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How a Citizen Science Project Helped Our Family See The World In A Whole New Way

Jun 27, 2018

A few weeks ago, my kids and I met a neighbour. He was lying in our driveway, perfectly still, with his butt in the air. He had a black, heart-shaped marking on his behind with a yellow halter-top and subtly iridescent wings. Oh yeah, he was about the size of my thumb. He might be a bombus affinis or a bombus impatiens. We’ll let you know when we figure that out. It’s tricky.

Our family has admired the bumbling visitors to our flower garden for some time, but it wasn’t until we joined Bumblebee Watch that we realized the bees we were admiring were mostly just one individual. It was an eye-opener, for sure. He no longer feels like some bee. He is our bee.

Bumblebee Watch is one of a slew of citizen science projects that invite kids of all ages to engage with science, or other disciplines, through hands-on participation. They usually involve simple field observations or home computer tasks that cannot easily be performed either by professional scientists directly or by computers.

Websites like Zooniverse and Scistarter are great places to get started. These sites boast huge searchable databases of projects from a broad range of disciplines.

Our family is still new to the world of citizen science. But I already have a wish list of projects that I’d like to take on with my kids.


Squirrel Mapper

Why are grey squirrels trying out new coats? That’s the intriguing question that James Gibbs has posed. Sure, these days, most grey squirrels are, indeed, grey.

But 200 years ago most were apparently black. What gives? To participate, simply observe squirrels in your area and post to the online map. Squirrel Mapper also features a guide for teachers, which includes key questions and an online “squirrel hunt” challenge.


Frog Watch

This one teaches kids to keep their ears open around ponds and lakes.

Frog Watch is one of several programs for nature enthusiasts run by Nature Watch Canada. Frog Watch teaches volunteers to identify common frog calls, and asks participants to listen for them in the spring mating season. You can even submit your observations, which are then populated on a map online!


Project Feeder Watch

Do these other projects sound like too much work? Feeder watching may be for you. Project Feeder Watch is one of several programs coordinated by Bird Studies Canada.

It really is as simple as it sounds. Simply pick a time to observe and record the highest number of species at your home feeder. First-time Feeder Watchers receive a bird-identification poster along with instructional materials.


OK. But is this ‘citizen science’ stuff real science? That is a great question and one that I think is worth exploring with kids. I have no background in science and my kids certainly don’t. We’re not bringing expertise to the table. I do know that well-designed experiments exploit the data available and that large sample sizes, the kind that can be crowdsourced, can produce statistically meaningful results.


Relevant Reading: What is Geocaching and Why Will Your Family Love It?


More importantly, as a parent, I can’t think of a better way to engage my kids with scientific ideas and with the world around them. Our family may never actually figure out on our own if our new friend is bombus affinis or bombus impatiens — the picture we snapped with my phone is a teensy bit blurry — but we certainly learned something about nature. We met a neighbour and we didn’t even know he was a neighbour. Our bee.

IMAGES: Squirrel by © Steven Cooper/123RF | Frog by © Pawel Horazy/123RF | Birds by © ayatesphotos/Twenty20

Article Author Rob Thomas
Rob Thomas

Read more from Rob here.

Rob Thomas is a writer, editor and a work-at-home dad. Brood, a book of poems inspired by his experiences of fatherhood, was launched at the Ottawa International Writers Festival in 2014. His journalism has appeared in places such as Ottawa Magazine, the United Church Observer, Canadian Running and on CBC radio and television. He is also a founding member of an Ottawa social club for dads called The Ugly Mothers.

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