I first became aware of citizen science during an episode of BBC Two’s Stargazing Live. I was captivated by the idea of being able to help astronomers solve unanswered questions about our universe. But it’s not just astrophysicists who are looking for help from the public to analyse their data; there are a huge number of science-related surveys to get involved with. Some are ongoing, such as the BugLife’s Bee-fly Watch, while others cover a specific time period, like the Big Butterfly Count in July and August, and the National History Museum’s BioBlitz, which runs for 24 hours in June.
It’s currently National Science Week, which means that it’s the perfect time to introduce citizen science projects. They can be run during lessons, as lunchtime clubs or after school, and they are certain to get your students enthused about taking part in community science projects.
NOAH is a mobile phone app that allows nature lovers to document local wildlife and add their observations to a growing database. Users simply take a photograph of an interesting organism, select the appropriate category, add descriptive tags and submit. They can also see which other organisms are nearby, exploring a map of their area. This could be used to gather information about local species and determine food webs of native organisms.
Noise pollution is a serious problem in many cities. NoiseTube is a research project, which began in 2008, monitoring levels of noise pollution. The NoiseTube mobile app turns mobile phones into noise sensors that can measure the sound exposure in their environment, creating a collective map of noise pollution by sharing data with the NoiseTube community. Back in the classroom, this data could be used to explore the effects of noise on humans, as well as ways it could be reduced.
What’s Under Your Feet?
Schools across the country can take part in an experiment to find out what’s living in the soil beneath their playing fields or local green spaces, as part of a study being run by the British Trust for Ornithology and EDF Energy’s schools programme, The Pod. Now in its fourth year, the study aims to understand the relationship between climate and the availability of invertebrates, and how this impacts UK bird numbers and their migration patterns. It will involve conducting a dig and soil/invertebrate survey and then uploading the results. There is also an additional bird survey for schools that want to take the activity further, plus downloadable lesson plans and resources (such as identification sheets), which could be used to enrich teaching on decay at key stage 4.
Big Seaweed Search
The Big Seaweed Search first launched in 2009, with hundreds of people taking part and helping researchers to confirm that the distribution of seaweeds around the UK is changing.
The scientists behind the project now want to collect thousands of new observations around key environmental issues such as rising sea temperature, the arrival and spread of non-native species of seaweed and ocean acidification. The survey involves taking photos and identifying species along the shoreline.
What started out as a project to study African lions in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park has evolved into an exploration of the ways an entire community of large animals interacts. To collect information about these other species, the team have set out a grid of 225 camera traps and are asking the public to look at the photographs and identify the species present. There is an interactive field guide to filter down possibilities of the species in the park (which is an excellent way to teach students about African wildlife). Some of the photographs are simply wonderful to look at; my favourite was a cheetah staring directly into the lens.
Bash the bug
Scientists are testing antibiotics on mycobacterium tuberculosis and determining the genetic sequence of the bacterium from samples all over the world. This will help them to understand and predict which M. tuberculosis bacteria will be resistant to which antibiotics. The project involves looking at photographs of bacteria incubated on plates with antibiotics and determining if bacteria have grown or not. The importance of antibiotic resistance is peppered throughout the biology syllabus, and taking part in this project is an excellent way to engage students in a meaningful, real-life way.
By taking part in real scientific research that will make a difference to the work of scientists around the world, students are able to see the relevance of the science to their everyday lives. These citizen projects are a great way to engage students in the world of scientific discovery and give them a better understanding of the intricacies and excitement of scientific research, and may even set them off conducting projects of their own.
Racheal Adams is head of science at a school in Devon and has taught and led science in a number of schools in the South of England