More authentic experiences

It’s a challenge for science teachers to design activities and investigations that fit into the time periods we have. But science research and investigation doesn’t always fit neatly into 45- or 60- or even 90-minute packages. (One of my challenges was a class split in half by a lunch period!). Even a full-day field trip may not often be long enough.
Much has been written in NSTA blogs and listserves about citizen science projects in which students collect, share, and analyze data as part of a larger nationwide study. Students can participate according to your schedule. These ongoing projects illustrate how real studies are longitudinal, extending over weeks, months, and years. NSTA blogs and journals have featured citizen science projects that are appropriate for students. (For example, see Citizen science: collaborative projects for teachers and their class and The Great Backyard Bird Count)
I’ve just learned of another citizen science project, this one from the North Carolina State University: School of Ants. Students use the provided kits to collect ants and send to the lab. After the entomologists there analyze the samples, the students can study maps showing the species collected. The project site has descriptions of ant species and interesting questions. The project is accepting registration for kits starting on September 1. (The kits are free, and who doesn’t have ants in the neighborhood?)
The National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) describes the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program opportunity on the International Space Station (ISS). Each team will be provided an experiment slot in a real microgravity research mini-laboratory scheduled to fly on the ISS in the spring of 2012. According to the website, letters of commitment are due in mid-September.

Sometimes in the classroom, we have the opposite situation—small pockets of time, such as when a student says “I’m finished with [fill in the name of an activity or assignment]. What do I do now?” Or leftover time at the end of the period. Or the day before a holiday break.
If the teacher gives free time or tells the students to get busy on something, what students find to do on their own is often distracting and not related to science learning. This time is too precious to waste, so teachers provide  collections of magazine articles to read, online resources to examine (such as those found in SciLinks), or additional worksheets or vocabulary puzzles.
Some citizen science projects enlist volunteers to sift through mountains of data. These projects use bits and pieces of time (I multitask and work on some while watching late-night TV or riding the train). Here’s a new one if your students have access to a computer, tablet, or smart phone. The latest project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is described on their Round Robin blog  What Color Is This Bird (Help make bird ID smarter).  The Lab is engaged in developing artificial intelligence to create a bird identification tool. But to create this, input from human intelligence is needed. Some of the data will come from bird occurrence studies, but the Lab is requesting input on how people perceive colors in birds.
In the Merlin challenge,  the user is presented with a photograph of a bird and given a few seconds to study it. The photo disappears, and you’re asked to choose up to three dominant colors you observed in the bird. Then, you get a followup screen with the photo, the name of the bird, and a pie chart showing how other people responded. I’ve tried it several times (on both a laptop and a smartphone), and the birds are presented in a random order each time. I learned a few new birds, too. If you’re looking for an activity for students to practice their observation skills, this could be a good one (and they’re contributing to a real project, not just doing a worksheet). This is somewhat similar to Galaxy Zoo in which volunteers log in and classify images of galaxies.
Use the Network for Citizen Science Projects to find authentic citizen science projects to match your curriculum and the interests of your students. These range from international projects to localized ones. NASA also has many citizen science projects. Perhaps participating in one will turn on a student to a potential career!

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