly Count), build a trap for mosquito eggs in Australia (Mozzie Mapper), or look for wild plants, animals and fungi in Cape Town (City Nature Challenge). Where will you begin?
Citizen science is a great way to engage your child with the natural world around them and connect them with the scientific community. They might just experience pride, passion, involvement, investment, curiosity and critical thinking. Citizen science is a way for kids to help the environment on a small scale (counting bird and firefly flashes), while contributing on a large scale (helping scientists see the effects of climate change).
As you explore the different projects available, you may find that some of them cover activities that your children are already doing! Looking for frogs, bird watching, observing insects, taking photos of plants and animals. What a perfect fit!
Join your kids in citizen science today and declare yourselves citizen scientists!