10 back-to-school projects for citizen scientists

Lenticular cloud, photo by Mario Martin Labrador, age 12.
Lenticular cloud in the Canary Islands. Photo by student meteorologist Mario M. Labrador, age 12.

As summer comes to a close, a young person’s fancy may turn to fretting at the thought of being cooped up in a classroom. But for fans of science and nature—and by that we mean kids who like to watch clouds, hunt mushrooms, prowl around graveyards, and check out what gets squashed on the side of the road—fall need not signal the end of fun.

To keep young minds entertained as well as enlightened, we recommend the following 10 back-to-school projects for student citizen scientists. Teachers and parents, please note: Many of these programs provide materials around which you can build lessons. And there are lots more where these came from.  Visit our Project Finder for a full list of citizen science projects for primary and secondary school students.

Students’ Cloud Observations On-Line (S’COOL): Report your observations of clouds—their shapes, height, coverage, and related conditions—so that NASA scientists can compare them with data from weather satellites passing over your area. Tutorials and observing guides are available for students. For teachers, the program provides lesson plans, charts, and advice on related educational standards.

Tracking Climate in Your Backyard: This project teaches volunteer meteorologists aged 8 to 12 about the scientific process by enlisting them in the collection of weather data in their communities. Download free support material and curriculum.

Tracking Climate in Your Backyard: This project teaches volunteer meteorologists aged 8 to 12 about the scientific process by enlisting them in the collection of weather data in their communities. Download free support material and curriculum.

Gravestone Project: With Halloween less than two months off, here’s an appropriate activity for young citizen scientists: Map the location of cemeteries near you using a GPS device. Then, following instructions on the project website, measure the rate at which marble gravestones erode at each site due to weathering. You’ll be helping researchers determine changes in the acidity of rainfall between locations and over time.

Roadkill Project: From science in the cemetery, it’s a small hop over to science on the side of the road. In this project, students collect data on the presence of roadkill on a defined stretch of pavement. Comparing observations with those of their fellow roadkill researchers, participants learn about local animals’ habitats and migratory patterns, make predictions about which animals are at most and least risk of being killed by vehicles, and study the effects of geography and topography.

Stellar Classification Online Public Exploration: SCOPE needs citizen scientists to classify stars based on images of their spectra. After a quick registration and online tutorial, you can examine your first stellar spectrum and compare it to the “light signature” of well-known reference stars. Check out what high school student Eli Moorhouse wrote in our Member Blogs section about his recent adventures working on SCOPE.

Mushroom Observer: What weird and wonderful plants mushrooms are, not to mention numerous and mysterious. According to the Mushroom Observer project, “it is still a common experience to come across a mushroom that cannot be easily identified in the available books or which doesn’t really fit the definition of any recognized species.” Volunteers are invited to share observations, upload photos, and discuss findings with their fellow fungi fans.

Celebrate Urban Birds: Join the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and citizen ornithologists around the country in studying the presence and behavior of 16 species of birds in urban habitats. You’ll stake out an area about half the size of a basketball court and then spend 10 minutes on a designated day reporting on the presence or absence of these resident and migratory birds. A kit including posts and stickers is available from Cornell—or you can download most of the supporting materials from the website.

INSPIRE (Interactive NASA Space Physics Ionosphere Radio Experiments): Students who are into electronics, kit-building, and lightning will want to join this challenging hunt for “sferics.” Short for “atmospherics,” sferics are very low-frequency radio emissions that are often generated by lightning and interact with the Earth’s ionosphere and magnetic fields in ways that scientists want to better understand. After building their own radio receivers, students record these emissions and collaborate with NASA researchers. The program offers internships and scholarships for students as well as training courses for educators.

Great Lakes Worm Watch: What red-blooded student scientist could resist a hunt for earthworms? This program is limited to the critters in Minnesota, which, being non-native worms imported by early Europeans, are presumed to be changing the native forests of the region. Worm Watch needs volunteers to collect specimens; record habitat data in farmland, pastures, and parks; and conduct soil surveys where these “exotic” worms are found.

Lost Lizards of Los Angeles: Los Angeles students may be out of luck when it comes to hunting Minnesota earthworms, but here’s a nice alternative that’s still in the category of “slithery.” Help the LA County Natural History Museum look for and photograph lizards in its neighborhood. Herpetologists and museum staffers have noticed that lizards are mighty rare in their own backyard (LA’s Exposition Park). They launched the Lost Lizards program, drafting volunteers to study how urban development may be affecting this community of crawlers.

Categories: Animals, Astronomy & Space, Citizen Science, Climate & Weather, Ecology & Environment, Nature & Outdoors, Physics