Engaging kids in the natural world can be a great learning experience.

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.

If you coordinate a youth (or adult) group, you can request a free presentation by an invasive insect volunteer, including games and activities.

CoCoRaHS – the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (www.cocorahs.org): Volunteers in this network measure precipitation (rain, hail and snow) in backyards in all 50 states. Becoming a weather watcher for this project required an initial investment of $25 for a specific type of rain gauge that measures to 1/100th of an inch. A yardstick for measuring snow is also needed and can be purchased at any hardware store for a few dollars.

My younger daughter and I attended a training program at Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick last year, taught by staff from the National Weather Service in Gray, to learn how to measure precipitation accurately for this project. There are training videos on cocorahs.org also, so in-person training isn’t required.

My daughter trekked out every morning at 7 a.m. to empty the rain gauge and measure the precipitation (snow was a bit trickier than rain). Then she posted her measurements on the website. She did this for eight months and made a bar chart poster for her 4-H environmental science project to compare all of her recorded findings for the most notable storms during that time period. It was a great hands-on science project for her.

CoCoRaHS is affiliated with the National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation and Colorado State University.

Great Backyard Bird Count (www.birdsource.org/gbbc): This is held for four days every February (Feb. 17-20 in 2012) and my family has done it for years. It’s a simple weekend project for families, and even very young children can help with the observations.

And although we love being outside in winter, I have friends who like this bird count because it’s a good way to teach their kids about the outdoors without actually having to be out in the cold.

You simply set up a chair by a window in your house and watch your backyard (or front yard in our case) to see which birds stop by. Then you record the time, type and number of birds you see and submit your report at the end of each day to the GBBC website.

If you’re not sure you’ve identified the bird you’ve seen correctly, there are some great online resources on the project’s website.

Maine Audubon Wildlife Road Watch (www.wildlifecrossing.net/maine/map/wildlife): Audubon scientists hope to collect data from citizen observations of wildlife on roads, whether it is alive or dead. The information can help scientists understand more about habitat fragmentation, where creatures are trying to cross roads and what can be done to reduce road kill and make the roads safer for people and wildlife.

Staff Writer Wendy Almeida can be contacted at 791-6334 or at:

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Twitter: RaisingMaine