Citizen Science in Your Own Backyard: Building a Generation of Scientists through Entomology

By Clary, Renee; Wandersee, James et al. | The Science Teacher, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Citizen Science in Your Own Backyard: Building a Generation of Scientists through Entomology


Clary, Renee, Wandersee, James, Guyton, John, Williams, Michael, The Science Teacher


When does a scientific mentality begin, and why? Vertebrate paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897), known for Cope's Rule-that organisms of a species tend to get larger over time-recorded observations of Ichthyosaurus, an extinct marine reptile, at the tender age of 6 (Huntington 1998; Clary, Wandersee, and Carpinelli 2008). He was obviously an inquisitive child.

What about students of today? Might they forego computer games, social media, and TV to participate in scientific learning during their weekends and summer vacations? And can the professional scientists who donate their time to help them simultaneously conduct legitimate scientific research?

The answer to these questions is a resounding "Yes!" For over a decade, we have recruited high school students and their younger siblings, parents, and grandparents to participate in summer camps focused on entomology, wildlife, and natural resources (Figure 1, page 52). However, you don't need a summer camp to promote curiosity and inquiry. All you need are some good "citizen science" entomology investigations. In this article, we share some of our favorites and suggest how to incorporate them as "backyard extensions" of your own classroom lessons.

Larval beginnings: How it all started

The year was 1994, and entomologists at Mississippi State University were brainstorming ways to introduce their discipline to young people. The group eventually decided on a 4-H Entomology Camp at Holmes County State Park, chosen for its location in the geographic center of the state. The camp would be intergenerational and, as far as we knew, was the first residential entomology camp in the world (Williams et al. 2008).

The camp concept caught fire and soon became an annual event. We held it in various locations and invited professional entomologists to collect data and research and share their knowledge and skills with our campers. We expanded the scientific content and integrated new research and scientists into the program. Medical entomologists, botanists, and geologists attended the camps not only to instruct students but also to continue their research-investigating pine beetle populations, assembling acoustic records of nocturnal insects, constructing pit traps, and setting up a white sheet with an ultraviolet light to attract night-flying insects. The scientists also modeled research habits and shared their concerns and soon turned our campers into "citizen scientists" attuned to biodiversity, invasive species, and scientific methodologies.

Dr. Richard Brown, an internationally recognized lepidopterist (moth specialist) at Mississippi State, noted that involving students in the research process at entomology camp was essential: "It's important in order to continue documenting the biodiversity on this planet," Brown noted. "We are still finding many undescribed species not previously discovered." Some of these new species were first collected at entomology camp.

The research

Our camp experiences showed that students were enthusiastic for "bug" research projects conducted within the local environment--effectively extending learning beyond the classroom walls. We found that, after the camps concluded, students continued their investigations at home.

Many of these investigations work within a basic unit on entomology and biodiversity. So we propose that teachers expand these units to include authentic data collection and scientific investigations within students' own backyards (Clary and Wandersee 2009). These can include

* surveys of insect orders (the classification rank above species, genus, and family) in various locations,

* identification of the variety and numbers of insects entrapped by carnivorous plants,

* temperature variations as detected by crickets, and

* investigations into the density of deer fly populations.

We can also make students aware of invasive insects and help them become citizen scientists in the reporting of problematic pests. …

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