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 Students Become Scientists at Cuyamaca Outdoor School

The lesson starts with this question for students: “What does a scientist look like?” 

Students often respond by saying a scientist is someone in a lab coat with crazy white hair holding a beaker. But the citizen science projects at the San Diego County Office of Education’s Cuyamaca Outdoor School show students that they, too, can be scientists. 

Each week, students participate in two projects where they have the opportunity to research, observe, collect, and analyze data. In some cases, the students' work is provided to scientists collecting data. 

“They are usually shocked to learn that someone would value data they collect,” said Sharyl Massey, lead outdoor education specialist. “So, we want them to realize that they can make a difference by being a citizen scientist."

During these projects, students learn several Next Generation Science Standards crosscutting concepts — concepts that can be applied across all domains of science — including patterns, structure and function, cause and effect, and stability and change. The goal is for students to take what they learn from these projects and apply them to their science lessons when they return home.

“The hope with these projects is that students believe they can be scientists,” said Massey. “We want them to learn that science is way more than chemistry and they can actually help science by being a citizen scientist." 

Most students at Cuyamaca Outdoor School participate in eBird and the Goldspotted Oak Borer (GSOB) projects. 

The eBird project asks students to identify and count birds in different locations, and submit the data to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology eBird database. eBird collects data from birdwatchers around the world and documents bird distribution, abundance, habitat use, and trends.

The Goldspotted Oak Borer (GSOB) has been killing oak trees for more than a decade and scientists have been mapping its destruction, including in San Diego County. As part of the project, students examine trees, looking for infestation, and draw their observations in journals. Then they discuss the impact on the overall environment. 

One student from Grant K-8 enjoyed both projects on her recent trip to Cuyamaca.

“It was neat to learn about the different bird species that were in my notebook, and I didn’t know anything about the GSOB. It was fun to learn about something new,” she said.

In addition to the formal projects, students also help with reforestation by planting pine trees and oak trees that start with native acorns being grown in the camp’s greenhouse. 

Students at Cuyamaca Outdoor School have been participating in citizen science projects for more than five years. Principal Greg Schuett learned about the GSOB project at a conference and suggested that students could help project organizers from UC Riverside collect data. Although the university no longer collects data due to funding cuts, students continue to track the GSOB. 

With students participating in two citizen science projects each week, the program is always seeking other projects. Additional future opportunities may include one project where students would map the monarch butterfly and milkweed; another where camp staff would create a “track pit” and set up two wildlife cameras so staff and students can review photographs taken by the cameras, examine tracks, and document data of any wildlife that visit camp. 

Students document their findings from the citizen science projects, as well as other observations, in their journals throughout the week. They are free to take them home – in case they need a reminder that all they need is a watchful eye and some curiosity, not a lab coat, to be a scientist.