Nicole Krueger
6 real-world NASA citizen science lessons any teacher can lead

Even as a die-hard science geek, molecular biologist Melanie Peffer found her science classes painfully boring. It wasn’t until she started engaging in authentic scientific inquiry in real-world labs that she realized science is actually nothing like what she learned in school.

Real-world science is dynamic, she discovered. It’s messy. And above all, it’s a verb — something you do.

Yet too many students have come to view science as a noun, or something they can passively learn about by listening to the teacher, following the lab recipe or reading a textbook.

Experts agree that authentic STEM learning experiences are the key to engaging students in science while teaching them critical skills like scientific reasoning. But delivering these types of experiences can be tough for teachers, who may not have the time or support to partner with scientists or design real-world projects from scratch.

Fortunately, the growing citizen science movement makes it easier than ever to get students involved in real-world scientific inquiry.

Wanted: Students to help advance scientific discovery!

As scientists struggle to analyze the mounds of data they’ve collected on everything from the Earth’s biosphere to distant galaxies, they’re increasingly calling on the public for help. Everyday citizens can now participate in thousands of real-world science projects by observing the world around them, collecting data on their smartphones or scouring digital images for interesting phenomena. It’s something anyone can do — including students.

“Citizen science is a great way to teach authentic, real-world science — and to address the science practices of the Next Generation Science Standards,” says Jill Nugent, associate dean of STEM science at Southern New Hampshire University. “There’s that light bulb that goes off when they find out science isn’t just in a textbook, and scientists don’t know everything there is to know.”

When students engage in citizen science, they get to collaborate with professional scientists on real-world projects while getting an inside look at how science really works. And the best part is, these projects are easy to find and often simple to implement in the classroom. Here are some resources for getting started:

Does citizen science really work?

NASA Does citizen science

When astronomers asked the public to help spot space warps, or gravitational lenses that magnify distant galaxies, the response far exceeded their expectations. Discover the impact students can have — and the exciting discoveries they can help make — when they collaborate with real-world scientists.

Turn students into real-world science collaborators

NASA turn students into real world

Ready to bring citizen science into the classroom? SciStarter makes it easy to get started. This searchable database of more than 1,500 vetted citizen science projects helps connect teachers with projects that align with their learning objectives. Search by location, subject, age range and type of activity to find a project that meets your needs.

Students can explore the solar system’s outer limits with NASA

NASA students can explore the solar system

Could one of your students be the first to discover Planet 9, the hidden planet scientists believe might be lurking at the edge of our solar system? NASA scientists need eyeballs to scour images of space for brown dwarfs and other anomalies in Earth’s backyard. Find out how your classroom can join the hunt for the elusive Planet 9.

Turn cloud gazing into a real-world science project

NASA turn cloud gazing

Engage kids in STEM by turning one of their natural pastimes into a real-world science activity. With NASA’s GLOBE Observer program, cloud gazing becomes an opportunity to collect observational data that helps scientists better understand the Earth’s climate. Students can add observations about the clouds they spot, or mine the scientific data for their own classroom projects.

Students can help scientists study space weather

For educators seeking new ways to get kids excited about science, auroras — almost mystical in their appeal — offer a cross-disciplinary entry point that spans the humanities as well as physics, chemistry, astronomy and technology. Staff from NASA’s Space Science Education Consortium, which includes ISTE and other organizations, is working with teachers in Alaska to create lesson plans and classroom activities that incorporate seeing and reporting auroras through the Aurorasaurus citizen science project. 

NASA wants students to help predict real-world disease outbreaks

As citizen scientists, students aren’t just encouraged to think about the problem — they’re empowered to do something about it. Mosquito Habitat Mapper, a NASA-sponsored citizen science project, invites teachers and students to scout their communities for places mosquitoes are likely to breed. By reporting potential habitats through NASA’s GLOBE Observer app, they can contribute valuable data that, along with satellite observations, helps scientists forecast the risk of mosquito-borne diseases.

For teachers who are struggling to deliver the types of real-world science experiences today’s learning standards demand, citizen science can provide an easy entry point. Not only do students get to see science as something they can do rather than simply learn about, but they also get to make real and valuable contributions to our growing body of knowledge about the world.

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.

This is an updated version of a post that originally published on Sept. 18, 2018.

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