Skills to Last a Lifetime

We often hear from teachers who tell us that their students love the “real world” nature of participating in the Cornell Lab’s citizen-science projects.  Young citizen scientists love to be out in the field, observing species and collecting data.  Seeing their data contribute to a larger goal is satisfying and inspiring.  Projects like eBird, Project Feederwatch, and The Great Backyard Bird Count can open young peoples’ eyes to what science is.  

 Building Skills through Citizen Science

Citizen science refers to efforts in which volunteers partner with professional scientists to collect or analyze data. Citizen scientists are individuals in all walks of life – students, the general public, and even professional scientists. Citizen science encompasses a huge range of topics, geographic settings, and strategies. Some projects are confined to a single town or watershed while others are global in scope. Some focus on individual species while others investigate broader taxonomic groups or even entire ecosystems. 

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Participating in citizen science can develop students’ connections to and understanding of science and their local environment, extending far beyond whichever birds they might observe during any individual bird count. Through citizen science, your students can practice and develop these vital skills:

  1. Observation!  The foundation of science is observation. Scientists accurately watch and describe what it is that they are seeing…be it a bird, a chemical reaction, or a natural phenomenon. During a citizen science bird count, students use their eyes and ears to discover and closely observe birds in order to identify and count them.
  2. Data Collection: Student citizen scientists document their observations, and contribute their data to a world-wide database that has been used for dozens of publications, scores of presentations, and even in the creation of management guidelines.
  3. Data Analysis and Interpretation. Citizen science provides opportunities for students to analyze their own data and the data of others, looking for patterns and developing explanations from evidence. Using online data visualization tools, students can track the signs of spring in local vegetation or the seasonal migrations of whales, hummingbirds, or butterflies. They can determine what species are commonly seen in their area and which ones migrate or remain year-round.
  4. Critical thinking.  Science often begins with a question or observation, and relies on critical thinking skills in the pursuit of answers. Collecting data requires  the ability to make well-reasoned approaches and creatively overcome obstacles. When students come up with unexpected results, typically their first response is to assume that they must have done something wrong. However, this may not be the case, and tracking down the source of the discrepant results provides an ideal opportunity for critical thinking and learning about the process of scientific discovery. Plan ahead and discuss possible challenges with your students (What should our data sheet look like? How can we avoid counting the same bird many times? How can we identify a new bird? Why do we see different species on different days?) to support critical thinking.
  5. Teamwork and Communication. Working in groups is a critical skill in many careers, science and otherwise. While outside, students learn from their peers and work together toward common goals. After the count, they discuss and build consensus as they compile and enter their bird counts. Teamwork flourishes as classmates peer-teach, work together, build consensus, and describe and defend ideas.
Would you like to build your students’ skills in these areas?
  • Our Investigating Evidence curriculum provides lessons that will help you guide your students through the process of inquiry while using citizen-science projects as a springboard.
  • Our  kit, Habitat Connections, involves 3-8th grade students in a selection of five of the Lab’s citizen-science projects and engages students in hands-on activities that help them connect to their local habitat.
  • Our curriculum kit, Most Wanted Birds, which provides excellent resources that teachers can use to support their students in participating in the Cornell Lab’s eBird citizen-science project.
  • Find a citizen-science project that matches your needs.
  • Our new self-paced course, Integrating Inquiry for Educators: Developing Student Science Practices, is designed to help educators explore the process of inquiry and scientific investigation, especially as inspired by outdoor observations and citizen-science participation.
  • Check out this article, Using eBird with Students, to guide you through using eBird’s global database.

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