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Citizen Science: Learning Through Action

Misha Smith

Boise, Idaho

Students gather data on ground cover to study the effects of climate change at Bogus Basin

One of the most impactful ways for students (and adults!) to address local environmental issues is to participate in citizen science opportunities. Students get to practice scientific skills such as asking questions, making observations, collecting and analyzing data, and sharing what they learned through authentic experiences in the field. Getting students outside and thinking like scientists help them make connections between humans and the natural world. These experiences often lead to more inquiry in the classroom, as well as an interest in taking action to address environmental problems in their own backyard. Here are just a sample of the wide variety of citizen science opportunities available to students and adults locally and nationally:

Apps & Websites:

  • Chronolog This site uses crowd sourced repeated photography at an established viewpoint to monitor changes in an environment for time lapse photo documentation. Check out these locations in Idaho, or get one installed at your natural area or restoration project!

  • Ebird Download this app by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to find, identify, and track observations of birds in your own backyard or out in nature.

  • iNaturalist This amazing and addicting app is a collaboration with the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, and can be used to identify and record observations of any living organism in nature that contribute to biodiversity science. The best part is the geospatial data that is collected from each observation and the community of naturalists and scientists that use this data for their research. There is also a simpler version for younger students called Seek that doesn’t collect geospatial data but still provides excellent identification information. My students love iNaturalist because it is so easy to use and inspires curiosity. I’ve heard them call it “Pokemon Go” for naturalists!

  • Marine Debris Tracker An app sponsored by Morgan Stanley and National Geographic that was created to encourage citizens to contribute data on plastic pollution in their community. You do not need to be near a body of water to use this app. My students have used it to document the trash they’ve found and collected in the school neighborhood, and used the data to create a Plastic Patrol program at school.

  • Nature's Notebook This is another nature observation app by the USA National Phenology Network that can be used to discover and document changes in nature.

  • Zooniverse This website is a platform for people powered research where citizens can participate in and create their own projects for crowdsourcing research.

Students pull invasive species near a transplanted cottonwood at their adopted plot in Barber Park. Hawthorne Elementary is one of many schools that have adopted plots through the Boise River ReWild Program.

Classrooms and other community groups:

  • Boise River ReWild Program This local program is a partnership with Golden Eagle Audubon and the City of Boise where citizen groups adopt a pot of land to restore more than 50 acres of critical habitat near the Boise River. Our school adopted a plot and will work for the next two years to restore a riparian area in Barber Park that was damaged by fire and has been taken over by invasive species.

  • City Nature Challenge A global four day bioblitz program in April where citizens use the iNaturalist platform to gather as many natural observations in cities across the world. Here is the data collected from this year’s City Nature Challenge in the Boise Metro Area.

  • City of Trees Challenge This local program created as a collaboration with the City of Boise, Treasure Valley Canopy Network and the Nature Conservancy has the goal to plant one tree for every citizen in the city. Trees are planted in public and private spaces for free.

  • GLOBE A national program that is sponsored by several US Government agencies including NASA and NOAA that contains several ways for students to monitor the four spheres.

  • Intermountain Bird Observatory This local program is run through Boise State University where citizens can observe and participate in bird banding projects.

  • Watershed Watch A local project through the City of Boise and The Watershed, Watershed Watch trains groups to monitor the health of the Boise River during a one day science event.

  • The River Mile Crayfish Study Any K-12 grade school group located in the Columbia River Watershed can participate and submit data about crayfish in their own local area. Any information collected and submitted will aid in the understanding of the distribution and populations of crayfish species in the Columbia River Watershed.

Students gather data in the pond at Terry Day Park as part of the Boise Metro Area City Nature Challenge.


  • Idaho Master Naturalist Program Adults can participate in this program provided by Idaho Fish and Game which aims to develop a corps of well trained volunteers to actively work toward stewardship of Idaho’s natural environment.

  • IdaH2O Teachers and other citizens can take the Master Water Stewardship program by the University of Idaho to learn how to monitor local streams and water quality throughout the state.

No matter what program you choose, getting students outdoors and interacting with their natural world is the first step to connecting them with their environment and science. Just one citizen science experience can launch a whole new generation of scientific thinkers and conservationists. As I always tell my students, you don’t have to wait to be an adult to be a scientist!


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