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Classroom Birding – Citizen Science for Year Long Environmental Education

January 15, 2014

kids birding

For a number of years I have worked with schools on Community Based Environmental Education options. I believe wholeheartedly that what I do at the field centres creates those epiphany moments however I also believe that a true love of the outdoors and an understanding of our place in our ecosystem can only be understood by students with constant immersing. For this to happen classroom teachers must both have the ability and the drive to bring their students into the local environment.

One of my first attempts at helping classroom teachers with a year-long environmental education plan involved Citizen Science. Fallingbrook Middle School in Mississauga had two very interested grade 6 teachers approach me about helping to create a year-long study of Diversity using a wetland across the road from the school.

The wetland in question has bog like tendencies and is in the middle of a very urban center. However, although the Creditview Wetland in and of itself is a Diversity lesson – I had to consider the fact that for a school year-long study we needed something to study continuously year round.

Having just finished a session as one of the Regional Coordinators (Huron/Perth Region) for a province wide Citizen Science project known as the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas and knowing that birds, unlike other species are active in Ontario, Canada all school year-long we decided on creating our own breeding bird protocol for the wetland based upon the data collected by Bird Studies Canada.

We began by exploring the wetland and discussing the value of wetlands in general and to urban middle school students this was in and of itself an eye-opening experience. From there we described our birding project and explained many of the studies out there using birds to monitor environmental conditions.

Then, utilizing binoculars brought from our school board’s Field Centres we began researching the birds in the wetland.

One of the early considerations was having the students decide on the best field guides available. To do this we created PowerPoints (this was 2005 and options for technology were not as diverse as they are now).  We would show a photo of a bird and then by using Sibley, Audubon, Peterson’s and other guides we had the students decide on which version they thought was best. We gave away dollar store items as prizes for the quickest answers to keep it challenging and engaging.

This was beneficial in two key ways. It taught students in an internet generation a little about research and study and also allowed us to define critical characteristics of certain species.

By the time the winter break was upon us students in both classes may not have been able to identify a Song Sparrow, but almost to an individual they could identify it as a sparrow and then quickly head to that section of their field guide for a positive identification.

We decided we needed to offer a “test” and in experiential education the best tests are not on paper. We had students and teachers meet early one morning to participate in the local Christmas Bird Count. Students felt a sense of pride knowing that their work was not only being marked but also helping an almost 100-year-old citizen science project. We sent our results to the local naturalist club and students were eager to see results online.

We also took part in Project FeederWatch a month or so later which was another superb experience.

A very interesting and unexpected result of both the CBC and Project Feederwatch was the community building aspect to the work we were doing. Parents came out to aid us early in the morning before school, or were buying backyard bird feeders to encourage their child’s growing interest. This year, (2005) Today’s Parent magazine listed Fallingbrook as one of their Top 40 Schools. Students in future years helped the City in designing an observation platform overlooking the wetland, created interpretive signs explaining the value of the wetland to the community and even help host an annual “BogFest” for the community.


By the time spring came, students could identify many birds on the wing and for the sake of breeding birds could determine whether a bird seen was a “fly by”, possible, probable or a confirmed breeder.

To myself though the largest measure of success of the initiative was the journals the students kept throughout the year. Not only was there math, language arts, visual arts, social studies and science connections throughout those journals but we also discovered free discovery moments. Students, one and all had their epiphanies, their “ah-ha” moments throughout the year.

Since that first experience with year-long environmental education projects I’ve dabbed my toes into the waters of citizen science with other schools within my board. The opportunities are endless and in the years since Fallingbrook I’ve worked with schools on amphibian studies, using lichen as an air quality measurement tool and Bluebird monitoring just to name a few.

There are many ways to incorporate a year-long environmental education theme into your classroom and citizen science is without a doubt one of the best.

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