Introducing Kids to Citizen Science
April 10, 2015

by Kim Foley MacKinnon

Kids are naturally curious, as any parent knows, and one great way to encourage their curiosity, while also having a lot of fun, is to participate in a citizen science project. 

Citizen science is usually defined as the practice of public participation in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. This can be anything from counting birds for the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, the longest-running citizen science survey in the world (now in its 115th year), to recording water quality at a nearby lake, to looking for asteroids. And participating can be as easy as taking photos on a smartphone. 

"Projects can vary greatly in their goals with some being very science goal-oriented while others are more educational," said Georgia Murray, a scientist who manages the Appalachian Mountain Club's "Mountain Watch" program. "Parents can help kids get kids involved [in citizen science] and introduce the idea of stewardship by contributing to something," Murray added. 

Mountain Watch, which AMC started in 2005, involves volunteers recording observations of weather conditions and plants in alpine areas and forests. It offers hands-on ways to introduce kids to science, with a-backyard-to-trail booklet and a trail flowers matching game you can print out, among other things. 

In Boston, the Museum of Science also offers a variety of citizen science projects and programs, but an especially popular one is the Firefly Watch program, which combines an annual summer evening ritual with scientific research. 

"In many ways, it is more of an educational project than anything. People love fireflies but know almost nothing about them," said Don Salvatore, the Firefly Watch coordinator. 

"Kids (this includes kids up to 100 years old) hear what scientists say all the time," said Salvatore. "But how can they relate to that if they haven't done scientific investigation themselves? Unless one has a good teacher, or a parent who can lead them through scientific investigations, citizen science is a great way for kids to participate in science." 

Though the kids might see this as a fun way to look for fireflies, they'll be learning some basic skills of scientific research, from observation (different species of firefly have different patterns) to recording data (you'll download an observation sheet) to describing the habitat. The benefit for the scientists running the program is that the amount of data collected is more than they could ever get on their own. 

Another project, great for beginners and easy to do anywhere, is Wildlife Watch, run by the National Wildlife Federation, where you merely report on what you see around you. The national nature-watching program was created for all ages. Before you head outside, visit the website, where you and your kids can review all the possible species and natural phenomena you might observe in your state, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and wildflowers. After you return, you then report the data online. You can also print out a personal wildlife watch list, which kids will love to have on hand to check off species as they see them (also great if they are too young to use a computer). 

There's no reason why science can't be a fun, and important, part of our daily lives. And with projects like these, it also can get our kids outdoors. 


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