Kids today don’t need to wait until they grow up to become real scientists. “Citizen science” projects give kids, schools, and families opportunities to be integral parts of real science projects. This type of research, where scientists use data collected by volunteer members of the public, is providing invaluable information that traditional researchers wouldn’t have the ability to collect otherwise.
Most kids love a good hands-on science project like adding vinegar to baking soda, but citizen science projects give them an opportunity to participate in research that extends beyond the kitchen. Researchers across the country run hundreds of citizen science projects, with some requiring a bit more knowledge and know-how than others.
However, many are family-friendly for even the youngest scientists and can be done right in your neighborhood. Here are seven kid-friendly projects that only require a smart phone to turn your kid into a real scientist.
Did you know there are over 6,000 species of ladybugs worldwide? Some, however, are becoming increasingly rare, including the nine spotted lady-beetle. As part of the Lost Ladybug Project, entomologists at Cornell University are looking for pictures of any and all ladybugs that you come across in hopes of discovering what changes are happening in the ladybug population. To submit your data, simply download the Lost Ladybug Project app, snap a picture of a ladybug, and answer a few questions.
You don’t have to go to a zoo or far-off jungle to study animals and their evolution. Scientists are using Squirrel Mapper to understand why the Eastern Gray Squirrel has morphed from being mostly black to mostly gray in recent years. Next time you're out for a walk, have your kids count the number of squirrels they see and take note of the color. Then simply record your information in the website.
Your budding astronaut can start her career with NASA by recording cloud observations from your own backyard with Globe Observer. Scientists at NASA use the observations to better understand clouds from below and not just what satellites can show from above. The app asks simple questions that preschoolers can answer about the weather conditions, and elementary schoolers will enjoy identifying various types of clouds.
With night setting in earlier and earlier, you may find yourself staring up at the stars more often than clouds. Globe at Night is a citizen science program that aims to spread awareness and gather data about light pollution. Each month, observers are asked to record their ability to find a certain constellation. The website provides instructions with how to locate each constellation, and also asks a few simple questions about the amount of stars visible.
Scientists at Cornell University have used the information sent in from birders across the country via eBird to help gain a better understanding of bird populations around the world. For example, this spring researchers realized that birders were reporting birds migrating south before plants were actually turning green. Next time you go for a walk, make note of all the birds you encounter through eBird’s app and submit your observations.
If you aren’t familiar with local birds, start out with Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID app. With five questions that a preschooler can answer (What color is the bird? What was it doing when you saw it?), the app helps you easily identify birds. Plus, every time you identify a bird, the app better learns how people describe birds, making it more accurate in the future.
Next time you visit your favorite stream, snap a quick picture to send to Stream Selfie. Citizen scientists are helping the Isaak Walton League of America gather data about the health of streams across the country. The goal is to create a map of potential stream-monitoring sites for future citizen volunteers who may be interested in coordinating stream clean-up projects.
Kids love the opportunity to do anything “real” and “grown-up.” Citizen science projects offer them the chance to help actual scientists and, in turn, learn a little about the scientific process. To learn more about citizen science, check out SciStarter, which has information about hundreds of projects families can do together.