Photo by GTM-NERR (flickr)

Citizen Science in Your Outdoor Classroom

This blog is Part 3 of a series around engaging and teaching students outside. Click here for Part 1: Outdoor Teaching Tips and here for Part 2: Creating your Outdoor Classroom. You can also watch our video “Nature Walks: Five Steps to Success.


Why do kids want to go outside? Is the weather nice? Did they see a really cool bird? Or are they just tired of sitting in the same chair day after day?

Outdoor learning offers a myriad of opportunities for exploration and an exciting alternative to classroom study. It’s very easy to get students engaged outdoors! Use your local wildlife as a springboard to teach important skills in biology, ecology, math, and communication.

Try one (or more!) of these great citizen-science projects to interact with local wildlife, bring science into your outdoor classroom, and take students outside for some environmental education!



Townsends Warbler. Photo by Linda Bosshart.

Townsend’s Warbler. Photo by Linda Bosshart.

Birds are everywhere! They’re a perfect choice for educators who want to bring students closer to local habitat. Birds provide opportunities to interact with a variety of local species, study diversity and adaptation, and understand phenology, ecological concepts, and life cycles.

Learn about your feathered neighbors with eBird and All About Birds. eBird is the largest database of birds in the world and is still growing! Anyone, anywhere can submit their sightings of birds to this database, building a worldwide network of birders. eBird presents many opportunities for student projects: bird counts, student investigations, population studies, and more. Introducing your students to eBird is a great way to get them started on the path to inquiry.

Use NestWatch to learn who might be nesting nearby. Can’t find a nest? Try building a nest box with your students. Dozens of species are cavity nesters, which means that they will use a properly constructed nest box when available. NestWatch provides resources to participants, including guides on building nest boxes, attracting species, and even installing nest cameras. Nesting birds provide a great way to study life cycles as well as habitat.

Anna's Hummingbird. Photo by Chris Orr.

Anna’s Hummingbird. Photo by Chris Orr.

Bird feeders are a great resource for educators because they attract birds for students to observe up close. Students can investigate behavior, diet, and habitat requirements. Project FeederWatch has helpful resources for outdoor classrooms like a bird seed guide, information on when to put up feeders, common feeder species, and how to keep away squirrels.

Just like this little girl from Lincoln Elementary, we all should love the Earth. Even Earth Worms!

Earth Worms! Photo by Lincoln Elementary’s Girls on the Run Team.


Getting your hands dirty with earthworms can be a fascinating way to investigate soil ecosystems and habitat preferences. Teach your students about subterranean habitats and invertebrate movements each spring with Journey North! This site hosts several citizen-science projects, all of which are focused on migrating species.

But earthworms don’t migrate! Or do they? You can discover the ‘migration cycle’ of earthworms and report your own sightings of the first earthworms of spring in your outdoor classroom.

Monarch Butterfly. Photo by Jane Parslow.

Monarch Butterfly. Photo by Jane Parslow.


The Monarch Butterfly migration is famous for both its size and scale. Millions of Monarchs journey south to Mexico for the winter, some flying the entire length of the continental United States! Learn about conservation and migratory pathways with Monarch Watch and Journey North! These sites collect data submitted by citizen scientists all over the country to track the migration route and population trends of these butterflies. You can hatch Monarchs right in your classroom, and tag and release them for Monarch Watch. Then your students can explore insect life cycles by tracking their Monarchs through migration.

Turtles and Amphibians

Snapping turtle. Photo by Larry Imes.

Snapping turtle. Photo by Larry Imes.

Turtles and amphibians can teach us a lot about their ecosystems but are often overlooked as educational tools. Listening for frogs can teach students about communication and adaptation. Catching and marking turtles introduces students to field techniques and monitoring methods. Learn about your local amphibians with the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program (NAAMP) or FrogWatch USA.

There is no national project that focuses on turtles but regional projects are often available. Check with your local nature center or find a project on Scistarter to find out more.


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