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The 3Rs: Citizen science in the classroom

The 3Rs: Citizen science in the classroom

by Katherine Mathieson

This week sees the launch of Calls of the wild, a new mass participation experiment as part of National Science & Engineering Week 2013, which asks members of the public to contribute to psychologists’ understanding about how noises from nature can affect mood. National Science & Engineering Week has a rich tradition of interesting and popular mass participation experiments, where ordinary people can contribute to building the body of knowledge that we call science.

Alongside the preparations for the Calls of the wild experiment, there seems to be a wave of interest in ‘Citizen science’ projects, in which members of the public actively collect or analyse research data.   

Kids get stuck in with the Save our bees campaign in 2009

At the end of 2012, Zooniverse reported that nearly three-quarters of a million volunteers from 196 countries have participated in their different projects since 2007. Not only that, but a recent report by the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the Natural History Museum suggested that technology, such as online recording of data and smartphone apps, is revolutionising citizen science meaning this trend will only get bigger.

Harnessing the efforts of informed and motivated citizens can lead to great strides in scientific knowledge. Just a couple of weeks ago for example, the Planet Hunters announced they’d found a new planet and 42 more possible planets – as a result of scientific work carried out by volunteers. Citizen scientists are particularly vital for large and long-term datasets.

Of course, children and young people are also citizens, so they can – and do - participate in citizen science. Under 16-year-olds accounted for over 40% of the contributors to the BBC’s Musical Moods research, run in 2011 through National Science & Engineering Week with Prof Trevor Cox.

Citizen science projects could be a boon for teachers. They offer the chance for students to shape and participate in science projects, which Ofsted’s grade descriptors say is a mark of great teaching in science. Citizen science projects have the potential to provide the relevance and enjoyment that pupils say they want (for example, in the Wellcome Trust’s 2011 report on young people’s views on science education and NfER’s 2006 report on pupils’ perspectives of the national curriculum).

Kristina Nicosia is a teacher at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North in New Jersey who’s published a paper about the issues of using citizen science in schools with Steven Gray at the University of Hawaii. Kristina and Steven argue that citizen science projects can help students learn about the nature of science – something that many science curricula struggle to do well.

But not all projects will be suitable for schools.

The SciStarter website, which lists a wide range of citizen science projects, allows you to search for projects that are “suitable for children”, though almost all projects seem to fit into this category – and it’s unclear what the criteria being used are. I think the STEM education community needs to be clearer about what it needs from the world of citizen science.

Here’s a first attempt at stating these needs – the ‘3Rs of citizen science for schools’:

1. Real science – young people should be acting as scientists, not as subjects or just owners of computers. For example, there are projects where you can download datasets for your computer to work on while you’re not using it. The most famous is SETI@Home but there’s also data processing on topics from disease to global warming through Berkeley’s BOINC platform and the World Community Grid. While these initiatives make a valuable contribution, the volunteers who take part aren’t acting as scientists. To be valuable to schools, the project should require the volunteers (i.e. the school students) to behave as scientists in some way. For example, the Evolution Megalab asks their volunteers to observe and analyse the patterns of striped snail shells. Fold.it turns the game-playing strategies of its volunteers into new ways to research protein-folding.

Taking it a step further, students may be able to work with practising scientists. For example, the American educational resources website Jason.org is currently recruiting 14-15 year old scientists to join oceanography researchers on a boat trip to collect data. In the UK (and on dry land), the most common schemes for enabling pupils to work alongside scientists and engineers are the Nuffield Research Bursaries and EDT’s Engineering Education Scheme. (Both schemes are partners in our CREST Awards scheme, which recognises young people’s research achievements.) But these schemes can never have the reach of online, mass-participation experiments.

2. Relevance to young people. The students should feel some kind of connection to the purpose or the context of the research. Perhaps the research is a subject they feel passionate about, or perhaps there’s a link to their local community. Perhaps they’ve been able to choose the project themselves.

Citizen science projects span the entire range of science from astronomy to zoology. Some topics are more popular than others though. SciStarter, a platform to match citizen science projects to budding scientists, published a list of its most popular projects in 2012. The list suggested that we prefer projects on weather and familiar creatures (bats, squirrels, sunflowers, fish, butterflies and laughing humans). These might all be considered the ‘classic topics’ of citizen science. But the list went beyond these classics with projects on less familiar creatures (mastodons & microbes) and on protein folding, retinas, and solar energy. So, students have plenty of topics to choose from.

A science teacher at Rochester Grammar School told me that students would feel a greater connection with the research project if they can actually upload their own data. The Opal Nature surveys offer this facility: students can upload their own findings about soil health, air quality, insects or hedges in their area. The Open University’s iSpot project enables students to track the contributions they’ve made to the overall endeavour. Some projects make large datasets available for volunteers to perform their own analyses on, such as BirdTrack, which publishes birdwatchers’ uploaded data on when and where different species of birds have been spotted, and the National Biodiversity Network (NBN), which publishes large numbers of datasets on organisms from diatoms to mammals.

In an ideal world, perhaps students would benefit directly from the findings of their research – in the same way that researchers who work with volunteers in developing countries frame their projects to match the immediate needs of the volunteer community (see Nicola Triscott’s blog post for a more informed perspective on this point – and also the work of UCL’s ‘extreme citizen science’ research group).

3. Resources – there’s a great deal of fun to be had working on real science projects that are interesting to young people. But for citizen science to have a home in the classroom, it also needs to provide a learning experience. The paper mentioned earlier by Kristina Nicosia says that citizen science in the classroom can only reach its full potential if teachers can embrace the uncertainties of the research process.

Embracing this process, warts and all, sounds easy – but the realities of school life might make this a daunting proposition for many teachers. Extra guidance would help. Such guidance might include pointers on how the topic fits with the curriculum, or tips on how to use the project to engage particular student groups – or even advice on how to persuade one’s boss to support the endeavour.

This need has been recognised by the Zooniverse team who’ve set up a website called ZooTeach where teachers can share resources and lesson plans that are based on Zooniverse’s citizen science projects. So far, 21 lessons have been uploaded covering a range of topics and age groups. For example, Dr Laura Whyte has uploaded a lesson for Key Stage 3 pupils about classifying galaxies to be used in conjunction with the GalaxyZoo citizen science project. Other teachers can rate each lesson and add their comments. This facility also allows teachers to create and share lessons about what they think will support their students’ learning, rather than relying on what researchers think is important. For example, one of ZooTeach’s contributors (Cody1004) has developed a lesson plan which asks his students to decide which skills they might develop by doing a Zooniverse project and how interesting those skills might be to their future employers.

However, there’s a long way to go. Only six of the hundreds of current projects listed by SciStarter come with teaching materials and none of those projects cover the UK. Even Zooteach currently only has 21 lessons. So, more time needs to be invested in developing materials that will help teachers make the most of these resources.

There’s also a practical issue: most UK schools can’t easily give an entire class access to the internet except during ICT lessons. Students don’t have smartphones or aren’t permitted to use them during school time. So there are likely to be some practical difficulties in getting students to participate in citizen science initiatives during lessons. But where these can be overcome, the students can learn a great deal about science from their experience. For the time being, most activity is likely to happen in STEM Clubs where members of a student STEM Club can voluntarily meet to take part in activities which reflect and extend their interest in STEM, or one of its disciplines, such as astronomy. The rise in tablet use in schools may in future help to pave the way for citizen science initiatives to be used during science lessons – but the quality and availability of supporting materials will be crucial.

Citizen science for the future

If we don’t ensure that citizen science initiatives meet educators’ needs by following these 3Rs, then these initiatives will reach only a very small group of young people – chiefly those whose families or teachers can offer extra support. An opportunity to engage young people in science will have been lost – along with the contribution those young people could have made, both as young scientists now and as professional scientists in the future.

Here at the British Science Association, we know that huge numbers of schools already use National Science & Engineering Week activities to stimulate their students’ passion and pride in science and engineering. So we’re working out how to combine our experience of mass participation experiments like Calls of the wild with some of the ideas being developed by citizen science initiatives. Advice, support and partnerships are all welcome, but what is clear is that we have some way to go before we perfect the best way to get more students (and adults) involved in science.

Join the debate...


Shane's picture

Right, right, right

Nicely put. Our first Decipher My Data project Flu hits all three: flu.deciphermydata.org.uk It's certainly real science with an unknown outcome. We're at a particularly interesting point with RCGP data and schools data diverging. It's relevant as it is the students own data that is uploaded and the project itself along with the Lesson plans (http://flu.deciphermydata.org.uk/teachers/lesson-plans/) form a resource to help teach about data.

m.haklay's picture

Real engagement too!

Thank you for a very interesting and comprehensive post and from our experience in participatory mapping in schools http://www.mappingforchange.org.uk/portfolio/putting-ourselves-on-the-map/ I agree that there is a great potential for engaging school children in science through play and formal learning. While ICT is important, there is plenty to do with paper and combining ICT and non-ICT methods. There is an example for a very deep level of engagement of children in scientific research in the Blackawton Bees work by Beau Lotto and primary school kids - http://www.lottolab.org/articles/blackawtonbees.asp . This example shows what can be achieved with real engagement by scientists when they decide that it is possible to do real science in the classroom. This shows that if there are ways to engage not only the science but also the scientists in the process, wonderful things can happen.

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