Finding The First Project For Your Classroom

Citizen Science Salon iconCitizen Science SalonBy Jenny CutraroSep 29, 2016 8:31 PM


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In his second post, guest contributor Ben Graves shares his advice for identifying a citizen science project for the classroom. Ben 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.

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Colleagues frequently ask me about the “best” first project. When I am setting out to incorporate a citizen science project into my classroom curriculum I focus on two key points: authentic science practices and local/regional partnerships. Focus on Practices: Often the content of the project, its particular research question, is less important to me than the practices involved, such as asking questions, planning investigations, and interpreting data. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) define science practices as “behaviors that scientists engage in as they investigate and build models and theories about the natural world.” The strongest argument I found for organizing my curriculum around science practices comes directly from the authors of the NGSS. They offer that science practices “pique students’ curiosity, capture their interest, and motivate their continued study; the insights thus gained help them recognize that the work of scientists and engineers is a creative endeavor—one that has deeply affected the world they live in.” Students often lament in my beginning-of-the-year survey that science class is often about taking notes and memorizing formulas. Yet after participating in citizen science projects, their perspectives change, especially when they have the chance to engage with data about our local area.

Students in Ben Graves' freshman AP environmental science class measure tree height with researchers from the U.S. Forest Service in Delta, CO. (Photo Credit: Ben Lehman) The eight practices of scientists as defined by the authors of the NGSS are:

  1. Asking questions

  2. Developing and using models

  3. Planning and carrying out investigations

  4. Analyzing and interpreting data

  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking

  6. Constructing explanations

  7. Engaging in argument from evidence

  8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

When searching for citizen science projects I ask myself: Which NGSS science practices does this particular project emphasize? Climate, weather and phenology projects like Project Budburst help students analyze and interpret data. The GLOBE project shows students how to plan and carry out investigations , because they model the rigorous protocols that students may use in college-level research. I avoid projects that do not incorporate any of the NGSS science practices. While it might be fun to have students collect saliva or blood samples and send these to a researcher for analysis, it may take months or even years before the data is ready for you and your students to analyze in the classroom. For that reason I like the weather data collected by CoCoRaHS, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network. Students not only get to plan and conduct an investigation by deciding where and at what frequency to collect rainfall or snowfall data, but they also can analyze and interpret data in real-time on the project’s website. What’s happening locally? What are community groups or local researchers in your area focusing on that could connect to science practices in your classroom? Can experts make a classroom visit? These kinds of visits make a personal connection to the data and may inspire unique career pathways for your students Water quality testing and invertebrate surveys are performed in hundreds, if not thousands of communities around the U.S. Click here to see if there is one in your community. Often a local natural history museum might be collecting spider, pollinator or ant specimens. If you focus on the importance of the data collection protocol and ask for an entomologist to make a classroom visit, you can really make a meaningful impact on how your students view the process of science and their options in non-traditional science careers. It quickly becomes apparent that only a select number of projects ask students to authentically engage in science practices. Many projects are located in locations far from our school yards and they won’t be practical for the current school year. For this reason, you might be tempted to start one of your own citizen science projects. I have found this to be one of the more rewarding parts of my career thus far.

Students in Ben Graves' freshman AP environmental science class record data. (Photo Credit: Ben Lehman) For example, my students work with our local U.S. Forest Service office to collect data on the spruce beetle epidemic in western Colorado. Students go into the field for a whole day and collect data on tree mortality, do a timber assessment with local foresters, and analyze fire risk with fire specialists. In the following weeks, students use the data collected to make recommendations to the Forest Service about how to manage local forests in the face of changing climates and disease outbreaks. I started this effort by calling our local Forest Service office and asking about ways my students could go into the field with specialists to learn about jobs in natural resources. What started with one forester during one class period has grown over the years into an all-day field trip with fifteen or more agency employees and students from two local high schools. My students love the hands-on experience of data collection, and the skills they develop help them apply for summer jobs on timber and trail crews with local agencies and conservation corps. In the next post I will share more about starting your own citizen science project. But in the meantime, what do you look for when you are researching citizen science projects for your students? Have you found any that particularly engaged students in the “practices” of being a scientist?

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!

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