By. Jennifer Fee, Manager of K-12 Programs at Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Barbara Jacobs-Smith, teacher at Breck School in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Britta Culbertson, Education and Outreach Manager for the Nature Works Everywhere Program at The Nature Conservancy


Educators play a crucial role in connecting students with nature, teaching them the importance of productive and healthy ecosystems, and empowering them as the next generation of environmental stewards.  While many teachers agree that hands-on outdoor activities are valuable, they might struggle to create a great outdoor learning space and utilize it to the fullest extent—to inspire inquiry, create a connection to nature, implement meaningful projects, and promote environmental stewardship. Your schoolyard habitat supports STEM learning and engagement while provide essential habitat for birds, pollinators, and other wildlife; it can readily be used for citizen-science projects and scientific investigations.


Most schools have green space, whether in the form of grass fields, a garden, or a weedy or wonderful courtyard. But how can we turn these often-underutilized spaces into outdoor learning laboratories that are healthier for both kids and wildlife? “Greening” a school typically involves incorporating ponds, butterfly gardens, and other natural areas into a school’s grounds. For example, school gardens can be more than tomatoes and cucumbers. In addition to vegetables, students can plant colorful, nectar-rich flowers to attract birds, butterflies, and bees, adding a new dimension to its teaching potential.


Citizen Science as a “Question Generator”

There are many organisms living in your schoolyard habitat—and you can discover more about them while documenting them for science! Citizen science projects invite everyone, including students, to contribute their observations of something—birds, frogs, plants, insects, weather—in ways that help document biological and environmental trends over regions and timelines far broader than scientists could tackle on their own. Citizen science encompasses a broad range of topics, geographic settings, and strategies. Some projects are confined to a single town or watershed, while others are global in scope. Some focus on individual species, while others investigate broader taxonomic groups (for example, birds, butterflies, worms, turtles) or even entire ecosystems (for example, by monitoring environmental conditions such as water or habitat quality).  At any scale, citizen science creates opportunities for young people to connect with the natural world, gain scientific skills, and learn key science concepts related to topics such as life cycles, habitats, adaptations, and interrelationships. Further, being outdoors and participating in citizen science sparks observation and curiosity and can foster an inquiry mindset. When students spend time outside observing, drawing conclusions, and designing evidence-based plans for schoolyard improvement, they are genuinely engaged in Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Scientific and Engineering Practices.


Participating in citizen science can help shift the “outside means recess” mindset that might exist among your students. For teachers, these projects provide a way to motivate and inspire students through participation in research that is real and relevant. It offers the opportunity to connect to the local environment and monitor changes over time—leading to rich questions about the schoolyard and its inhabitants.


A statement like “I wonder what kinds of birds live on our schoolyard?” can form the basis of multiple outdoor investigations. Have students observe and identify birds, note where they see them, and extend by quantifying which areas have more organisms and/or more diversity. Begin by creating an “I Wonder Board” to record and track students’ questions (and don’t worry about not knowing the answers—model for them how to find the answers themselves!). Use these questions to capture student interests, plan relevant instruction, and implement an inquiry-based instructional style via schoolyard investigations that arise from these questions. You can find more information about “I Wonder Boards” in The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Investigating Evidence curriculum, a free, downloadable resource that supports students in asking and answering their own scientific questions.


(source: BirdSleuth K-12)

 Investigating Evidence is a free, downloadable resource offered by the BirdSleuth K-12 program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It supports student investigations and includes lesson plans, student journals, and classroom handouts.


Monitoring Birds and Seasonal Change

Whether you are in a bustling urban setting or a quiet rural environment, birds are a great resource for engaging students in learning about nature and the environment. Invite students to research and become class experts on a common, local bird species (a “focus bird”). If each student begins by learning one bird—your group will know how to recognize dozens of birds as a whole!


Students can keep track of bird sightings year round with eBird, a simple way to record your observations online at the eBird website or through an easy-to-use app, eBird Mobile. These observations become part of a long-term database accessible to anyone who wants to learn more about the movements and distribution of birds.


The third grade science curriculum at Breck School in Minnesota is focused on phenology, and going outdoors is a priority. Phenology refers to the study of key seasonal changes in plants and animals over time—such as flowering, emergence of insects, and bird migration—especially their timing and relationship to weather and climate. Students learn that these changes are due to variations in the duration of sunlight, precipitation, and temperature. They regularly visit study sites on campus, including ponds, edge forest, wetlands, and native gardens where they learn to observe and record what they notice. Getting students outside and teaching them identification, observation, and recording skills is essential and begins at the start of the school year.


Breck students collect data as they observe bird feeders outside their classroom window and contribute it to eBird. Supported by Cornell Lab of Ornithology videos, blog posts, and online field guides, they learn the four keys to bird identification: size and shape, color pattern, behavior, and habitat. Using various resources—from flashcards to field guides to the Merlin Bird ID app—students learn to identify the common birds in their area. As they go outside to visit specific sites on campus, students apply their bird identification skills in the field. They notice the patterns and seasonal changes of the birds, and take it further by comparing their data to data gathered by other eBird citizen scientists across the globe.


Birds and their Habitats: Mapping and Citizen-Science Connections

What if “focus bird” species are not observed on your schoolyard, or you notice that your schoolyard habitat has fewer species than other green spaces in your neighborhood, county, or state? Encourage students to investigate what actions might support more birds on your schoolyard. For example, would adding a bird feeder help? What type of seed might be best to entice this species? Invite students to research the native plants that grow in your region and their impact on bird species. What are your options for introducing water to the schoolyard? Using this research, students can draft a plan for improving the schoolyard habitat.


The Habitat Network can support you in creating a wildlife-friendly and more engaging schoolyard. Habitat Network is a free, citizen-science project jointly offered by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The Nature Conservancy that encourages people to improve, expand, and understand the environment around them. It offers information about native birds and habitats, and provides tools and programs for students to develop mapping and research skills. You can contribute your schoolyard map to a network of habitats across the country, while the project supports you in several ways over all stages of your work:

  • Map what you have. Take exploratory walks and have students design a paper map of their schoolyard. Teachers can create an account and recreate the map online.
  • Discover opportunities for improvement. The mapping tool can help identify areas for improvement by indicating areas of low biodiversity, such as lawn and impervious surfaces.
  • Find practical resources and encouragement. Habitat Network offers a wealth of materials, from how to attract birds, to the importance of native plants, to planning a space useful to people and wildlife. Users earn badges for reducing or eliminating pesticide use and students can find inspiration from other users near and far.
  • Monitor change over time. Once you have mapped and improved your schoolyard, engage your students in documenting and analyzing change over time by updating your map every year. Also, consider using eBird to monitor birds before, during, and after making habitat improvements as an additional way for students to document the impacts of their actions.


(source: YardMap)

A sample school Habitat Network map: Habitat Network is a citizen-science project that encourages people to create maps of their local habitat, improve and plan those habitats, and update their maps to show the Habitat Network community the positive changes. You can assess your habitat by drawing a map, using custom tools and articles for guidance on creating habitat, and visiting community pages to ask questions. For example, natural space is a priority at Breck School, which maintains a map in the Habitat Network. Their map contains a native plants garden, two wildlife-friendly wetland areas, green roofs, and nest boxes for species such as Wood Ducks and Tree Swallows.


(Photo by Andrea Lamb)

Sunflower Garden, Covenant Love Community School, Ithaca, New York:  Upon exploration, students discovered that the school had plenty of cover and space for birds, some native plants for food, and two bird feeders. However, they recently added gardens around the perimeter of the schoolyard, a birdbath, and a sunflower patch to provide flowers and seeds for pollinators and birds. Over the summer, a group of students came to school for Summer Gardening Club twice a week to faithfully water, weed, and harvest the garden. Citizen science projects like Habitat Network and eBird can provide tools to help document changes and monitor impacts before, during, and after these kinds of improvements. 


Participating in several citizen science projects, whether within a classroom or across grade levels in a school, can create an even deeper understanding of the schoolyard habitat—and lead to even more and deeper questions and investigations. For example, monitoring precipitation through a project like Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network (CoCoRaHS), tracking bird data with eBird, and documenting plant phenology with Project BudBurst can provide a deep understanding of seasonal change and encourage questions about the interconnectedness of plants, animals, and weather throughout the seasons.


Exploring habitat, contributing to citizen science projects, and conducting schoolyard science investigations are wonderful ways to utilize your school garden or green space. Free tools like the Merlin Bird ID and eBird Mobile apps and various citizen science projects, complemented by educational BirdSleuth resources, provide ways to document, understand, and enhance schoolyard habitats in ways that benefit kids and wildlife. With these resources, you can transform your students into citizen scientists who are curious investigators and stewards of their local environment!


Additional Internet Resources


About the Authors

Jennifer Fee is the Manager of K-12 Programs at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where she manages the BirdSleuth suite of STEM curricula and professional development offerings for educators.


Barbara Jacobs-Smith has taught for 40 years and has used citizen science projects such as the Great Lakes Worm Watch, FeederWatch, and eBird with her students. In 2015-2016, she spent her sabbatical time at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, serving as the BirdSleuth Resident Teacher Advisor. She currently teaches 3rd Grade at Breck School in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


Britta Culbertson is the Education and Outreach Manager for the Nature Works Everywhere Program at The Nature Conservancy. Prior to this, Britta was an Einstein Fellow and a high school science and art teacher. In her current role, Britta helps teach future generations about the importance of nature in their daily lives.