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July 25, 2014

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Citizen Scientists | Focus on Discovery

citizen scientists Citizen Scientists | Focus on Discovery“Citizen Scientist” might be a newly coined term, but people have long assumed the role, jotting down crocus sightings in early spring, the number of loon pairs on the lake in the summer, and the first sign of frost in the fall or winter.
At the turn of the 20th century, Dr. Alexander Howard Mackay, the superintendent of Nova Scotia schools and proponent of hands-on learning, decided that the children on the Canadian island would become naturalists. To that end, MacKay compiled a list of more than 200 seasonal botanical phenomena for children to observe and record, and for 23 years they did just that. Today, their detailed notes have provided contemporary scientists studying climate change with important information on the flora of a particular time and place.

In Loree Griffin Burns’s Citizen Scientists (Holt, 2012; Gr 4-8), the author explores four ongoing projects that children and adults can participate in. With their focus on discovery and process, these opportunities align with Common Core State standards and offer students an opportunity to become active investigators.

Burns explores one project per season in detail: fall butterfly tagging, winter bird counting, spring frog counting, and summer ladybug indentification. For each activity she describes an actual trip to the field, providing facts on and dispelling myths about the subject creatures, how-to field information, and background on the origin and status of the study. A section on “finders,” or spotters, focuses on young participants. There are also checklists for “When you go” and a quiz to take at the end of each overview.

In addition, the author also offers lists of resources, monitoring programs looking for additional eyes and ears, and mentions sites such as the BugGuide, where anyone can go to identify insects that they have found (or request help in identifying them), and Music of Nature to listen to bird, frog, and other animal calls. Ellen Harasimowicz’s clear color photos provide close-up views of the various species, participants, equipment, and laboratory set-ups.

In this excerpt from Citizen Scientists, Burns discusses the nationwide ladybug study conducted by Dr. John Losey now in progress. Losey had discovered that the official state insect of New York—the nine-spotted ladybug, or Coccinella novemnotata—hadn’t been seen in the state for more than 30 years, and hoped to find out if the species had disappeared or if it was just “less common.”

“John [also] identified two other ladybug species that had once been common in the northeastern United States and were now quite hard to find: the transverse ladybug (Coccinella transvesoguttata) and the two-spotted ladybug (Adalia bipunctata). He and others began to wonder if these three species of ladybug were extinct….

Searching the range for these three rare ladybugs was going to be difficult—he was, after all, only one man, and the ladybugs had once been found across most of the United States. John knew he’d need some extra eyes and hands in the field looking with him. So he turned to people who spend a lot of time outside and who are typically pretty excited about nature. He turned to kids.

His idea was simple: Create a website where kids (and their adults) could learn the basics of ladybug biology, and then encourage them to get outside and photograph the ladybugs in their backyard, school playgrounds, and local parks. John asked users to upload their digital images to his website, and in return, he and his team of experts would help identify the ladybugs they found. Together, scientists and citizens would create a detailed map of ladybug diversity across the continent.

Since its launch the Lost Ladybug Project has received thousands of images from citizen scientists across the country. Ladybugs in every state of the Union are listed in its database, and among them are 96 different species…including all three of the lost ladybugs. The nine-spotted ladybug, the transverse ladybug, and the two-spotted ladybug are officially found again, although they are much rarer than they used to be.

Does this mean John’s work with the project is over? Not a chance….

‘Are there places these ladybugs still have viable populations and are doing okay?’ John wonders. ‘Or can we halt their decline? Can we reverse it? How can we keep this decline from happening to other ladybug species?’

The answers to these questions will almost certainly be revealed through the continued work of John’s nationwide team of ladybug spotters. Using the information they submit, John and his colleagues have created new range maps that show where the nine-spotted, transverse, and two-spotted ladybugs are most likely to be found. As more and more specimens are photographed and submitted, the scientists fine-tune their maps.”

In addition to information on where the rare species are, the project has also yielded data on invasive ladybug species. These and other findings are detailed in Citizen Scientists.

Permission to print this excerpt from Loree Griffin Burns’s Citizen Scientists (2012) was granted by Henry Holt and Company.

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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