Science is important to children’s lives, which means the science they are taught in school should be made as relevant to their lives as possible. And what could be more relevant than taking part in real scientific research that will make a difference to the work of scientists around the world?
Citizen science offers everybody the opportunity to get involved in ongoing research, either by collecting data or analysing existing data and uploading the results. Many citizen science projects have direct curriculum links, but the overarching benefit for young people is being able to engage with real, ongoing studies and understand how and why they are being carried out.
It’s easy (and free) to get involved, and most projects are accessible for primary school children. Here are my top citizen science projects to engage and inspire pupils.
This project from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and EDF Energy asks pupils to dig up small squares of soil and count the number of earthworms present (they can also identify other larger invertebrates living in the soil and report their findings). The project – which is repeated three times a year to allow comparisons of invertebrate populations – is helping scientists to understand how climate changes are affecting the invertebrate population, which, in turn, impacts on bird numbers and migration in different areas.
A team of scientists from San Diego Zoo are working with conservation scientists in Kenya to study threatened wildlife populations, particularly giraffes, in northern Kenya. They have uploaded more than a million images taken by motion-activated cameras across the savannah, which now need to be analysed and tagged. Once pupils have followed a simple tutorial, they can start checking the images and classifying any wildlife they find. I have used this extensively with middle and upper primary classes and have seen them leap out of their seats when they find something exciting in the images.
One-third of the UK’s bee population has disappeared over the past decade and a quarter of Europe’s bumblebee species are now classified as endangered. Given that bees are responsible for pollinating around one-third of food crops and 90 per cent of wild plants, the ecological implications of losing them are major. Friends of the Earth has launched the Great British Bee Hunt to identify how many species of bee are still present in the UK. In 2018, more than 480,000 bees were spotted, from 50 different species.
There is currently no information on whether the project will run again in 2019 (although it is likely to), but the website has all the data from 2018 and the downloadable apps can still be used for identification and recording bee sightings. This allows classes, or schools, to conduct their own investigations and compare their results with those from last year.
This annual citizen science project from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds allows scientists to study how populations of British birds are changing. Pupils spend an hour – at school or at home – recording the birds they see, using the downloadable identification guide. The results are then uploaded for analysis and the annual results published. Last year’s results are available here (the house sparrow and starling were the most common birds). Registration for 2019 is now closed but schools can sign up for the newsletter to ensure they don’t miss out on the 2020 Bird Watch.
Meteorologists need to digitise 2.5 million pieces of handwritten data from weather records dating from 1860 to 1880 (these were originally used to predict storms and provide early warnings for sailors). Pupils can look at scans of the original notes – detailing temperature, air pressure and rainfall – and input them by time and date.
Once the data is digitised, the meteorologists will be able to examine the records more effectively and create dynamic models, looking for storms and unusual weather events. It will also give a valuable baseline to help measure and monitor climate change over the past 150 years.
The Bugs Count Survey gets pupils to spend 15 minutes identifying and recording invertebrates they find in their local area. This can be done anywhere, and no equipment is needed at all, beyond the identification and recording sheets that can be downloaded from the website.
The results are helping scientists studying the distribution of invertebrates across the country, and in particular how the increasingly urban environment may be affecting them.
Since 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has been collecting data from its orbit outside the Earth’s atmosphere, which has led to the identification of more than 2,500 exoplanets (planets that orbit other stars in our galaxy).
There is still a huge amount of unclassified data from Kepler to be analysed and Exoplanet Explorers allows citizen scientists to get involved tagging light curves. These show the light from distant stars; when a planet passes in front of the star, the light dips and can clearly be seen on the light curve.
The project is suitable for upper primary-aged children, who can practise analysing the light curves and help scientists at Nasa choose distant solar systems to study.
This project gets pupils to study lichens on tree bark and tar spot fungus on sycamore leaves (both of which are excellent indicators of the quality of the air in an area). The information is used by different groups of scientists studying national air quality and the effects of urbanisation, also highlighting possible health risks. There are identification sheets available to download, results are easy to upload, and the data already collected is available to explore.
Citizen science projects are a brilliant way of inspiring pupils and engaging them in meaningful scientific investigations. I often ask classes what they think the relevance of the research they are doing is, and what they think their results will be used for. This has led to interesting discussions about what science can tell us about the world around us and the impact we are having on it.
Paul Tyler is a primary science teacher
By their nature, citizen science projects are constantly changing, as research comes to an end, or new research starts up. You can keep an eye out for new, exciting projects at EDF Energy’s The Pod