Citizen Science in K-12 STEM Education

Citizen Science and crowdsourcing projects enable the public—young and old, students and teachers, amateur and expert—to participate in scientific data collection and research. Hundreds of Citizen Science projects are active across the United States, collecting data both locally and internationally on various topics including archaeology, chemistry, and ecology. In this Spotlight, you'll read about five projects funded by NSF's DRK-12 program.

In this Spotlight...

Citizen Science Opportunities, Partnerships, and Challenges

MindHIVEIn this blog, PI (and former CADRE Fellow) Camillia Matuk and team members Suzanne Dikker and Ido Davidesco share insights from their crowdsourcing Neuroscience project, also called MindHIVE. They answer 3 key questions:

1) What do you see as the key opportunities for scientists, teachers, and students who engage in citizen science collaborations?
2) What have you found to be key features of successful partnerships between disciplinary scientists and education stakeholders?
3) What strategies are you using to address some of the typical challenges?

Featured Projects

Designing for Science Learning in Schools by Leveraging Participation and the Power of Place through Community and Citizen Science (Collaborative Research: Ballard and Henson)

collaborative project

PIs: Heidi Ballard and Sol Henson
Grades: 3-5
STEM Domain: Environmental science; forest and fire ecology; biology; earth science; data collection and analysis

Through this project, elementary teachers and students work together with local environmental scientists and community organizations in the collaborative study of their local forests and fire risk in Nevada County, California. We are co-designing protocols and materials with teachers and ecologists, and providing scaffolded support and training to teachers to facilitate their students to collect, analyze, and share authentic environmental data with community members. We will study the impacts of three key features of citizen science (collecting, analyzing, and sharing data) on student environmental science learning and agency over several design cycles, informing a replicable model of science standards-aligned, school-based community, and citizen science. 

Key Partners: This project is a regional collaboration between Nevada County Superintendent of Schools in California (NCSOS)Sierra Streams Institute (SSI), an environmental education and watershed monitoring organization within the county; and education researchers and ecologists at the Center for Community and Citizen Science at the University of California, Davis, School of Education (CCS at UCD).

How are the different partners/collaborators in the project benefiting (or will benefit) from working together? This research-practice partnership allows NCSOS to apply research-based approaches to elementary science education across their county.  SSI can broaden and deepen their impact by working with education researchers to test and refine programming. CCS at UCD researchers will benefit from these partners’ expertise from both formal and informal science education, ensuring that the research and its findings are useful to practitioners at the outset.  

Key Challenge: A perennial tension in citizen science for education is balancing the need for high quality rigorous science data and high quality science learning for participants.  Accuracy and rigor of data collection and analysis are imperative in order for it to be useful to regional forest management. Simultaneously, teachers need materials and approaches that provide students real engagement with science reasoning practices. There are many inspiring examples of teachers doing authentic science with their students (e.g., see, but this can be an intimidating prospect for teachers. This project will need to both train and provide ongoing to support teachers throughout the year.

What standards-based cross-cutting content, disciplinary core ideas, and/or practices does your project address? Citizen science activities will be designed to address the three strands of the Next Generation Science Standards (NRC 2012) for grade bands 3rd to 5th grade. Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs) addressed in the project include standards across the domains of Life Science, Earth Science and Physical Science, including: LS1 From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes; LS2 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics; ESS2 Earth's Systems;ESS3 Earth and Human Activity; PS1 Matter and Its Interactions; and PS3 Energy.

Students will engage in the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) while collecting, evaluating, analyzing and disseminating their data. For instance, students will ensure accurate data by Engaging in Argument with Evidence and interpret data findings by Asking Questions and Constructing Explanations. Students will Communicate Information while organizing and sharing their data findings. These practices will also allow students to engage in the Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs) as they look for Patterns in their data sets, and consider the Cause and Effect of different environmental phenomena at their different field sites.  

Theoretical Framework: Our research approach builds on sociocultural learning theories (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and critical perspectives (Barton & Roth, 2004; Basu and Calabrese-Barton., 2009), which considers the identities and perspectives of the learners themselves as well as the context in which learning takes place (Nasir & Hand 2008). For instance, the design of our educational program, in line with community and citizen science approaches, considers the learner as a legitimate knowledge producer and not merely a recipient of provided information. Furthermore, we recognize the importance of learners shaping and contributing to their learning environments including science practices used and intellectual standards established while they conduct their scientific research. 

Methodology: We will use case study design with a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods. From this approach, we will investigate depth within individual students’ experiences and breadth across the estimated 1,800 students with pre- and post- surveys. Case study design also allows us to treat each class as an individual case study to contextualize our findings and make sense of variation within participants’ accounts (Yin 2014). Field and classroom observations and interviews with educators and scientists provide documentation of settings and norms in which students participate in citizen and to draw links between the design features of the citizen science program and student learning. 

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MindHIVE: An Interactive Cloud-based Citizen Science Platform for High School Students, Teachers, and Researchers


PI: Camillia Matuk
Grades: 11-12
STEM Domain: human brain and behavior (i.e,: biology, neuroscience, statistics, experimental research methods, psychology)

MindHIVE will be a digital citizen science platform focusing on human brain and behavior research. MindHIVE supports virtual Student-Teacher-Scientist (STS) partnerships using an open-science approach: Students, teachers, and scientists across the globe are invited to contribute experiments, resources, and research data to the platform, as such supporting both STEM learning and scientific discovery. For example, students might survey their classmates and document activities to investigate how sleep patterns or distractions in the classroom affect students’ performance in cognitive tasks. By involving young citizen scientists in each other’s projects through peer-review and data collection, they will learn that scientific progress a collaborative, iterative, and transparent process. Over time, MindHIVE will generate a diverse research database that may help to inform educational practice and policy.

Key Partners: Partners include a network of STEM classrooms that are geographically and demographically diverse (SES and race/ethnicity; in-school/after-school); and scientists and scientific institutions (e.g., World Science Festival, Robb Rutledge (Yale), Kimberly Noble (Columbia), Wendy Suzuki (NYU), Natalie Brito (NYU), and Jay Van Bavel (NYU), among others). More information about our partnerships will be available soon at

How are the different partners/collaborators in the project benefiting (or will benefit) from working together? Our STS approach emphasizes student-initiated research, while still enabling scientist-initiated data collection. MindHIVE will engage students with science practices as learners, study participants, and researchers, as such diversifying their STEM skills. Scientists, in turn, will not only be able to conduct their own studies via the platform as researchers, but also act as educators and mentors

Key Challenge: One of the challenges facing STS programs is the tension between generating the data required for the scientist, on the one hand, and encouraging students to develop their own research projects, on the other. Moreover, student-initiated projects can be unrealistic in scope, e.g., failing to generate enough data, which can reinforce inadequate scientific practices (e.g., drawing conclusions based on few data points). With mindHIVE, we hope to address these concerns by facilitating a workflow that enables scientists, students and teachers from different institutions support each others’ research projects.

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Schoolyard Science Investigations by Teachers, Extension Volunteers and Students (Schoolyard SITES)

Schoolyard SITES

PI: Lara Gengarelly
Grades: 2-5
STEM Domain: Life and Earth Science

The Schoolyard SITES program partners elementary teachers with University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension science volunteers to bring locally-relevant citizen science projects to elementary students and to increase teachers’ self-efficacy teaching science. With support from science volunteers, teachers develop science investigations that incorporate student learning goals aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards and involve existing citizen science projects. Each teacher-volunteer team designs and teaches a science project that is relevant to the school district’s curriculum and school site. Schoolyard SITES students engage in real-world, problem-based learning and investigate their schoolyard using the scientific process, and they contribute valuable scientific data to a variety of existing citizen science initiatives, ranging from Project FeederWatch to local maple sap monitoring. 

Key Partners: The key Schoolyard SITES partners are several New Hampshire school districts (e.g., Manchester, Nashua, Oyster River, Portsmouth, Rochester) and University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension science-based volunteer organizations such as NH Master Gardeners, Natural Resource Stewards, and STEM Docents (see Each of these partners support the recruitment of Schoolyard SITES participants.

How are the different partners/collaborators in the project benefiting (or will benefit) from working together? Elementary teachers report that they benefit from the Schoolyard SITES program because as a result of this community-school partnership their elementary students apply the NGSS science practices to understand a local scientific phenomenon that is relevant to the school district’s curriculum and provides them a real-world authentic citizen science experience. 

Key Challenge: One of the initial challenges in our development of the Schoolyard SITES model has been the recruitment of participants. Although we recruited nearly our target number of volunteers and teachers during the first implementation year, the recruitment efforts were extensive and we reached just below our target number of participants. The commitment of the volunteer time is substantial and perhaps partially explains the small pool of eligible volunteers for this type of collaborative community-school partnership. In time our research will help to explain the nature of the partnership and the factors that support the Schoolyard SITES model. 

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 Schoolyard Scientists

Schoolyard Scientists

PI: Kevin Cuff
Grades: 8-12
STEM Domain: Environmental Science/Earth Science

Guided by STEM professionals, teams of youth recruited from local middle and high schools engage in the collection, analysis, interpretation, and public dissemination of environmental quality data derived from research conducted in East San Francisco Bay Area urban communities. In the process, youth perform research that both addresses highly relevant issues and enables them to identify with STEM in novel ways that challenge previous notions and ways of relating to science. Associated learning science research aims to refine a theory of learning that highlights connections between Citizen Science practices, science identity, and science value and relevance.

Key Partners: In implementing the project, key partnerships have been established with the following Bay Area entities: school districts, community based organizations that focus on youth development (e.g., Boys and Girls clubs), faith-based organizations, UC Berkeley faculty, UC Berkeley outreach programs (e.g., Outward Bound), and highly reputable environmental justice advocacy groups.

How are the different partners/collaborators in the project benefiting (or will benefit) from working together? A unique outcome of the project is that through inclusion of various collaborators it concurrently: generates information critical in assessing and monitoring local environmental conditions; fosters increased understanding of key STEM concepts and practices; and encourages increases perception of science as a highly valuable tool useful in addressing relevant issues.

Key Challenge: As a significant majority of the project’s youth are enrolled in local schools, it is essential that functional relationships with these schools are established and nurtured. One effective way of accomplishing this has been to present citizen science activities during the school day or as a component of well-organized after school programs. Given complications typically associated with urban schools (e.g., high teaching and administrative staff turnover rates, chronic resource shortages, and often unrealistic focus on addressing mandated standards), in order to maintain our research trajectory we have devoted significant time and effort toward maintaining productive relationships with our partner schools.  

What standards-based cross-cutting content, disciplinary core ideas, and/or practices does your project address? The project employs a combination of Citizen Science and STEM skill-building activities throughout its implementation. These activities have been designed to specifically address the following NGSS science and engineering practices: Asking Questions and Defining Problems; Developing and Using Models; Planning and Carrying Out Investigations; Analyzing and Interpreting Data; Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking; Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions; and Engaging in Argument from Evidence.

Theoretical Framework: One of the key premises of the project is that through engagement in Citizen Science projects, with their emphasis on addressing meaningful, relevant issues, urban youth will connect with science content, and will develop greater self-efficacy and positive habits of mind with respect to science and themselves as scientists. Thus, we expect that statistically significant positive shifts in attitude and perception of the value and relevance of science will occur as a result of youth being engaged in extended Citizen Science research activities. Furthermore, we anticipate that shifts in science-related habits of mind will occur as a result of engaging students in related collaborative learning experiences, which prior research has identified as a critical factor in positive identity development particularly for underrepresented populations.

Methodology: The project uses a quasi-experimental, pre/post methodology to investigate how its citizen science activities influence student science identity, understanding of the practices of science, and how students value science for themselves and their communities. All participants complete background and attitude surveys, including the Activation Lab’s Values Science instrument ( Additional items that query their understanding of practices of science are also included. (Comparison group students receive these surveys as well.) To investigate science identity development, focal participants in each project implementation engage in ongoing interviews, where they are encouraged to express their interest in science and how they feel their attitudes towards science are evolving as they participate in project activities. Overall, ongoing reflective practices are employed to ensure that engagement with youth is culturally responsive.

Youth Participatory Science to Address Urban Heavy Metal Contamination

Youth Participatory Science

PI: Daniel Morales-Doyle
Grades: 6-12
STEM Domain: Chemistry, Earth & Environmental Sciences

In our project, middle and high school students from neighborhood public schools work with their teachers, university scientists, and community organizers to study heavy metal contamination in urban soils through Youth Participatory Science (YPS). YPS brings together citizen science and youth participatory action research (YPAR) to engage youth in authentic, local, and grassroots scientific research. Through YPS, students learn important concepts and practices in chemistry and environmental science. Students’ science learning is contextualized by issues of environmental justice and opportunities to become engaged in their communities and with a network of youth working on projects across the city.

Key Partners: The key partners in our local project include several Chicago Public School teachers and their students, one scientist each from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Loyola University Chicago, and Northwestern University, and the Chicago Environmental Justice Network, which is an umbrella organization that includes key partners like the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

How are the different partners/collaborators in the project benefiting (or will benefit) from working together? Teachers, scientists, youth, and community organizers benefit from opportunities to learn from each other. Each individual is positioned as knowledgeable in their own right with opportunities to share with academic and grassroots audiences. In this way, all collaborators are both teachers and learners (or experts and beginners).

Key Challenge: Our educational research project takes a participatory approach to studying teaching and learning with YPS. In this double-layer of democratic knowledge production, one challenge has been navigating the insights and limitations that are associated with the definition of roles and disciplines. On one hand, it is important to value the particular viewpoints and expertise that each group of constituents (teachers, scientists, youth, organizers) brings to the project. On the other hand, these clearly defined roles present a challenge to flattening hierarchies and maximizing participation. Similarly, particular disciplinary ways of viewing problems can simultaneously sharpen analysis while also creating blind spots.

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Bevilacqua, D., Davidesco, I., Wan, L., Chaloner, K., Rowland, J., Ding, M., Poeppel, D. and Dikker, S. (2019). Brain-to-brain synchrony and learning outcomes vary by student–teacher dynamics: Evidence from a real-world classroom electroencephalography study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 31(3), pp.401-411.

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Nasir, N. I. S., & Hand, V. (2008). From the court to the classroom: Opportunities for engagement, learning, and identity in basketball and classroom mathematics. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 17(2), 143-179.

National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. National Academies Press. 

Yin, R. K. (2014). Validity and generalization in future case study evaluations. Evaluation, 19(3), 321-332.