Do you want to make science learning a richer experience for your students? Do you feel pulled to step away from the science experiment kits? Are you looking for authentic problems with which to engage your students? I’ve thought about the issue of authentic problems off and on for a quite a while. But lately I have been giving that question, and how to construct quality STEAM lessons, a lot more thought. Just as we educators want students to see themselves as artists, writers, readers and mathematicians, we also want our students to see themselves as scientists.
I was chatting with a friend recently who is an elementary school teacher. She is passionate about the importance of teaching science. Sadly, the subject of science is often given less time and attention than it deserves. Especially in struggling schools who tend to put their focus on ELA and math. This friend and colleague turned me on to an incredible resource that she has used. It’s a wonderful way to engage your students in real-world issues working with scientists to gather data that can have an actual impact on current research.
There is a movement called Citizen Science – a collaboration of institutions, scientists, businesses and everyday citizens to make advances in science. It takes the idea of crowdsourcing, harnessing the “wisdom of the crowd.” It applies that idea to solving problems related to our planet and all those living on it. As the Citizen Science Alliance explains, having internet-based science projects allows scientists to cope with large data sets and helps make computers “smarter” when they are analyzing data. They also point out that there is no substitution for the human brain. Why? Because the brain is trained to notice abnormalities and make unusual connections. The more eyes you have looking at a problem, the more likely you are to make an important discovery. They also remark that, “Unlike traditional education programs, from the moment users first interact with one of our projects they are not only learning but contributing to science.” Cool, right?!
So I did a bit of digging. That, and with the help of my colleague, I discovered a treasure trove of resources out there for teachers. Of any grade level!
There is “SciStarter” which allows you to search for just the right project for you and your students. You can search by keyword or phrase, topic, grade level, or indoor vs. outdoor projects. Even specific physical locations like a classroom or a stream. There are so projects to choose from. Alzheimer’s Research by watching videos of the brains of mice. Weather research by contributing pictures and observations or measurements of clouds or levels of precipitation. Environment photographing and testing the health of water or the amount of light pollution in an area. Many of these projects come with associated lessons and teaching materials that teachers have developed. There was one project I read about called “The Great Pumpkin Project”. It was by a lab at North Carolina State University to help understand “the diversity of insects and microbes on cucurbit plants.” Just reading the description and related resources got me excited about the project!
Science: The Next Generation
You can even search for “Citizen Science” along with the name of your city. It might lead you to exciting projects! Community organizations like Audubon societies, planetariums or environmental groups in your area often spear-head projects that could become great education partners and resources for meaningful STEAM lessons. When I researched Citizen Science in my area, I learned there will be a Citizen Science expo in San Diego on April 14 which turns out to be Citizen Science Day. Who knew that holiday existed? Contributing to science that is working on better understanding our planet or helping it to thrive is a wonderful way to celebrate Earth Day!
So, if you are a teacher of science, you may want to check out this movement. Allow your students to be Citizen Scientists taking part in a project beyond themselves. A project that could have impact across the globe or right at home. Involving your students in this type of activity could lead to even greater curiosity about the topic. (Which then may lead to authentic lines of inquiry the students generate themselves.) Empower your students to see themselves as scientists and start to behave like scientists too!