Photo Credit: Clipart.com.
One of the easiest ways to get students excited about science in the classroom is to excite them about science outside of the classroom. Citizen science projects, which ask non-scientists to gather or work with information to help scientists with research, are abundant these days and often are happy to accept student participants.
One of the oldest citizen science projects in the United States is the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count. First conducted on Christmas Day in 1900, the original idea was posed as an alternative to traditional Christmas hunts and was completed by 27 birders who tallied 90 species. Each year, this three-week-long event now attracts more than 72,000 volunteer bird counters in more than 2,400 locations across the Western Hemisphere. Last year birdwatchers counted nearly 69 million birds, comprised of 2,106 species, approximately 20% of all bird species known on the planet. This year's census of birds, the 116th, began on December 14 and will conclude on January 5.
To participate, you must join a group count, each of which happens on a single day and covers a pre-determined circle with a 15-mile diameter. If you live (or go to school) within that circle, you can make arrangements with the count organizer to count the birds in your backyard or schoolyard. Otherwise, you'll be able to head out into the field with an experienced birder and other novice birdwatchers. You'll count every single bird you hear or see throughout the day.
Scientists use the data compiled during the Christmas Bird Count and the Breeding Bird Survey each June to measure the health and status of bird communities in the Western Hemisphere. Results from the Christmas Bird Count have been used as an early warning system for declining populations, such as in the 1980s, when for the first time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used survey results to determine that American black ducks were being overhunted and to restrict hunting numbers in order to help stabilize the population. More than 200 papers have come from Christmas Bird Count data, including the groundbreaking Audubon's Birds and Climate Change Report (first published in 2009 and updated in 2014), which predicts the potential effects climate change will have on 314 migratory bird populations 50–80 years from now.
If you'd like to find out more about our fine feathered friends, All about Birds is a comprehensive, online guide to birds from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and is a great place to start learning about birds that might be found locally (as well as more exotic species). Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard engages students in meaningful observation of the natural world by sketching common birds in their area, while Bird Populations focuses on patterns and changes in bird species.
If citizen science sounds interesting, but the Christmas Bird Count doesn't work for you, there are many other options for getting involved: Zooniverse, Project SETI, and EyeWire offer projects that can be done on a computer or mobile device. The Journey North, iNaturalist, and Project Noah apps all encourage people to share their data about plants and animals from out and about. BioBlitz is an annual 24-hour event in which teams of volunteer scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi, and other organisms as possible. The 2016 BioBlitz will take place on May 20–21 at national parks across the country. You can see a Morning Bird Inventory from the 2013 event in Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in southern Louisiana.