Back To School With Citizen Science: A Conversation with Ben Graves

In the next two posts, as part of our SciStarter in the Classroom collection, guest contributor Ben Graves will share his personal experiences and advice for using citizen science in the classroom. Graves is a fellow with the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, which supports a small cohort of early-career teachers across the United States with intensive professional development. He teaches AP Environmental Science and freshman environmental science at Delta High School, a rural school in western Colorado. Before moving to Colorado, Ben was deeply involved in environmental education and citizen science initiatives with youth in the national parks, including leading volunteer trail crews across Alaska and teaching inquiry-based science workshops for students and teachers at NatureBridge, an organization that provides environmental science programming in the national parks.

I spend lot of my summer outdoors—in my garden, running and biking in the mountains, learning new approaches to teaching outdoor and experiential science. As the end of the summer nears, I think about how to get my science students outside. Science doesn’t need to be contained inside a classroom, and I have found that citizen science projects are a great way to get students outdoors and keep them engaged throughout the school year.

While teaching ecology in my AP Biology and Environmental Science classes, I discovered the GLOBE Program, an international citizen science project that gives people around the world the chance to collect and share data about their local climate. The focused procedures GLOBE provides helped my students develop the scientific skills used by natural resource professionals in my community [Editor’s note: SciStarter has bundled together some of our favorite GLOBE protocols on a new beta site – check it out and let us know what you think; we’d love your feedback in this early stage of development!].

From that first experience, I’ve expanded to include a variety of citizen science modules in my general biology and physical science classes. I’ve also had students participate in a yearlong air quality monitoring project in my AP Environmental Science class, conducted in partnership with the University of Colorado-Boulder Department of Mechanical Engineering

Elementary school students participate in citizen science. Photo: Mayport Elementary Spartina Harvest (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Elementary school students participate in citizen science. Photo: Mayport Elementary Spartina Harvest (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Why Citizen Science?

My motivation to make time for citizen science is that it directly engages my students engage in what the Next Generation Science Standards refer to as “science practices,” such as planning investigations and analyzing data. It also helps my students feel like their learning contributes to a worthwhile cause, one that extends beyond the classroom’s four walls. Joining a citizen science project can also help you connect with local, regional and national organizations and universities, which often can make up for the supplies, funding and/or expertise that might be lacking in your school or community.

So what is the best way to start, and how can you incorporate citizen science into an already jam-packed curriculum? In my next post, I’ll share my successes and failures, hoping to shed some light on using citizen science in your classroom.

But before that, here’s a call to action. It’s important for us to share our voices as classroom teachers: Instead of research institutes offering curricula and ideas to teachers, I’d like to shift the conversation and ask classroom teachers to advocate for what they need from the scientists and researchers looking to engage the broader community in citizen science. Let’s offer our ideas and expertise, and share our needs to project developers who are trying hard to develop an education component to their project.

So teachers, what do you need? Are you looking for ideas for getting started? Do you need to bounce ideas around with other teachers as you plan for bringing citizen science into your classroom? What have been your successes and challenges? Join the conversation on Facebook  and Twitter #scistarter_edu!

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

Categories: Analyzing and interpreting data, Citizen Science, EarthSchool, Guest Contributor, Nature & Outdoors, Science Education Standards, Science Practices

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About the Author

Carolyn Graybeal

Carolyn Graybeal

Dr. Carolyn Graybeal holds a PhD in neuroscience from Brown University. She is a former National Academies of Science Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Fellow during which time she worked with the Marian Koshland Science Museum. In addition the intricacies of the human brain, she is interested in the influence of education and mass media in society's understanding of science.