The Joy of Giving Back: Citizen Science

If you’re a science teacher, you might find it difficult to cross a crowded room without hearing the words, “Have you heard of this citizen science project, eBird/Be a Martian/Air Quality Treks/etc.?” A science teacher looking for a service learning project is spoiled for choice these days. Our students can dial into global databases on almost any topic, supporting professional scientists brave enough to crowdsource data collection or analysis. I’m all for it.

Examples from My Classroom
My 7th grade students recently followed the lead of Belwin Conservancy’s intrepid director by planting 50 Red Emperor tulips for Journey North’s climate tracking Tulip Test Garden program.

My biology students removed invasive species and gathered prairie seeds at local parks this fall, in cahoots with an array of local partners. After the seeds complete their “winter” in the staff break room fridge, we’ll grow them in the greenhouse and plant them in park restoration projects this spring.

Concerned that my AP Biology students might feel left out, I popped on to SciStarter - essentially match.com for teachers seeking citizen science projects. There I found Orcasound, a web-streamed hydrophone network that invites citizen scientists to listen for endangered orcas in the Salish Sea of the United States’ Pacific Northwest.

Benefits
Making the world a better place – which I believe citizen science accomplishes – is inherently rewarding. When we contribute to a larger cause, our identities take on a little glimmer. "I matter," we shine out. "I’m doing something the world needs." This is joy – one of my all-time favorite benefits for any endeavor and a high priority when selecting learning activities for my students.

I also have come to believe, after 17 years of observation, that students remember what they learn through empowering, authentic activities – especially those that occur in connection with the world outside the classroom – better and longer than anything else.

Challenges
Organizing citizen science activity involves:
1. Planning ahead. You have to know when and how you will integrate your service project so that it aligns meaningfully with your learning outcomes.
2. Being in relationship with community partners. You have to correspond regularly and sometimes meet in person. You have to be punctual, responsive, and other-centered, thinking about how your partnerships benefit your partners. Frankly, I’m too busy with daily duties during the school year to manage this without some summer time investment; fortunately, I’ve found community partners willing to sit down for a morning in August to map out our plans, and then roll with my wild school year schedule.
3. Staying positive and modeling involvement to your students. Service can feel like a chore. It’s up to us as teachers to show students how joyful it can be to play a critical role in an effort to explore an unanswered question or care for our natural world.
4. Holding the larger purpose of your service learning work up so that students know the forest, even when they’re measuring the trees.

Citizen science involves more planning and interacting than traditional learning projects, no doubt. For me, the joy of doing something real makes justifies the investment.

What citizen science project would work for your students? How will you invite the joy of giving back into your classroom?

Ocra and tulip images are from Pixabay.

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