Real Science – Citizen Science

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching science to school students is the ability to use citizen science projects and programs to engender real learning and validity to the learning experience.

When students are asked to collect, consider and submit data or utilise a data set to make conclusions, the experience should offer greater opportunities for aspects of learning such as student engagement, deep learning and higher order thinking aspects to suggest a few. Here is a great read from KQED.

I know that when I work with real data or submit data I gain a greater sense of satisfaction through knowing that I am engaged with real science; I am observing and recording, collecting and analyzing, hypothesizing and concluding.

A new an exciting Australian project is TeachWild, monitoring marine debris in our waters and especially focusing on small plastics that are so inviting and fatal to seabirds and marine life. A great ABC Catalyst article can be found here.

I have written about Birds in Backyards in Australia and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Lab in Ithaca, NY previously and the innovative programs they both have on offer.  Having lived on the coast for many years I have always maintained an interest in marine and environmental education.

With data sets available that explore great white shark movements, penguin counts and recently the ability to contribute to whale shark population and movement counts in Western Australia diverse teaching opportunities are available.

The next time you are thinking about teaching science, consider citizen science and how you as an educator can contribute not only to a student’s deep knowledge and learning but also through encouraging them to make a real difference in the world.

Enhancing Middle School Science Projects through Using ISS Earthkam and GRAIL Moonkam


Sally Ride was America’s first woman in space being a crew member of Challenger STS-7. In later years she founded Sally Ride Science and until her death in July 2012 she was a major supporter of outreach science programs for students including though her own Sally Ride Science business arm.

Two key projects that have enabled middle school students worldwide to gain a more comprehensive understanding of our place in space are the established ISS EathKAM project along with the recently launched GRAIL Moonkam;. Both projects operate in conjunction with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and allow students to request photographs from the ISS and Ebb and Flow GRAIL satellites.

I’ve used both programs over the past two years and have found that students greatly enjoyed the experience of logging onto the Student Mission Control Centre (SMOC) and using unique passwords to request specific location photos of either the Earth or the Moon’s surface.

Both platforms are web based which makes them easily accessible. They provide resources and guides for students to learn about orbits, day and night passes, camera distances and latitude and longitude. In both cases I had extension year 4-6 groups who responded enthusiastically to the concept of identifying a desired location on an available day orbit, requesting a photo, and then, in effect, controlling the camera shutter to take the image.

After the photos were taken, which took up to a week or more students were able to download their images for closer examination and interpretation. In MoonKAM craters, mountains, long shadows and the occasional technical error were all met with a smile. In EarthKAM images that greeted students included vast ocean stretches, the Australian outback near lake Eyre and sometimes a complete cloud layer.

Both programs offer students an insight into the vastness of space along with the scientific research and investigation goals of NASA and the technology of satellites and the ISS. Importantly, projects such as these foster in students a sense of curiosity and the knowledge that there is much out there to explore, comprehend and enjoy.

All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary. Sally Ride 1951-2012

Mobile Learning – School Birding and iPads; exploring ecology.


This is an update of a previous entry in mid 2012.

Just over a year ago at my previous school Sussex Inlet PS (coastal with remnant forest and nature trail) I ran regular bird studies activities either before school as a special interest group activity or with my regular class as appropriate.  The sessions came out of my interest in environmental education, a visit to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York state and the availability of the Birds in Backyards website and its online school survey function.

What started out as regular bird watching and identification transformed into science focused data collection with a purpose; students not only wanted to identify birds and listen to their calls but then collate the session data and log each survey.

I’m now at at Mt Ousley PS in urban Wollongong. The school is in the middle of a suburban residential block and is surrounded by houses; a different ecological environment yet still interesting and with a range of urban species.

I introduced my class to bird observation through a walk around the grounds, we took with us a species identification chart and a single pair of binoculars. Students quickly became absorbed in looking and listening for birds and as I’ve found previously, ‘the outdoor classroom’ encouraged students to actively respond to their surrounds.

Excitingly and for our next session we had the use of iPads and a wireless school network for web access to the Birds in Backyards site.  The students, armed now with various defined roles such as identification chart observer, bird spies (via five pairs of new binoculars), and iPad researcher responded to an enhanced learning experience.

The iPads proved a success as the students used the devices as bird identification tools and to enter data and survey results while others played mp3 birdcalls of species observed and took photos as we moved to different areas.  Combine this with Google Maps providing a satellite location shot and we had a mobile learning experience that was truly valid, engaging and rewarding.

In 2013 I’ve also started using the Field Guide to Victorian Fauna iPad/iPod/iPhone app as it covers the vast majority of birds seen and has integrated bird calls while not needing an active Internet connection. It’s also worth remembering that Birds in Backyards can provide collated data in spreadsheet form for long term reviews and studies.

I now have students asking to go birding, that have purchased their own binoculars and are producing bird artworks and observing birds at home…an education that goes beyond the classroom, beyond the school and into the home.

We recently participated in a video conference with the Field of Mars Environmental Education Centre in Sydney and shared with five others schools how to explore our habitat and build a nest box and is the subject of another blog entry.

Creative, critical and curious students…… now that is rewarding!