Sunday, December 8, 2013
Engaging kids in the natural world can be a great learning experience.
A 13-year-old citizen scientist uses her loop to watch insects in a maple tree she’s been observing.
Wendy Almeida photo
My children have always enjoyed making observations about trees, flowers and tracks while we’re hiking on trails around Maine. They like to point out details they think are interesting, amusing or just plain “weird.”
This has led me to consider ways to encourage their interest in environmental science in a more formal way. One of the ways my family does this is with citizen science projects.
Citizen science is a way to help real scientists learn more about a particular area through observation reports. It also helps scientists get the word out about invasive species and teach how to identify them.
These projects help scientists in Maine – and across the nation – understand how the natural world is changing and allow ordinary citizens to have an impact on environmental policy decisions. Volunteers typically are given observation guidelines and a way to file reports.
My busy family has been involved in a few seasonal citizen science projects that I found very do-able. Some projects can go on for years, so you should inquire about how to end your participation in the project before you sign up for one.
Signs of the Seasons: A Maine Phenology Project (umaine.edu/signs-of-the-seasons): This program documents the effects of global climate change with the help of citizens observing and recording the phenology (seasonal changes) of plants and animals living in their backyards. This has been a convenient project for us, since all we have to do is walk out our door to do it.
There are 14 indicator species you can choose to observe and my kids each chose a red maple tree. They started this project in early spring and have spent 10 minutes once a week sitting in front of their tree recording its changes and any visitors (bird or mammal) that stop by.
My older daughter is really enjoying this project because she is a photography enthusiast. She believes her camera helps her be a better observer, because it’s more active than simply sitting down and watching a stationary tree.
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Maine Sea Grant coordinate the program in partnership with the USA National Phenology Network, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Maine Audubon, climate scientists at the University of Maine and several other organizations.
My family signed up for a training program after finding out about the phenology project through a 4-H connection. There are also online resources for volunteers to get involved at any time.
Invasive Forest Pest Outreach, BugWatchME (www.albmaine.org): My family spends a lot of time on a variety of trails, so we decided to take a class last year with some Maine Department of Agriculture folks to learn about invasive insects.
The “Leave Your Firewood at Home” and “Buy It Where You Burn It” bumper stickers and posters you see have been created because invasive species can move easily and efficiently through firewood.
Right now, the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB) is a big threat to Maine’s hardwood trees. The beetle first arrived in wood-packing material used to import goods from Asia about 20 years ago. Worcester, Mass., lost 25,000 trees from an infestation of these bugs a few years ago. Officials hope to keep these insects out of Maine and have enacted a law that prohibits bringing firewood into the state.
This citizen science project is more about learning about invasive insect species and how to look for signs of them. My kids have taken a closer look at many trees – dead and on the ground as well as alive and standing – looking for signs of insects. We’ve never seen any ALB signs (and as of this printing, none have been found in Maine) but we have greatly expanded our knowledge of native Maine insects.
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