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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Getting Started on Going Green: Finding Citizen-Science Projects That Work

Tips to engage students.
By Evantheia Schibsted

Whether it entails counting crows on urban school playgrounds or monitoring sea slugs along local beaches, what could be more hands on, instructional, and, well, fun for kids than citizen-science projects? The following tips aim to help you find or create projects that will spark and sustain the enthusiasm of your students.

  • Look for an existing project that has gone through the trial-and-error phase.
    Loads of innovative initiatives exist online. Local environmental groups are also valuable resources.
  • Research environmental groups in your surrounding area, then partner with them to create your own projects.
    Such groups, including local and national agencies as well as universities, often welcome student help and energy and are sometimes required to engage the community in an educational-outreach program, and they may be a simple phone call away.
  • Be clear about your expectations and goals with your scientific partners.
    It's a must to have step-by-step protocol and training on how to collect and deliver data.
  • Be clear with your students about your expectations.
    Requiring students to present their findings in a written report or an oral presentation -- or both -- to their peers or your scientific partners (when possible) can motivate students to focus on projects.
  • Make sure the project allows for inquiry-based learning.
    Students should understand that science is a practice of asking questions, not just memorizing facts or collecting data. Provide opportunities for analyzing and comparing their findings with the findings of other students, schools, and online data.
  • Find a hands-on task that sparks their interest but doesn’t scare them or compromise their safety.
    Don’t ask fourth graders to monitor black widows. Safer but equally charismatic specimens such as ladybugs or salamanders are more appropriate.
  • Mix up the learning experience by bringing in scientific speakers or attending events sponsored by environmental groups.
    Asking questions of a scientist or someone working in the environmental field makes the project come alive for kids.
  • Don’t allow a lack of funds to stifle the project.
    Consider sponsoring an environmental work-a-thon where students raise money by performing constructive, green-related tasks, such as planting trees or picking up trash at their school or in their neighborhood. Be sure to research grant possibilities -- many exist, particularly for schools partnering with environmental groups.
  • Remind students how their data contributes to the greater good.
    Collecting data can become mundane or, worse yet, be seen as what all kids dread: busywork. Students need to know they’re making a difference, which can also teach them the importance of stewardship. Locally based projects offer such an incentive.

Evantheia Schibsted is a contributing writer to Edutopia.

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