The rise of young citizen scientists is the stuff education dreams are made of. We’re talking about students armed with nothing more than enthusiasm and curiosity, smartphones and an internet connection, getting out and about in the great outdoors to participate in collecting data in the name of science. This week on School Stream, we’re looking at the rise of citizen science, the untapped potential of citizen scientists in urban environments, and the benefits when students engage in science in their own neighbourhood.
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What is a citizen scientist (and what do they do)?
So, first things first, you don’t need a qualification to get involved in a citizen scientist project. It’s also worth noting that you’re never too young (or too old) to start your scientific career; there are citizen scientists from preschool age all the way through to post-retirement age contributing to research projects. Citizen scientists participate in a range of activities from identifying species, tracking bird migration, monitoring wild turtles, watching for weeds, measuring air quality, mapping galaxies, joining fossil digs, and so much more. A citizen science project is essentially crowdsourcing scientific data – a group focused on a hyper-local site can generate an impressive amount of data in great detail – leading to some pretty impressive discoveries.
Citizen scientists can make a big impact
You may have heard of the Canberra-based teenager who re-discovered a rare beetle that hadn’t been seen in the ACT for more than six decades. Or perhaps the Australian volunteer citizen scientists participating in Stargazing Live who found four previously unknown planets orbiting a nearby star. This discovery perhaps best illustrates the potential of citizen scientists to make a big impact. Over 7000 aspiring astronomers of all ages collected over 1.5 million points of interest over two days. That’s the equivalent of a single astronomer working 24 hours a day without a break for several years, proving that sometimes a lot of people working together is even more powerful than the best technology.
Why do kids and teens make great citizen scientists?
Kids and teens have a head start when it comes to citizen science. We’re talking about natural curiosity, enthusiasm, the capacity to follow precise instructions and, if we’re honest, a better handle on technology than a lot of adults. This last factor is important. The unprecedented rise in the popularity of citizen science is directly related to the increased sophistication and availability of tech. Things like macro lenses that would have been prohibitively expensive in the past are now a standard function on smartphones and tablets. Similarly, there has been a proliferation of science apps that allow kids to submit photos for identification.
“Students are using smartphones and tablets in school playgrounds to capture extraordinary images of insects less than 1cm long, or tiny details of flower parts. There’s an online dashboard where students can see and share observations and knowledge.”
Citizen science is a gateway to STEM
In a world where we are worried about the lack of interest in STEM-related fields, citizen science is a gateway to engaging students in this exciting and important field. An ongoing real-world project can help kids and teens understand why science is important, how it makes a contribution, that it solves problems, and makes a difference.
Did you know that 30% of Australia’s threatened species are found in cities? Three-quarters of Australians live in urban environments, but, according to the Australian Citizen Science Association’s Citizen Science Project Finder only 5% of citizen scientist projects (in Australia) are based in cities.
That’s a lot of untapped potential! There are benefits specific to urbanites when it comes to getting involved in citizen science projects. From an article published in Urban Ecosystems in 2021:
“Citizen science offers a unique opportunity to connect urban-dwellers with the often hidden natural world upon their doorsteps and to contribute to authentic research that increases knowledge of urban ecology and biodiversity.”
When you add to this a sense of community, the opportunity to engage in a meaningful way with science, social interaction, all the wellbeing benefits that come from being in nature, and a sense of purpose, it’s a win-win for everyone. And all of this while contributing to humanity and the planet too!
Resources for schools
A quick search online shows there is an absolute treasure trove of resources for schools when it comes to citizen science projects. Here are some options to get you started:
- The Australian Citizen Science Association is funded by a federal grant and is run in partnership with the University of Sydney. It’s also a great place to start when it comes to citizen science. Visit to find a list of projects around Australia that you can join, as well as loads of research.
- The B&B Highway Project is run by Planting Seeds Projects and is a great option for schools in urban environments in NSW and Victoria. The B&B’s (Bed and Breakfasts for Birds, Bees, Butterflies and Biodiversity), provide much-needed rest and revival for pollinators who are experiencing alarming population declines. The project includes specialised training for teachers and students.
- NASA (yes, the NASA) has a dynamic range of citizen science projects that are open to everyone – no matter where you’re located in the world. They cover earth science, marine biology and space.
- Space enthusiasts can also explore galaxies using a universe atlas online via Aladin Lite.
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