Sharing nature is one of the most satisfying, rewarding, and free activities you can engage in as a family. Nature is available anytime, anywhere, and even the smallest plot of land can become a gateway into this magical world. Forays into nature are personally satisfying, they can bolster and solidify family relationships, but now a family’s nature activities can be harnessed to a much broader end: scientific research. Over the past few decades, the advent of numerous citizen science projects has invited the public of all ages to engage in meaningful scientific research. In the process, the whole family can become educated and excited about nature.
Citizen science is a research protocol that relies upon, in part or wholly, on the public to gather data and submit it to a central collection point for professional scientists to analyze. Citizen science has exploded over the past fifty years, with projects for every interest. On the website, SciStarter over 2,700 projects have been collected. The federal government is even using citizen science to help their agencies, and they have a searchable hub for projects online. A study made in 2016 revealed that the largest impact of citizen science was in biology, conservation, and ecology, and there are indeed a huge number of nature-based projects.
Citizen science nature projects range in complexity. The simplest and most popular project is iNaturalist. Through the iNaturalist app, individuals can share observations related to any biodiversity anywhere in the world. Using this application, participants upload photographs of an organism in a specific time and place from their phones or via the iNaturalist website. You don’t even have to know what a plant or animal is since identification is either made or verified by crowdsourcing. One of the bi-products of this application has been the advent of bio-blitzes, which attempt to inventory all the organisms in a designated area. At the South Carolina Botanical Garden, we have established a portal to upload observations of nature in the Garden, and we encourage you to add to our database. The newest addition to the iNaturalist platform is Seek, designed specifically for children and families. I encourage you to download both applications and experiment with them.
For older children, there are a plethora of citizen science projects that require a little more training and preparation. At the SCBG, we have dipped into a few such projects: The Lost Ladybug Project, FrogWatch, and most recently, we tracked dogwood trees as the leaves and flowers opened as part of the Natures Notebook Phenology Project. It is up to the individual as to how much effort they put into the project, but each one provides a way to enter into the natural world and explore it further. Each website is full of resources to learn more about a specific creature or process, including lesson plans, coloring sheets, quizzes, and many other activities. As we weather this pandemic, citizen scientist projects might be of considerable help to your family to provide both a fun and educational experience.
Citizen Science Projects: A small sample