Investigating Science in the Community: Providing Meaningful Contexts for Students to Engage in the Processes of Science

By Jones, Gail; Childers, Gina et al. | The Science Teacher, December 2012 | Go to article overview
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Investigating Science in the Community: Providing Meaningful Contexts for Students to Engage in the Processes of Science

Jones, Gail, Childers, Gina, Stevens, Vanessa, Whitley, Blake, The Science Teacher

Citizen science programs are becoming increasingly popular among teachers, students, and families. The term citizen scientist has various definitions. It can refer to those who gather information for a particular science research study or to people who lobby for environmental protection for their communities (Bonney et al. 2009; Holohan and Garg 2005). Citizen science has been called "community-centered science," "community science participatory community-action research," "street science," "traditional ecological knowledge, social justice, scientific literacy, and humanistic science education" (Mueller, Tip-pins, and Bryan 2012, p. 12).

Below are numerous examples of citizen science projects that provide meaningful, authentic contexts for students to engage in the processes of science. These examples all include the task of collecting and sharing data with scientists and others. They cover a myriad of topics. Teachers can use these or others as part of a laboratory, field, or supplemental learning experience, or as an independent investigation.

Examples of citizen science programs

Some citizen science projects address nationwide data collection, such as Firefly Watch, hosted by the Museum of Science in Boston (see "On the web") to track the geographic distribution and activity of fireflies. Other projects are more local in scope, such as NC CRONOS (see "On the web"), in which North Carolina residents submit information to a website that monitors severe weather.

Another community-based program is the Neighborhood Box Turtle Watch (see "On the web"), in which students who encounter a box turtle photograph it, document its physical attributes, note its location, and then submit the data to the citizen science program.

Teachers and students around the world have joined in the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program (see "On the web"). GLOBE participants collect data on the atmosphere, water, soil, and land cover and share their data with other students over the internet, while scientists use this data in research. GLOBE is well suited for the science curriculum, its investigations serving as extended lab experiences. Students find it inherently exciting to compare data from their school site with that of other schools from such faraway places as Australia and Africa.

Some schools involve science clubs and after-school programs in citizen science projects. For example, Meghan, a high school senior in Raleigh, North Carolina, and an avid bird-watcher, has participated in the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count with some of her biology classmates. Audubon's bird count, started in 1900, is the longest-running citizen science survey in the world (see "On the web"). Meghan records the bird species she sees and submits her data to the state and national Audubon offices for use by ornithologists who study bird population dynamics.

Meghan's biology teacher has been tracking the resident and migratory bird population trends from one year to the next. Meghan returned from the winter holidays thrilled that she had identified a brown creeper, a species the local Audubon club had never before recorded during the annual count. Meghan said she will continue to participate in the bird counts while in college.

Nick, another high school student in Raleigh, collects data to share with scientists, as Meghan did. But Nick gathers data on light pollution, posting it online with a citizen science program called Globe at Night (see "On the web"). Nick also analyzes radio telescope data on his home computer through another citizen science program known as SETI@home (see "On the web"). Nick used his light pollution data in his science fair project and was awarded first prize for his research. Nick has developed a passion for astronomy and plans to major in astrophysics in college.

Some of the earliest and most widely used citizen science projects have arisen out of bird-watching and astronomy programs.

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