Can kids do citizen science?

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Citizen scientists have helped researchers track everything from endangered plants to monarch butterfly eggs. But these amateur observers are usually adults. Could kids help out too?

In a study published in PLOS ONE, scientists tested the citizen science capabilities of 302 elementary school students in Germany. The children, enrolled at 10 schools in urban and rural areas, ranged from 8 to 10 years old. As part of their science curriculum, the kids carried out experiments with plant seeds in the spring and early summer of 2013.

The experiment went as follows: Each class received six sets of 10 oat seeds and 10 red clover seeds. In their schoolyard, the students shielded each set of seeds with different types of barricades such as mesh wire cages, petri dishes, rain roofs, and slug fences. Each enclosure allowed only a certain type of animal inside. For instance, one set of seeds could be accessed only by earthworms, another by small rodents, and so on.

Elementary school students in Germany set up experiments with seeds as part of a study to test their citizen science capabilities.

Some of the classes set up all the treatments at the same time in small groups; in other classes, each group set them up one by one. A scientist taught the class, while a teacher supervised.

A few days later, the kids counted how many seeds remained. The children also searched for nearby seeds — which had been colored with fluorescent paint — with the help of UV flashlights. In another part of the experiment, the students estimated the amount of plant cover and measured plant height at the site. Scientists performed the same observations as the kids.

The kids did fairly well at counting. The scientists and children reported similar numbers of oat seeds, and their red clover seed counts were close in cases where the students had set up the treatments all at once. However, the kids’ assessments of vegetation height and cover were way off, perhaps because they didn’t understand the instructions or found it difficult to provide estimates.

Despite the mixed results, the authors are optimistic that kids could become involved in citizen science as long as the tasks are simple enough. And these projects could help children learn more about conservation issues. “[O]ne could not start early enough in childhood to promote nature awareness,” the researchers write. Roberta Kwok | 30 November 2015

Source: Miczajka, V.L., A.-M. Klein, and G. Pufal. 2015. Elementary school children contribute to environmental research as citizen scientists. PLOS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0143229.

First image © | Shutterstock
Second image © Miczajka, V.L., A.-M. Klein, and G. Pufal. 2015. PLOS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0143229.