Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard

What You Need


  • Classroom copies of Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard, by Loree Griffin Burns.
  • Computer(s) with Internet accessibility
Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard


To engage students in meaningful observation of the natural world that involves them in citizen science and adds to scientific understanding.


This lesson is based on the book Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard, written by Loree Griffin Burns with photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz. This book is one of the finalists of the 2013 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science BooksSB&F (Science Books & Films) is a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As the author says in her introduction, citizen science “is the study of our world by the people who live in it.” While research often involves teams of scientists collaborating across continents, the Internet now makes it possible for nonspecialists to participate as well. In Citizen Scientists, the author focuses on four types of animals that volunteers can observe and count: butterflies, birds, frogs, and ladybugs.

Scientific activity is one of the main features of the contemporary world and distinguishes present times from earlier periods. As an endeavor for learning how the world works, it provides a living for a very large number of people. It is important for students to understand how science is organized because, as adults in a democracy, they will be in a position to influence what public support will be provided for basic and applied science. It is also critical that children in early adolescence see science and science-related careers as a real option for themselves personally. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 17.)

The Benchmarks also state that “students should now be using computers as scientists use them—namely to collect, store, and retrieve data, to help in data analysis, to prepare tables and graphs, and to write summary reports. If possible, students should have the opportunity to work on investigations in which they can use computers to communicate with students elsewhere who are working on the same problems.” (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 17.)

While citizen science has existed in some form for hundreds of years, today the Internet has created an unprecedented opportunity for children of all ages to contribute to science while they are still in school. In the introduction to Citizen Scientists, author Burns makes a case that children are sometimes better observers of the natural world than are adults: “Living close to the earth, being observant, and staying focused are excellent traits for a scientist to have. And kids—kids like you—come by these traits naturally.”

At a time when much habitat is lost and many animal species are in danger of becoming extinct, student scientists can play a critical role in protecting our natural world. 

In this lesson, students will investigate and answer questions about one of the four projects found in Citizen Scientists. They will discover that citizen volunteers can contribute significantly to scientific research and help protect animal species in their own backyard. Going further, they can find out more about other types of citizen science projects not covered in the book and share their knowledge with the class. Ultimately, the class can create a book or an infographic depicting the wide variety of citizen science projects in process today.

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.7 Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.8 Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.
Read More

Planning Ahead

For some background information on the author and citizen science, visit these websites:


To introduce students to the concept of citizen science, student should use their Citizen Science student esheet to view Loree Griffin Burns Reading Citizen Scientists. In the video, Loree reads the first chapter of her book. You can use this introduction to lead a brief discussion about citizen science, the role that citizens can play in helping to advance scientific research, and why children make good citizen scientists.

After the discussion, students should investigate further by using their student esheet to go to the National Geographic resource called Citizen Science or watch this brief video on citizen science from Science in Seconds. Based on the reading and videos, you can use these open-ended questions to lead the discussion (students can record their answers on the Citizen Science student sheet):

  • What is citizen science? 
    (It is the study of our world by everyday people, not just professionals, who live in it.)
  • How has citizen science been practiced through the years?
    (Some examples of citizen science include: the study of patterns of bird migration in the late 1800s; Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audubon Society beginning in 1900; weather; and astronomy.)
  • What three famous citizen scientists are mentioned in the video?
    (They are Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Benjamin Franklin.)
  • What are some areas of study that citizens help scientists with?
    (Citizens help scientists with research in biology, birds, frogs, insects, astronomy, weather, climate change, and protein folding.)
  • How do computers and the Internet make it easier for citizens to help in scientific studies?
    (These technologies make it easier through online databases, visualization and sharing technologies, phones with built-in GPS receivers that provide geo-location information about species or situations in real time, and online games such as FoldIt.)
  • Of the citizen scientist projects you have read about and seen, which would you most like to participate in?
    (Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)


This lesson is based around the book Citizen Scientists by Loree Griffin Burns with photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz. As an introduction to the lesson, have students watch the Interview with Loree Griffin Burns and have them answer the following questions on their Citizen Science student sheet to check them for understanding and generate an open-ended discussion about citizen science:

  • What was the author's goal in writing the book?
    (Her goal was to find out about as many citizen science projects as she could.)
  • Who makes a good citizen scientist?
    (Someone who is observant, pays attention to their environment, and keeps careful records.)
  • Why are kids particularly suited to citizen science?
    (They are observant, often outside in nature more than adults, and know what’s going on in their own backyard.)
  • What do scientists gain by using citizen scientists?
    (They gain extra eyes and ears in the field in a wide range of geographical locations.)

Since the book highlights four citizen science projects, have students concentrate on one particular section and do a report on that section for the class. Students could also find a project on their own (other than those highlighted in the book) and report on it to the class. Students can either work individually or in small groups.

Here are a number of citizen science projects that students can investigate as alternatives to the ones in the book:

  • Sunflower Project – Learn about the importance of bees in pollination by growing sunflowers.
  • Urban Birds Project – Learn about urban birds while participating in Cornell's Ornithology Project.
  • Firefly Watch – You can combine an annual summer evening ritual with scientific research.
  • Lost Ladybug Project – A team of Cornell scientists is asking children for help from anywhere in the country. Start looking for ladybugs and "find 'em, photograph 'em and send 'em."
  • School of Ants – This project is a study of the ants that live in urban areas, particularly around homes and schools.

Using the Citizen Scientists Report student sheet, students should answer these questions about their particular project to assess their understand and to root out any misconceptions: 

  1. What is the purpose of the scientific investigation?
  2. Where is the research conducted?
  3. With which organization do the citizen scientists work?
  4. What role do the citizen scientists play in the research?
  5. What are some of the methods used in the research?
  6. What has been learned by the research?
  7. How have environmental changes affected the animals and/or their populations?
  8. How do computers and the Internet help scientists share the data and communicate results to the public?
  9. Why is it important that everyone have access to scientific information? 
  10. How might people in other countries use the data published by U.S. scientists?

Once students have completed their reports, gather all the reports and create a class book showing the wide range of citizen science activities that exist today.

To take the lessons of the book further, have students actually participate in gathering data as citizen scientists using National Geographic's Project Noah. Using the Project Noah app for smartphones (or a digital camera and the project's Web interface), you can take students outside to take photos of the birds, animals, insects, and plants they find and submit them to Project Noah.


Conduct a review of the main points students learned in this lesson about the role of regular citizens in the scientific enterprise. Go over the reports created by students to see if they answered the questions in the lesson plan thoroughly and communicated clearly the main idea of citizen science. You can generate a Project Rubric from the Teachnology website to score the students' performance on their reports. Check for understanding of how the Internet helps scientists share and disseminate information to the public and why it’s important for everyone in the world to have access to knowledge gained by science. 


Students (either independently or with the entire class) could embark on one of the citizen science projects highlighted in the book, mentioned above in the Development section, or found on the Scientific American’s Citizen Science webpage. They should use the Citizen Science Project Sheet to guide their discovery.

The following Science NetLinks lessons can also be used to extend the ideas found in this lesson:

Funder Info
Science NetLinks is proud to have Subaru as a funder of this project.

Did you find this resource helpful?

Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards

Tips + Modifications

  • If you want to tie this lesson into research, PLOS One has an article on using data from the Christmas Bird Count to show shifts in over-wintering patterns: http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0065408
    - Kirstin