This Earth Day, Engage Kids in Citizen Science!

Citizen Science book cover

From students, to families, to interested novices … citizen scientists are people from all walks of life who participate in projects that help document biological and environmental trends over regions and timelines far broader than anyone could tackle by themselves. For teachers, citizen science is a way to motivate and inspire students through participation in research that is relevant both locally and globally. Students connect to the natural world as they make observations, collect data, and view their findings within the broader scope of the project.

In the new Citizen Science: 15 Lessons that Bring Biology to Life 6-12 book, scenarios of middle school classes engaging in citizen science are coupled with lessons that help teachers build citizen science data collection and analysis into their classrooms. From butterflies to birds, plants to frogs, turtles to squirrels—your students can collect meaningful data! Your students will not only learn science, they will be scientists. What better way to fulfill the NGSS mandate to couple science practice with content and give students a real-world context in which to apply what they are learning?

Here are five tips to consider as you and your students become citizen scientists on Earth Day… and beyond.

1. Foster a detective attitude
: Set the scene. Tell kids that they are detectives on an important investigation; one where making observations and asking questions will be the ultimate keys to discovery.  With this setup, you will have your very own team of Sherlocks ready to start inspecting the project at hand.  As you collect citizen science data, invite your students to observe closely and record questions that will pique their curiosity about the world around them.

2. Share the learning process: For example, if you’re participating in a citizen science project on birds, don’t be afraid to tell your students that you are not an expert and that you will learn about birds together. You may find them feeling even more empowered to become bird experts themselves. There is a wide variety of projects available and most projects offer online support, so whether you know a little or a lot, your students can be citizen scientists!

3. Keep track of observations in a personal journal: Scientists keep journals or field notes of their observations. Budding citizen scientists can too!  Keeping a journal helps develop keen observational skills. Encourage students to write descriptive notes and draw what they see as you work on your citizen-science project.

4.  Let them know it matters: As one teacher who participates in the eBird citizen-science project shared, “Citizen science gives students the ability to genuinely participate in science. When students realize that their bird observations are important data that will be used to make connections that couldn’t otherwise be made, they realize, ‘I am helping.’ This really motivates the kids to get out there and do science!” Citizen-science data has been used to make conservation recommendations, to document the spread of disease in wild animals, and to understand impacts of climate change. Your data matters!

5. Share your observations: Don’t just keep your data in a notebook or on a datasheet. Be sure you submit your citizen-science data to the project you are participating in. That way, your data helps researchers put the Earth’s puzzle together.  You can also share your actions on BirdSleuth’s Action Map (and have a chance to win a schoolyard habitat improvement grant or other prizes).

Wherever you are, and whatever your interests, there is a citizen-science project to meet your needs.  Many projects require few (if any) supplies, are free to participate in, and offer online support. You can explore options and search for a project at Citizen Science Central and SciStarter. For Earth Day and beyond… consider citizen science as a real-world, engaging way to teach science!


Today’s guest blogger is Jennifer Fee, Manager of K-12 Programs at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (email:  Visit for resources, information, and inspiration related to school-based citizen science!

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