Students may know about efforts to address environmental problems in their communities--but do they use the science they learn in school to help solve these problems? In recent years, citizen science projects have emerged as a means to involve students in scientific inquiry, particularly in the fields of ecology and environmental science. A citizen scientist is "a volunteer who collects and/or processes data as part of a scientific inquiry" (Silverton 2009, p. 467).
Participation in citizen science fosters an appreciation for the diversity of scientific fields (i.e., conservation biology, ornithology). The National Science Foundation (NSF) supports citizen science projects as a means to recruit future generations into the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines by directly involving students in scientific research. Examples include NestWatch, a bird nesting monitoring program; Project Budburst, a program developed to track climate change through recording the timing of flowers and foliage; and Project SEED, which involves science researcher mentoring underserved high school students.
Teachers have expanded citizen science projects to include not only gathering and analyzing data but also civic participation and action (Zaikowski and Lichtman 2007; Ryken et al. 2008). This effectively merges hard sciences with social sciences. In a survey of adolescents in seven countries--Chile, Czech Republic, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, and the United States--social movement citizenship such as participating in community action and environmental protection was deemed just as important as conventional citizenship activities (i.e., voting) (Torney-Purta and Amadeo 2003). In light of this growing interest, teachers must explore effective ways to engage students in citizen science projects to promote STEM education and environmental awareness. This also helps us dispel the myth that science is just a static body of knowledge.
In this article, we present the multidisciplinary Project Citizen approach to teaching and learning science and engaging students in action-oriented citizen science.
Project Citizen, a curricular program administered by a national network of coordinators in every state, promotes competent and responsible civic participation by giving students a vehicle to influence and monitor public policy (Center for Civic Education 2009). High school teachers can adapt Project Citizen as an approach for teaching a variety of subject areas. English teachers can use Project Citizen to emphasize speech and writing skills; social studies teachers can emphasize civic ideas and practices; and mathematics and science teachers can focus on analytical thinking and scientific inquiry.
Project Citizen helps students learn to express their opinions, decide which part of government is most appropriate for dealing with problems they identify, and influence policy decisions at that level. Students work with each other, teachers, and volunteers as they identify a problem to study, gather information, examine solutions, develop public policy positions, and create action plans. Project Citizen-trained teachers guide and encourage students to understand the problems in their communities and propose solutions to these problems. Through the monitoring and influencing of public policy, students express democratic values and principles and develop feelings of political efficacy (Center for Civic Education 2012). Figure 1 provides an overview of the steps of Project Citizen.
The steps of Project Citizen.
Before Project: Students distinguish between public policy and community solutions.
Step 1: Students identify public policy problems in their community.
Step 2: Students select a problem for class study.
Step 3: Students research the problem.
Step 4: Students develop a …