Struggling with what to do for homeschool science? Fear not! Citizen science is an easy way for your family to get involved in real science. You don’t need fancy equipment or a ton of space – you can pick a project that works for you!
What is citizen science?
Simply put, citizen science is real science conducted by YOU. You collect information and contribute it to an ongoing science project. Professional researchers use your findings, combined with all the other participants’, to conduct their studies. You do not have to have a science background to participate! Anyone with an interest in the world around them can become a citizen scientist.
How is citizen science different from a regular science curriculum?
In citizen science, your efforts matter in achieving a goal. You are not collecting data because the teacher or textbook says so. Your data is actually being used to make a difference. You are also collaborating with others, perhaps all around the world. And, you are getting to see how science actually works!
Sometimes kids “don’t like” science because they can’t see why it’s relevant to their lives. Participating in real science, and interacting with actual scientists, is a great antidote to that!
Limitations of typical science classrooms
As a longtime science teacher, I taught in lab settings, after-school programs, and museums. In each case, the curriculum was designed in advance to produce specific results. We had assigned topics to cover. The experiments usually involved replicating findings that were already well established, rather than exploring questions that didn’t already have answers. Often in science classes, students are not doing real “experiments” at all. Rather, they are watching or doing demonstrations.
Much of science IS replicating and extending others’ findings. But it’s less exciting for students, especially as they get older. They feel like they are just going through the motions. They need to know that their efforts are going to be “used” in some way.
Citizen science is empowering
Certain realities about the world can feel scary to children. They might feel sorry for endangered species or worry about climate change. They might feel like their small efforts to recycle or use less plastic aren’t enough. Research suggests that when children feel overwhelming emotions about the environment, they detach. This classic article explains why children often feel disconnected from their own backyards, while anxious about the fate of faraway rainforests: Beyond Ecophobia
I wholeheartedly agree with the suggestion that we need to start environmental awareness and education literally in our own backyards, front sidewalks, and local parks. We can accomplish this through nature walks, immersing our kids outdoors, and of course, citizen science.
Citizen science is empowering because you’re combining your efforts with others as part of a larger whole. Even if you select a project about the rainforest or exoplanets, you’re personally involved with the subject. And it’s leading to an actual result!
Why do citizen science in your homeschool?
As a homeschooler, you have the flexibility to select a project based on your child’s needs and your family’s schedule. Unlike a classroom teacher, who may need to wrap up a unit before winter break or squeeze in a few more topics, you are in control! You can stick with a project for as long as you want. You can participate for multiple years, or just a few weeks or months.
As with any curriculum choice, you can go based on your child’s interests. Who knows, it may even lead to a career!
All of the projects linked below provide educational resources for volunteers. You and your child will both learn a lot from participating!
Selecting a citizen science project for your homeschool
The first step is to find out what’s available!
One great place to start is Zooniverse. There are a huge number of projects listed! You can search by topic, by projects most in need of help, most popular projects, and so on. Some of the projects include research into social science, like transcribing primary sources or working with census data. Others involve watching video footage collected from wildlife webcams, or scanning data collected by satellites.
Projects About Nature
Nature’s Notebook allows for brief observations. You can also join projects through the app iNaturalist. I downloaded this app on my phone because it allows you to take photos of plants and animals, and helps you identify them!
Another resource is Nature Abounds. There are several citizen science projects, as well as options for volunteers.
If you live near wetlands, you might check out FrogWatch!
Finally, Budburst is a program that links observations to climate change. You can report observations across the life cycle of a plant or tree, or record one time observations.
Projects About Butterflies
When my son was 3, we raised painted lady butterflies and released them. We used a kit that we bought online, and it was neat. It was artificial, though, and our actions had no relation to the larger ecosystem around us. Painted lady butterflies are native to our area, so it was no harm done – we probably just fed some local birds. But wouldn’t it be better if we were actually supporting our local wildlife, and contributing our observations to an actual project?
MonarchWatch is a great site to get started with learning more about monarch butterflies, including ways to get involved.
Projects About Birds
Project FeederWatch is about birds in winter! We’ll see if any birds come up to our high floor apt.
My best friend discovered a bird’s nest on her property recently – too bad I didn’t know about NestWatch at the time! That would have been a perfect opportunity for citizen science! I live in a more urban area, so we can do the Celebrate Urban Birds project instead.
If you’re reading this before February 2019, mark your calendars – the Great Backyard Bird Count is coming up!
Our first citizen science homeschool project: Tomatosphere
A fun project that my son and I did and loved (and plan to do again) is Tomatosphere. You plant a packet of seeds that have been to the International Space Station, and a packet of equivalent seeds that remained on Earth. You won’t know which packet is which until the project is over! Will you be able to guess which packet is which?
Scientists are gathering data from schools and homeschool groups all over the USA and Canada to find out whether seeds can still germinate if they’ve been exposed to the vacuum of space. Ideally you would share the seeds among a few friends, but you can also plant all the “space tomatoes” yourself. I won’t give away our results, but I will say they were interesting!
My son participated in Tomatosphere for the first time at age 4. He was able to explain the variables and experimental design to everyone, which was important to understanding how science works. And our tomatoes are still growing!
Selecting among options
Once you’ve researched some options, you have a few decisions to make! Here are some questions to guide you.
- Do you want to participate in a digital-only project? If you limit screen time, you may want to choose a project that gets your child outside more. On the other hand, if you live in an area with extreme weather or your child has a busy schedule, you may want to choose a project that lets your child log on and see already collected data, rather than trying to fit in time to go out and collect the data yourselves.
- Do you want to grow or observe anything around your home? If you’re in an urban area like I am, some projects just won’t be practical. But perhaps you can count pigeons in the park or report when the trees on your street are starting to shed their leaves in colder weather.
- How involved do you want to be? Do you want to commit to a period of time, or encourage your child to contribute observations when the mood strikes?
- What are your child’s interests? Does he love butterflies? Is she worried about climate change? You can try to get your child excited about a new topic by introducing the project, or choose an area where they’re already passionate.