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Fun Ways to Do Community Science in Your Own Back Yard

How to get kids involved in citizen science

Rebecca Hill

Published on: January 21, 2020

A young boy peers through binoculars

Community science — also referred to as citizen science — is a way for people like you, me and our kids to contribute to science through volunteerism. Ordinary community scientists have applied their efforts to global climate change, endangered species, national weather observations, ornithology, outer space study, critter counts, marine life, ant tracking and, yes, even the biomes of belly buttons. The miracle is that all the data that these volunteers collect and then share with scientists amounts to real scientific change, something that a lone scientist in the lab cannot do. 

There are at least four key reasons why is it important for volunteers to be involved in the science process as community scientists: 

  1. Often, large-scale scientific projects require hands-on help. 
  2. Scientific projects are often dependent on grants and other types of variable funding. Community scientists, as volunteers, help mitigate the financial burden that scientists may bear when collecting and recording data. 
  3. Because scientists can’t be everywhere at once, sometimes volunteers learn things that scientists might never independently discover. 
  4. Finally, community science makes science accessible to everyone. When a school, community or a group of people volunteers to advance a study, it is a reminder that science is a part of our daily lives and that it impacts everything around us.

From the birds, butterflies and the bees to the fishes in the sea, plenty of community science opportunities exist for individual schools and teen and child volunteers in Washington. The following are just a few ways to get involved in community science in your own backyard and beyond.

BirdSleuth, a K–12 inquiry-based community science program of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO), engages students in scientific study, investigation and data collection on bird populations and conservation. Among its programs are Project FeederWatch (a November–April backyard count of birds), the Great Backyard Bird Count (the next GBBC runs Feb. 14–17) and NestWatch (a monitoring program designed to track status and trends in the reproductive biology of birds), all of which contribute data through the CLO’s online eBird database. BirdSleuth also offers teachers access to free downloads, such as the BirdSleuth Explorer’s Guidebook, as well as community science lesson-plan kits.  

The Cascades Butterfly Project has volunteers monitor the baseline habitat conditions of butterflies in order to learn how climate is affecting their populations. Volunteers of all ages help catch, identify and then release butterflies; take photos; and submit geolocation data.

The Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas is a collaborative project to survey the bumble bees of Oregon, Washington and Idaho in order to more effectively enact conservation measures that will benefit these important native pollinators. Volunteer ambassadors (ambeesadors?) can submit observations of bumble bees to or become more involved by adopting a sampling grid cell to conduct and submit more formal surveys.

Community science is alive and going swimmingly at the Seattle Aquarium, where students receive training from experienced field researchers to help monitor intertidal areas in central Puget Sound on low-tide days from April through May. Powered by approximately 400 high school students from area schools, the Citizen Science program gathers data on dozens of marine species. This information, in turn, is made available to university, governmental and not-for-profit institutions for the purposes of informing scientific endeavors.

The aquarium also has a Beach Naturalist Program. Students and their teachers go to the beach at low tide on school days to investigate what’s on the beach. Although the program does not collect data, it is a great opportunity for younger beachcombers to experience community science. 

The Pacific Education Institute (PEI) in Olympia sponsors FieldSTEM, a program that engages school districts to guide outdoor investigations, projects and reporting with an environmental, agricultural or natural resource focus. PEI also supports school districts in customizing their own FieldSTEM projects.

Conservation Northwest knows that people make conservation happen. Although its largest volunteer program, the popular Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project, currently has a waiting list, families can contact the organization to learn more about opportunities that might be available and suitable for kids, including seasonal habitat restoration planting parties.  

Our area zoos offer fantastic opportunities to explore our natural world while also contributing meaningfully to real science research. Woodland Park Zoo runs a number of conservation science programs worth checking out, including an initiative to monitor eight different species of frogs, toads and salamanders; and a spotter program for documenting the presence of urban carnivores.

Similarly, Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (PDZA) has partnered with the University of Washington and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park on a community science project to report sightings of carnivores such as coyotes and raccoons in the Tacoma area. Check the PDZA website for upcoming dates for low-tide beach walks for curious kids ages 5 and older as well as training sessions to participate in surveys of the American pika and nesting purple martins.  

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and the Woodland Park Zoo invite people across the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area to join their annual City Nature Challenge, a friendly nature-observation competition in which citizens can take and upload photos of wild plants and animals using the iNaturalist app. This year’s observation window runs April 24–27.

Washington Trails Association (WTA) — Trails across Washington need our help and support more than ever. WTA provides many ways for kids 10 and older and their families to get involved, from opportunities to join a trail work party (no experience needed!) to youth volunteer vacations for high school students ages 14–18. 

Hiking families with kids of any age can contribute to WTA’s mission by submitting trip reports to its robust database of more than 160,000 user-submitted posts. Researchers at the University of Washington and the U.S. Forest Service use data from WTA trip reports to help gain information about when and where hikers are using trails — information that can help the land agencies best manage their resources. So, what are you waiting for? Take a hike!

Want more?

SciStarter maintains a database of over 3,000 community science projects and events that are searchable by location, scientific topic and age range.

The PBS SciGirls website provides an easy-to-use search interface on the SciStarter database for kid-friendly science projects.

The Green Seattle Partnership website maintains a fantastic calendar of area park and forest restoration events and volunteer steward opportunities, as well as a list of active community science projects.


Patty Lindley contributed to this article.

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