Imagine transforming your school playing field into a laboratory and your pupils into scientific pioneers by doing something as simple as digging up worms. Traditional science lessons may have been concerned with reading thick textbooks and avoiding accidents with Bunsen burners, but the rise of citizen science is changing that.
Citizen science – also known as people-led or crowd science – is a method of conducting research with data collected by amateur scientists. Its popularity has exploded in recent years, and there are now a huge variety of projects for teachers to get involved with, from counting birds and bugs, to analysing cancer cells and categorising whale calls.
What’s Under Your Feet? is a citizen science campaign created by schools programme, the Pod, in partnership with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). It’s been running for two years and hundreds of students have been getting their hands dirty (literally) during that time to help BTO’s scientists discover the impact of climate change on birds across the UK.
Reaping the rewards of research
Citizen science is a great way to get pupils out of the classroom, engaging them in real-life projects that could lead to scientific breakthroughs and change our understanding of the world. Students feel better connected with their local environment, but also gain a sense of self-importance by being recognised as valuable contributors to a larger goal or scientific effort. For instance, schools taking part in What’s Under Your Feet? will be credited in the research paper the BTO’s scientists are writing based on their findings.
These projects make science feel more achievable and attainable for students, not to mention more fun – what young person doesn’t like getting up close to nature and a little muddy in the process? The schools taking part in What’s Under Your Feet?, for example, will be credited in the research paper that BTO’s scientists are writing based on their findings.
It’s also been found that techniques such as outdoor classrooms and other nature-based experiential education can improve academic performance, particularly in Stem subjects. A 2005 study by the American Institutes for Research found that students who took part in outdoor science programmes in the US improved their science testing scores by up to 27 per cent.
And teachers can benefit from connecting with scientists, too. Taking part in citizen science can be a useful professional learning experience, helping to build confidence in using real-life scientific practices in the classroom.
Keeping close to the curriculum
Understandably, the time constraints of the curriculum may make some teachers sceptical about embarking on citizen science. But these projects can actually be used to support the curriculum and, crucially for many cash-strapped schools, they don’t require any investment in new equipment.
What’s Under Your Feet? has clear links to science curriculum topics including working scientifically, scientific enquiry, biology, the interdependence of organisms, classification and the impact of environment on people, plants and animals. The experiment also uses simple tools that most school science labs already have; scales, rulers and litmus paper. And the Pod provides the resources teachers need to get started, including lesson plans, recording sheets, a welcome film and an assembly presentation explaining the purpose of research.
Worms, birds and climate change: digging for data
In What’s Under Your Feet? students dig up a small square of turf in their school grounds or local environment to analyse. BTO’s scientists want to find out if the availability of soil invertebrates that birds eat (worms, beetles, snails and other bugs) is linked to the massive decline seen in some British species, such as the starling.
In the experiment – which can be run over one or more lessons and adapted for students of different abilities – the class separate, count, identify, measure and weigh the soil invertebrates they dig up. Then they feed their data back to the BTO scientists through the Pod’s website.
The campaign takes place three times a year, in October, March and June, so the scientists can work with data from across the seasons. And the feedback from students has genuine scientific importance.
Dr James Pearce-Higgins, director of Science at the BTO, says: “Schools can make a real difference by adding to our understanding of the effect of climate upon invertebrates and how this affects bird populations.”
Meanwhile, one student described Citizen Science as “an excellent alternative to a usual indoor biology lesson”.
They said: “I much preferred being outside to indoors as I focused more and it was more fun. It was nice seeing all the different insects, some of which I have never seen before in my life! I thoroughly enjoyed this lesson and without a doubt we should definitely do it again.”
More than 2,400 schools around the UK have already joined in, and there’s still time to get involved. The next campaign takes place in October, so now is the perfect time for schools to sign up and start digging.
Find out more at jointhepod.org/campaigns/wuyf-2017 To take part in What’s Under Your Feet?, you’ll need to become a member of The Pod – the award-winning schools programme is free to join and also gives you access to hundreds of free science, energy and sustainability resources. Register at https://jointhepod.org/registration