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Home Education Parent Resources Get the family taking part in citizen science from your Maryland backyard

Get the family taking part in citizen science from your Maryland backyard

By Laura Barnhardt Cech

It’s mealtime for the wounded turtles at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Lothian. And a Maryland dad and his two little boys know just what to. They are a good example of “citizen scientists.”

Eric Lind and his 11- and 6-year-old boys dutifully chop some branches, and pick some berries, then set out to dig up some worms for the turtles that they’ve nicknamed “the girls.”

“You go back a little later and see what’s left,” says 11-year-old Daniel Lind. “Patches eats everything. The others are picky.”

Feeding the turtles, injured by lawn mowers and cars, has become a monthly activity for the Lind family of Lothian, who also volunteer with stream monitoring. They are getting a little science education every time they come without even knowing it.

“The boys like it,” Eric Lind says. “They’d rather go the stream than go to the mall.”

If your Maryland family is looking to unplug more often (and make fewer mall trips), there are dozens of scientific and nature programs in the Maryland area geared toward families looking to be citizen scientists.

Whether your family wants to count crickets or gaze at the stars, feed turtles or clean hiking trails, there is a way to have a hands-on educational science experience. Called “citizen science,” many research projects rely on volunteers to gather data. They allow families to report their findings and to learn about the plants, animals, and insects that are, in some cases, quite literally in your own backyard.

“It’s a great way to a.) get kids outdoors; b.) do something as a family; c.) learn about nature,” says Amy Shoop, a park ranger at Patuxent Wildlife Refuge in Laurel. “It’s also a benefit because it helps scientists.”

The data collected helps identify changes in climate, shifting species and other trends that researchers wouldn’t be able to spot otherwise, Shoop and other scientists say. Read on to find out ways to take part in citizen science in Maryland.

Citrizen science projects for families

Citizen scientist Daniel Lind
Citizen scientist Daniel Lind

Here are some examples of ways your family can get involved in citizen science in Maryland.

• Measure rain

An extremely easy backyard science project is weather reporting. The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) based out of Colorado relies on volunteers of all ages to measure and map precipitation.

Participation requires a high capacity 4-inch diameter rain gauge (about $20). Volunteers empty the gauge each day and report the measurements.

“It’s especially important in our area,” says Sally Hornor, professor of Biology at Anne Arundel Community College. “Storm water is the greatest source of pollution. The amount of rain is predictive of how much bacteria is in the water.”

• Count bugs and butterflies. (and more)

Is there anything more quintessentially summer than kids running through the yard chasing fireflies? Now you can get involved in a scientific research project in the process.

The Museum of Science in Boston, and researchers from Tufts University and Fitchburg State College are tracking the geographic distribution of fireflies and their activity during the summer season. They hope to learn more about how these luminary insects are affected by human-made light and pesticides in lawns.

Check out the website for more information on the firefly count

A similar count is done for bees

Organizers are hoping to stage a second Maryland Cricket Crawl, a census of late summer crickets and katydids. Last year, the event was held on a Friday evening in August. Families learn to identify the sounds of the insects, then call in or email results.

The project was a partnership of the Natural History Society of Maryland, the Audubon Naturalist Society, DiscoverLife.org, and the U.S. Geological Survey. The NHS also holds workshops, nature walks and other programs for families.

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater has two butterfly surveys (and a class to use field guides) planned this spring.

• Gaze at the stars

Looking at the nighttime sky can be as simple or as in-depth as you want it to be.

If you want to keep it basic, grab a blanket, a flashlight, bug spray and head out to a meadow on a clear night. Ponder the universe, and count stars. (Bonus, of course, if you see a shooting star.)

But if the kids are old enough and so inclined, binoculars and telescopes reveal a whole new realm of science to explore. Many local astronomy clubs offer public programs, where knowledgeable guides can show you some of the basic constellations and will let you look through their telescopes and other equipment.

For example, the National Park Service and National Capital Astronomers hosts “Exploring the Sky” sessions once a month, April through November, on a Saturday night in Rock Creek Park in Washington D.C. Beginners, including children, are welcome. Call 202-895-6070 for details.

The Howard Astronomical League of Central Maryland and the Southern Maryland Astronomical Society also offer programs geared to families and beginners.

Several websites offer free online courses, constellation guides and sky maps. Check out: http://www.windows2universe.org/citizen_science/starcount/index.html, http://www.kidsastronomy.com/academy/index.htm or http://www.dustbunny.com/afk/

Watch birds, count roadkill and more

Citizen Scientist Daniel Lind
Citizen Scientist Daniel Lind

• Watch birds

The Great Backyard Bird Count was just held in February. But birdwatchers can mark their calendars for December when the Christmas Bird Count begins.

Or build a bird feeder to participate in the Project FeederWatch program, which begins in November and runs through early April. And eBird, another backyard reporting program, runs year-round.

All the programs are very family-friendly, with easy-to-read guides and internet-based logs. “It’s 15 minutes a day, and you don’t even have to do it every day,” says Pat Leonard, one of the coordinators of the Great Backyard Bird Count. “It’s not a huge time commitment and it’s flexible. It’s a great way for families to get their feet wet with citizen science.”

The U.S. Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other organizations use the data to monitor the health of various bird species, track trends, and to identify conservation priorities.

“Birds are a bell-weather to the environment,” says Leonard.

And because birds are moving populations, no one scientist or team could gather enough data without the help of many volunteers.

For more information also visit http://ebird.org/content/ebird/

• Look for wildlife

Maybe it’s happened to you—you see a fox, or an owl, or some other interesting critter and you want to announce it to the world, alert the authorities, take a picture. And so, you end up posting it on Facebook.

But there’s actually a place for your enthusiastic reports. The National Wildlife Federation collects “sightings” of scores of animals, from fox to skunks, (along with bugs, reptiles, birds, and plants).

Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a program that matches outdoor adventure-seekers and athletes with citizen science projects, might also have options for your family. From three-day grizzly bear tracking trips in Montana to collecting millipedes in leaf litter in your backyard, these programs have a unique theme.

One of them, the Roadkill Survey, might appeal to a certain tween or teenager you know and love. “It’s a valuable educational experience,” says ASC Founder/Executive Director Gregg Treinish. “It’s a piece of the eco-system.”

• Wade into a stream or river

At Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Lothian, volunteers go out four times a year to survey macro invertebrates, such as insects, worms and mollusks in three local streams.

The organisms are “the proverbial canary in the coal mine,” says Elaine Friebele, education coordinator at Jug Bay. “They’re ‘indicator’ organisms that show the health of the water, and, ultimately, the Bay.”

Volunteers are trained in how to collect and identify the organisms. It’s an ideal activity for kids 10 years and up.

Also at Jug Bay, volunteers are needed to “adopt” vernal pools, which are spring ponds that serve as amphibian breeding grounds. Volunteers measure water depth and look for larva, tadpoles and other wetlands wildlife.

It’s a great activity for families. An orientation is held to train volunteers, who will visit their pool every week to two weeks.

“The pools vary from year to year. It affects the breeding of amphibians. And we like to monitor how it’s going,” says Friebele.

Local watershed and river associations also collect samples to monitor water quality.

While elementary school-aged children might be the most enthusiastic about wading into streams, don’t discount teenagers. Siobhan Percey, a mother of two from Severna Park, was surprised by how enthusiastic her daughters were when they began monitoring vernal pools two years ago.

“My older daughter even brought her boyfriend, and he was in awe,” says Percey. “You see the egg notches… the larvae, the tadpoles with the fluffy gills… They’re magical.”

More information:, www.magothyriver.org, www.severnriver.org, southriverfederation.net,

Cick here for more xhaustive list of all kinds of Citizen and Backyard Science projects

Photos provided by Eric Lind

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