Learners Making Science

The 2017 Innovating Pedagogy Report from The Open University (OU) has identified Learners Making Science as one of ten “innovations that are already in currency but have not yet had a profound influence on education.”

The report identifies learners making science as an ongoing medium impact trend over the next two years.  Two urgent needs within education are mentioned:

  1. Skills and knowledge for citizens
  2. Understanding of STEM to meet current demands for STEM-skilled employees

At the confluence of these two needs, could the practical approach of learners making science address both issues? Could citizen science projects together with a STEM-focussed curriculum, be an accessible way to nudge learners from having an experience of science, to become makers of science?

Citizen science in the classroom

The essence of citizen science is expressed in  Caren Cooper’s Citizen
Science: Everybody Counts Tedx talk

“Growing up, my brothers and I used to play basketball in the driveway and no one expected that we develop a career in athletics.  We simply played, not thinking about a career. Sports were simply fun, they were healthy and social. Sports were the kind of hobby that could enrich the rest of our lives and the the same is true for the arts. Yet when I played at science down by the creek everyone expected that I’d become a scientist.  I guess no one thought it was fun or healthy or social. Science wasn’t seen as the kind of hobby that could enrich the rest of my life. Science was confined to the category of career, kids that like science should grow up to be scientists…”

Cooper went on to become a professional scientist, but also a passionate advocate for the value and role of citizen scientists.  Viewed from her experience, the act of balancing professional and hobby approaches to science in formal education, needs to be traversed with respect for both areas.

Citizen science projects can connect learners to the realm beyond the classroom, urging participants to develop STEM skills as needed in the context of the project. Being volunteer-led and intrinsically driven, citizen science could easily translate into approaches like inquiry-led learning, project-based learning and other student-centred approaches, that encourage students to follow their interests and passions.

Tools and technologies

Technology is rapidly increasingly access for the general public to participate in citizen science projects interactively. Nearly twenty years ago, in 1999 at the dawn of public access to the graphical world wide web, one of the first online global crowd-sourced science projects, Seti@Home was launched.  Volunteers (I was one!) could donate their desktop computer downtime to crunch radio-telescope data, giving participants the role of being part of a virtual supercomputer, contributing to a search that spanned the universe.

With mobile devices now able to collect immediate roaming data collections from your pocket, citizen science projects have evolved too, including sometimes creating their own apps. For example, the FrogSpottter app is an example local to me in South Australia that I now use to record and identify frogs in the wild. When I first contributed to the project, I had to send CDs of analog recordings with paper data sheets detailing my locations. Projects may also loan physical technology to participants, like the opportunity I had to attach a GPS tracking unit to my pet cat through the Australian Sister Project of Cat Tracker.  

Although technology is a part of learners making science, learners making science aren’t dependent on having a STEM lab or Makerspace or loads of high-tech equipment in your school or at home. Citizen science portals, projects and events are specifically about creating massive communities of makers and explorers, and tools that are easily available and transportable. This grass-roots inquiry-led approach is something that could be adapted into any classroom with no or low-technology. As a simple example, online projects like classifying galaxies in a browser could kickstart physics activities or an art object. Classifying sea-kelp online could lead into marine biology projects, environmental field trip activities or exploring the historical farming and use of kelp.  Citizen science projects can adapt to use STEM skills in many ways, because they are often created to be as accessible as possible.

Citizen science project portals

Using existing citizen science project resources could be seized as an opportunity for groups of learners to make things together. Projects can be found through dedicated web-portals that list opportunities to participate in science projects.  Zooinverse, and nQuire-it science missions are examples cited in the Innovating Pedagogy report. There are tips for educators on how to use citizen science projects with students, such as the ZooTeach portal of lesson plans and resources.

Low tech, science gadget making

Citizen science includes deliberately low-tech solutions, such as open-hardware, or home-based science involved in making everyday objects or even waste into DIY science gadgets.  Groups like non-profit organisation Public Lab, take a DIY approach to exploring environmental concerns.  This includes designing kits for purchase, that contain all the everyday objects required to make a Lego Spectrometer, for example. Sites like Instructables – how to make anything include science categories and their own education portals which can help students design and make some basic scientific tools for citizen science projects.

Open data and hack-fest events

Citizen science projects may use existing open datasets or create their open datasets for others to use.  The European Open Data Hack 2018,  Open Government Data (OGD) in  India or GovHack in Australia are just a few examples of group-based events that schools have already become involved in.  Events like data hack-fests where participants are encouraged to remix sources to create new information, may include designing their own app as an interactive interface for a project, but could equally involve designing an appropriate low-technology option.

Digital citizenship

Learners making science can also link into critical explorations of the rise of citizen science.  Supporting students to critically evaluate citizen science projects, platforms, science-based maker projects, to consider the background of the authors, rigour of scientific methodology, accuracy, data security and analysis, project funding, exploring bias, how results are published, ethics of projects and even pseudo-science.

Student led-projects

Perhaps you want to support your students to propose their own citizen science project to address a local or regional issue, linked to a global problem?. There are increasing numbers of independent citizen science advocacy groups offering support to educators. This might include how groups or students or even entire schools working with other schools could initiate and lead their own new community project ideas.


Ferguson, R., Barzilai, S., Ben-Zvi, D., Chinn, C.A., Herodotou, C., Hod, Y., Kali, Y., Kukulska-Hulme, A.,Kupermintz, H., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Sagy, O., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., Weller, M., & Whitelock, D. (2017). Innovating Pedagogy 2017: Open University Innovation Report 6. Milton Keynes: The Open University, UK. https://iet.open.ac.uk/file/innovating-pedagogy-2017.pdf

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