The number of citizen science projects is growing at a rapid rate, with benefits for scientists and those who participate. But what potential do they have for supporting school science?
An education research project funded by the Teaching & Learning Research Initiative sought to identify approaches for effectively integrating online citizen science projects within science teaching and learning. Four expert primary teachers were involved. Their experiences highlighted the importance of purpose, planning and preparation.
Citizen science (CS) and online citizen science (OCS)
Citizen science projects invite citizens (including school students) to contribute to a real-world science project. Often, participants contribute data from their location or they help to analyse and interpret data collected by the project. In OCS projects, tasks require using the internet. This generally means that participants can contribute from different locations.
The case studies of each of the four participating teachers offer rich examples of how OCS projects were embedded into their primary science units, including how they scaffolded students’ conceptual development, focused on the development of particular science capabilities and adapted their approaches when required:
- Matt Boucher (year 7/8) – hunting for exoplanets within a unit on light.
- Melissa Coton (year 5/6) – measuring light pollution at night as part of a unit on light.
We think that most teachers will be interested in using an OCS project to supplement and broaden a topic they are already planning to teach. It will be part of a purposeful plan to develop an aspect of Nature of Science that also connects strongly to the science concepts being taught.
We believe using an OCS project enables teachers to:
- focus on developing a specific science capability in a context related to the teaching topic – gathering, interpreting or categorising data or critiquing evidence
- highlight the relevance and value of the science learning, with students contributing to a real-world science project
- create opportunities for working with real and relevant datasets that often have been co-created
- support students to learn about how science works – considering how scientists collect and use data and the reliability of particular data, making sense of data and exploring what it means to behave scientifically
- help students ‘take action’ by contributing data or analysis that informs a science-related issue or in response to participating in the OCS (such as seeing the effects of light pollution, climate change and so on).
To successfully integrate an OCS project, it seems helpful for teachers to purposefully consider a range of aspects, including the OCS project, access to devices and working with data.
Which OCS project?
The number of OCS projects is growing, and there may well be several projects that would fit well into your planned unit. A variety are profiled on the Science Learning Hub, but this list is not exhaustive.
Before selecting a project, consider the following:
- Is it still operational/active? (Note that some finished projects still offer access to datasets that can be of great use.)
- What do participants need to do? Will your students manage what is asked of them?
- How easy it is to use the website?
- How do the opportunities it provides fit with previous experiences that students have had?
- What scaffolding will students require in order to contribute to it?
- Which of the NZC science capabilities for citizenship could it help develop?
- How can it be used to extend students’ current capabilities and experiences?
- Are you able to communicate with the scientist(s) behind the project or find out about them and their work?
How many devices?
OCS projects require students to use devices, but there is no ‘right’ answer regarding the number of devices that would be ideal. You certainly do not need 1:1 devices – our research showed that sharing devices was often better. Students working together on the same screen more often discussed and debated their decisions.
For some teachers, getting the students to enter the correct URL was an issue. For others, it was navigating the school system to enable students to use a location feature needed for the OCS. With young students, a tuakana-teina approach was successful.
Obstacles to starting can take away some of the excitement about what students are about to do. Plan ahead and identify potential barriers so that everything goes as smoothly as possible.
Think too about ways students can get sidetracked as they engage in the OCS – using a map feature can end up with students looking at interesting street views if you are not vigilant!
What about the data?
By participating in the OCS project, students sometimes create data for the project scientists to use. It is very important to be clear about what happens to the data your students create and to think about if and how you might use this in developing your students’ science capabilities.
It is useful to consider these questions:
- What parts of your students’ work (data creation) will they be able to access and work with?
- Will they be able to see and use their own and others’ data?
- Can you use and discuss your own class’s data?
- Is it possible to access/compare your data to that from another class at your school, another school or even in another country?
- Does your students’ data just get mixed with everyone else's?
- Can you access all citizen scientists’ contributions?
- Does the project share raw data or present data summaries graphically?
- What do output graphs look like?
- How will you ‘teach’ your students to be able to interpret and make sense of the data or graphs/images generated?
Using an OCS project is likely to take place within a larger unit of work, and it is important to consider what you will do in the body of the unit to support understanding about the OCS.
What will your students need to understand prior to using the OCS project? This could be content related or skill related.
For example, in this case study, teacher Matt Boucher used the OCS projects Agent Exoplanet and Planet Hunters as part of a physics unit on light. These OCS projects invite participants to help identify exoplanets (planets beyond our Solar System) by interpreting light graphs generated from satellite images. Matt first needed to model how the light graphs were generated in order for students to make sense of the data provided in the OCS projects.
Scientific skills and dispositions could include:
- understanding of scale
- developing an eye for detail (close observation)
- repetition (generating sufficient, reliable data)
- persistence (keeping going to achieve a goal)
- integrity (doing your best and giving the best answer possible because the results count).
Developing students’ science capabilities
In order to know that your teaching has developed students’ science capabilities, it is important to focus on depth rather than breadth and making a few aspects very clear and explicit rather than aiming for an extensive list of learning outcomes.
We recommend that you:
- focus on developing only one or two capabilities
- think about your students’ capabilities to start with – what can they or can’t they do?
- think about the words, questions, phrases, conversations and activities you may need to incorporate throughout the unit to develop a particular capability and plan these ahead of time
- plan to share with your students why developing this skill, ability or disposition is important – this shows you value this aspect of their learning and makes the learning of it an explicit intention
- make it clear what quality looks like – notice and celebrate strong student examples and talk about the features of their behaviour
- think about how you will measure your students’ ability in this focus capability so that you and they will know how they have developed.
We make the same recommendation regarding planning for content knowledge development. Choose only two or three science concepts that you want your students to understand in each unit. They may well pick up and understand a lot more, both from the Nature of Science strand and the contextual strands, but this is incidental and a bonus over and above your unit.
Limiting the number of learning outcomes keeps the topic more focused and achievable for all students, and you will have evidence to show how well it worked, what worked and what didn’t and what you might change, amend or adapt next time.
Having planned this unit well, use it again in the future with a new cohort of students. We develop useful understanding about what and how to teach when we refine units and activities as we reteach them, especially about useful activities, teacher questions and what students tend to find difficult.
Find out more about the research project underpinning this work here and read Using the Web for Science in the Classroom: Online Citizen Science Participation in Teaching and Learning.
New Zealand’s science capabilities for citizenship were developed to support teachers to address the overarching Nature of Science strand within our curriculum in ways that develop their students’ capability to critically engage with science as citizens.
This Education Gazette article highlights the benefits of online citizen science for primary education.
This article was crafted by Dayle Anderson from Victoria University of Wellington and science education consultant Brigitte Glasson drawing on an education research project funded through the Teaching & Learning Research Initiative Citizen Scientists in the Classroom.