If your kids are home for the summer, either entirely or in amounts you didn’t previously anticipate, they might be looking for something to do. Or you may be looking for something for them to do.
That’s where citizen science projects can come into play. Citizen science, scientific research that allows anyone to participate and adheres to agreed-upon measurement protocols, helps to provide data for research projects that would likely be impossible without the help of, well, citizens, like you and your family. Participating in these efforts could help kids improve their science skills while contributing to efforts to maintain biodiversity, eradicate invasive species, or help the habitats of pollinators.
We’ve compiled some citizen projects and apps that you and your kids can participate in while staying at home this summer. You can do them at home or in your neighborhood, and they’re a great way to keep your kids engaged with educational experiences while still practicing social distancing.
It’s crucial for parents and guardians to factor in their own capacity for providing assistance. Some of these citizen science projects might require some adult explanation or guidance, especially if your kids are younger, so acknowledging what you have the time and energy to do will help the whole family. (If you’re juggling an intense workload, it might help to get them started, and then step back yourself.)
And of course, for any projects that require going outside, local health and safety guidelines should be followed. (You can review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines here.)
SciStarter, an online community dedicated to bringing people together for citizen science projects, compiles projects from all over, including other groups featured below, like Zooniverse and iNaturalist.
A representative for SciStarter recommends that families looking for projects this summer turn to their education page, which can be found here. The projects featured are divided by grade level so you can find the ones that work best for your kid’s age and abilities.
You can explore the offerings yourself, of course, but the SciStarter representative recommends the Great Sunflower Project, for younger kids, and Stall Catchers, for older kids, to get started.
The Great Sunflower Project, the largest citizen science project focused on pollinators, invites volunteers to observe a plant, such as a sunflower, for at least five minutes. For each observation, kids then do a count of all the pollinators, like bees or butterflies, that stop by while they’re observing. After making an account on the Great Sunflower Project’s website, they then report that data online. (More detailed instructions can be found here and here.)
If kids want to know why this project matters, the representative notes you should explain to them that the data they’re recording helps to locate where pollinator populations are declining in urban and suburban areas. With this information, scientists will know more about how a decline in the pollinator population impacts pollination in these areas.
Older kids might get started with Stall Catchers, a project from researchers at Cornell University. To help out with this project, you don’t even need to leave your house: It’s actually a game. (You can download it here.)
Researchers have discovered links connecting stalls (clogged blood vessels in the brain) and Alzheimer’s. Those playing the game can help researchers understand the root of the connection better: To participate, your kids will watch short videos of blood flowing through the brains of mice (after being taught how to distinguish between following blood vessels and stalls) and then identify the stalls.
Since computers can’t accurately capture this information yet, “catching” stalls in the game gives researchers valuable information about blood flow. (Once 10 people say the same thing about the clip, that’s considered research grade data, according to the SciStarter representative.)
Additionally, the representative notes you can always turn to SciStarter’s regular project finder feature, where she recommends using the advanced search to find age, location, and interest-specific projects to participate in.
Nature’s Notebook, a project from the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN), encourages people to record observations about the species around them through its “Observation Deck” feature on its website, where volunteers from around the country record data about nearby plants and their phenophases, as well as animals. (There’s also an app on Google Play and the Apple App Store.)
Once you create an account, you choose your “site” (which could be your backyard, or a nearby park) and then select the plant and animal species that you want to observe. When you sign up on the website, a representative for USA-NPN notes there’s a link to an online course, where you and your kids can learn some of basic observation guidelines.
From there, your kids can take off running. The representative points out that it might help to start kids off on a smaller project, like observing one plant in your backyard, and get them to do so dutifully, rather than trying to record data for every species around you. (For plants, you’d observe the same individual plant every time, while for animals you’d record the same species each time you observe your site.)
Though you can always record observations for any plant or animal, the USA-NPN representative recommends participating in Nature’s Notebook campaigns, which are started by researchers or a resources manager that need data for a particular phenomenon.
Zooniverse, the world’s largest platform for citizen science research, offer a wide array of projects that you can complete from home, often by analyzing already uploaded pictures or videos. You don’t need to sign up or make any kind of account to get started: Anyone who visits Zooniverse’s projects page and inputs data is considered a volunteer.
For those looking to get started, a Zooniverse representative suggests some projects already popular with young people on Zooniverse.
As one example, he points to Penguin Watch, in which kids count the number of penguins, chicks, and eggs within given photos. By monitoring penguin populations, kids can help scientists understand the changes in the ecosystem around them.
There’s also Snapshot Safari, a similar project in which kids can assess the species in photos captured by camera trap grids. These pictures are from areas in which conservation is a top priority, so understanding population size is crucial in order for scientists to look into things like species coexistence and ecological relationships.
Projects like these on Zooniverse can be especially helpful if your family lacks outdoor space but still wants to find ways to participate in citizen science projects.
CitiSci.org, an online citizen science support system, features a wide variety of projects that your kids might be able to get involved with. Representatives from CitiSci.org point to a few projects currently going on that are especially accessible while families are staying home this summer.
First, there’s the Great Backyard Garlic Mustard Survey, a project started by a Girl Scout, in which people can document the existence of garlic mustard, an invasive species that could be present in your backyard or in wildlife within the neighborhood. (Information on how to identify garlic mustard can be found on the resources tab of the project’s CitiSci.org page.)
There’s also bloomWatch, a project that asks participants to track color changes in fresh bodies of water, which are commonly caused by cyanobacteria, a group of bacteria that produces harmful toxins. Because state and local officials are unable to track all bodies of water at all times, your kids can help monitor the presence of potential blooms by uploading information about them either on the bloomWatch app or through the tracker accessible with CitiSci.org.
Additionally, there’s Stream Tracker, which allows those who happen to have creeks and streams in their neighborhood track the “when and where” of stream flow. Recording this information helps clarify information about the water quality and wellbeing of living organisms within the stream.
And there’s one project you can do within the confines of your home: If you happened to have a photo of a mountain goat on your phone (perhaps from a vacation to a national park), you can upload it to the Mountain Goat Coat Trackers project, in order to help the team behind the project to analyze the shedding of goats’ winter coats with respect to climate change.
iNaturalist, a biodiversity information sharing app, allows you to record observations of biodiversity wherever you are.
You can either download the app (from Google Play or the Apple App Store) or sign up on iNaturalist’s website. After setting up an account, your kids will be able to upload the photos they take of different species, including both plants and animals.
As they upload their observations, your kids should also include the location of their observation, and, if possible, they should include information about the species being observed too. If you and your kids don’t know, though, that’s the big benefit of having a community of other people also inputing data: After uploading an image, you can connect with others in the iNaturalist community to help identify your observation. The app’s machine learning algorithm will also suggest species, so you can learn more about the plants and animals around you.
Once enough people have verified an observation, findings are shared with data repositories in order to assist scientists with their research.