“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.” John Keats
How do we make science as real as possible for our students? Perhaps by making it as real as possible for ourselves. And there are loads of free, fun ways to do exactly that, to walk in the shoes of a scientist, if only for a little while. Here are several for you to consider.
Wikipedia defines citizen science (also known as crowd science, crowd-sourced science, civic science, volunteer monitoring or networked science) as scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists.
The grandfather of all citizen science programs is the Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC), which takes place annually between December 14 and January 5. It is an early-winter bird census, where thousands of volunteers across the US, Canada, and many countries in the Western Hemisphere, go out over a 24-hour period on one calendar day to count birds. If you aren’t an experienced birdwatcher, don’t worry. Each team includes at least one experienced birder, so it’s an opportunity for you to learn more about various bird species in your area and to learn how to identify birds by their markings, habits, songs, and flight profiles, while honing your observation skills. The payoff is that ornithologists and conservationists use the data gathered by volunteers, so you are are making a genuine contribution to science. “To date over 200 peer-reviewed articles have resulted from analysis done with Christmas Bird Count data. CBC data has been used by U.S. federal agencies as an important basis for making decisions about birds.”
An interesting side note is that the CBC was developed in response to a 19th century tradition of holding Christmas bird hunts in which people competed to see how many birds they could kill, regardless of whether they had any use for the carcasses or whether the birds were beneficial, beautiful, or rare. In December 1900, the U.S. ornithologist Frank Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore (which became Audubon magazine), proposed counting birds on Christmas instead of killing them. What a novel idea!
A local citizen science opportunity, if you live in the Chicago area, is run out of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Plants of Concern monitors rare and endangered species of plants in the Chicago Wilderness Region. Volunteers can participate in Forays to work as a group monitoring these species. Forays begin at 9 a.m. and are scheduled for the following 2015 dates and sites:
Wednesday, August 5: Illinois Beach State Park, Zion, IL
Tuesday, September 1: Hickory Creek Barrens, Mokena, IL
Early-mid September: Bergman Slough, Palos Park, IL
Tuesday, October 6: Illinois Beach State Park, Zion, IL
You can learn more about Plants of Concern activities and fill out a volunteer application here.
Wherever you live, there are likely to be opportunities for teachers to get field experience working side by side with scientists. Contact the usual suspects … museums, universities, state and national parks, and nonprofit environmental organizations.
However, if nothing is close by, there is always the Internet, available 24/7 for citizen scientists. Citizen science has gone digital, with online opportunities for you (and your students) to make a contribution to scientific research.
One of the most successful and popular citizen science programs is Foldit, an online puzzle video game about protein folding. The game is part of an experimental research project and was developed by the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science in collaboration with the UW Department of Biochemistry. The objective of the game is to fold the structure of selected proteins using various tools provided within the game. Researchers analyze the highest scoring solutions to determine whether or not there is a native structural configuration (or native state) that can be applied to the relevant proteins in the “real world.” Scientists can then use these solutions to solve “real-world” problems such as targeting and eradicating diseases and creating biological innovations. As it turns out, the 57,000 worldwide players of Foldit matched or outperformed algorithmically computer solutions.
Scientist in the Classroom
Another way to become more fluent in doing science is to interact with scientists and other STEM professionals, and if your students can also share this experience, so much the better.
The National Lab Network (formerly National Lab Day) is a national initiative that connects teachers to STEM professionals. Polar Educators International (PEI) is another organization that seeks to connect scientists with teachers. And if you go to the PEI Facebook page, you can post a question there and it just might be answered by a scientist, sometimes from thousands of miles away and sometimes within minutes of your asking it. Similarly, the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) can help foster those scientist to classroom exchanges. If you’re looking for a scientist, you can contact APECS to see if there are any scientists who would be willing to Skype or email with you and your students or, depending on your location, come into your classroom.
And what’s to prevent you from emailing scientists out of the blue to pose questions from your students? The National Science Foundation website lists all of its funded research projects. With a little digging, you might be able to find a scientist at a university near you who would be willing to make a visit. Scientists who receive NSF funding are required to do public outreach as a condition of the grant; they often don’t know what to do. That’s where you come in.
I would also encourage you to reach out to family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues’ families and friends to connect with a STEM professional. Just ask. It’s important for kids to see adults doing interesting work in STEM careers, so that they can begin to imagine themselves in those adult roles. Some of these teacher/scientist partnerships can become longstanding, providing teachers and students with opportunities to work as researchers with scientists on real world projects.
The next post will take a look at the most immersive (and exciting) way in which you as a teacher can walk the walk.
You can learn more about STEM Institute here.