March started off with yet another wave of snow, ice and Arctic air across much of North America. But even in regions where winter has been colder than average, like New England and the Midwest, the natural world is transitioning from winter to spring. And that shift offers many science teaching opportunities.
Even if your town is still covered with snow, you can still observe signs of seasonal change, such as lengthening daylight hours or the passage of animals and birds migrating north. Through Annenberg Learner’s Journey North program, teachers can register their classes and share their findings with other observers across North America. Choose a species that migrates through your region – for example, hummingbirds along the Gulf Coast, or robins across much of the eastern United States. Where and when have they been seen locally in recent years? Is that pattern holding this year? If you see something different, what might be the cause?
Or use the phenology checklist to track changes in sunlight and temperature, and correlate those factors with the emergence of plants and animals locally. Compare your students’ observations with reports from other regions. Why is the timing of spring different across North America? Journey North’s teacher resource page offers other standards-based classroom lessons and advice from teachers who have used JN at different grade levels.
Journey North is also a way to introduce students to the concept of citizen science. Citizen science projects come in many forms, but typically pair volunteers with scientists to collect scientific data. The central idea is that anyone can make observations that will help researchers tackle large-scale questions about the natural world.
When students participate in citizen science projects, they engage in many activities that are central to the scientific process: they observe phenomena, collect data, summarize it, and have opportunities to compare their data with others’ findings and interpret the results. See Annenberg’s course on The Science of Teaching Science for more discussion of how these activities support scientific learning.
Traditional citizen science projects ask participants to collect data in the field for analysis by scientists. One well-known example is the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), administered by the National Audubon Society, which launched in 1900. Thousands of CBC volunteers, often working in teams, count birds in designated zones every year in late December across North America and beyond. Researchers have used the enormous CBC database on bird populations to identify species that are declining or threatened, and develop strategies for protecting them.
Over the past decade another approach to citizen science has evolved, in which scientists ask participants to search through large data sets and sort or process information. Using GalaxyZoo, an astronomy project, view images of galaxies and classify them according to their shapes. More than 150,000 people contributed classifications during the project’s first year.
Games are also becoming a popular way to draw participants into scientific tasks. One of the most popular is Foldit, which has also attracted hundreds of thousands of participants since it debuted in 2008. Foldit players solve puzzles by folding video images of proteins. To earn high scores, they have to understand basic principles of protein structure, which are explained in introductory challenges. Scientists at the University of Washington developed the program to see whether humans’ puzzle-solving intuitions could help predict the structure of proteins – a key task in biology and medicine. Players can also design new proteins that could prevent or treat diseases.
There is no single directory for citizen science research, but many projects are easy to find online. For a sampling, see the listings at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (birds and bird habitat); Zooniverse (astronomy, climate, and biology); Scientific American magazine’s database (many disciplines); and Scistarter (many disciplines), a website that connects volunteers with citizen science projects. And don’t forget to check out Learner.org’s own Journey North program!
How are you getting your students involved in citizen science projects?