Technology can be a powerful tool to teach young people about the natural world. When used responsibly, it can spark curiosity and wonder in the youngest of users and a drive to be better stewards of the planet in older children and adolescents. The shift to virtual learning in light of COVID-19 is an opportunity for both educators and students to explore some of the many nature apps that are available.

Below is a selection of apps that are ideal for unleashing your inner citizen scientist. These apps can be used as part of a lesson or larger curricular unit or can be downloaded just for fun. Either way, they provide the perfect excuse to step away from the computer screen, get outdoors, and learn more about the nature that can be found right outside our doors and windows.

eBird and Merlin Bird ID

Free – Available for Apple and Android devices

You might be familiar with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s K-12 curriculum resources. Did you know that they also manage eBird, the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project? eBird data is used by scientists to study and analyze bird population density, habitat, and migration patterns, among other important metrics. The eBird mobile app lets you record and track bird sightings in the field – no need to be online. Data is automatically linked back to your online eBird account (which you can set up through the eBird website) and added to a long-term, publicly available database. The app also allows you to create bird checklists based on location and time of year.

Educators who want to use eBird with their students are encouraged to take the eBird Essentials course. To complement the course, the eBird Essentials for Educators guide provides tips, tools, and activities to help students with bird identification and data entry.

Speaking of bird identification…there’s an app for that! The Merlin Bird ID app, also managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a virtual field guide with over 6,000 bird species found in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. All you need to do is upload a photo of a bird and answer three simple questions. The app then offers a short list of possible matches. Merlin Bird ID goes hand-in-hand with eBird and can be used by all levels of bird watchers, from novice to expert.


Free – Available for Apple and Android devices

The TreeSnap app was developed by scientists at the University of Kentucky and University of Tennessee to assist in the study of tree health and resiliency. People are encouraged to use the app to tag trees around their homes, in their neighborhoods, and out in the wild. It’s as simple as snapping a photo of a tree and answering a few questions. The data you record with TreeSnap is used by scientists to locate trees for research projects involving genetic diversity, resilience to pests and disease, and breeding programs.

Water Quality Mobile App

Costs $4.99 – Available for Apple and Android devices

The Water Quality mobile app was developed by educators, scientists, and programmers at Northern Kentucky University and the Foundation for Ohio River Education to assist with water-quality monitoring and data collection activities. Using this app, you can record, share, and interpret data collected in the field, as well as learn more about chemical (e.g., dissolved oxygen, E. coli, pH, nitrate, turbidity), physical (e.g., water temperature, turbidity), and biological (digital field guide to macroinvertebrates) water-quality parameters. The app also allows you to create printable reports and export data to create water-quality databases.


Free – Available for Apple and Android devices

One of the world’s most popular nature apps, iNaturalist is a fun way to explore and share observations of the natural world. With the app, you can record observations, learn about nature by talking with others in the iNaturalist community, and connect with scientists and naturalists who can help with plant and animal identification. Data that is shared through the iNaturalist app contributes to biodiversity science and protection of the natural world.

Educators who want to use iNaturalist with their students are encouraged to review this teacher’s guide.

iNaturalist is often used in conjunction with bioblitzes. A bioblitz is a citizen science effort to identify and record as many species as possible within a designated area and time period. You can learn more about bioblitzes and how to organize one by referencing this handy bioblitz guide.

National Wildlife Federation Nature Guides 

Costs $9.99 per app – Available for Apple devices only 

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) is making it easier for you to learn about the plants and animals that call North America home with its Nature Guide app series. Although they are more expensive than the typical app, these “field guides for the 21st century” are jam packed with features including expert-curated content, high-quality professional photos and illustrations, range maps, and audio recordings of species sounds. The apps let you organize species alphabetically or taxonomically; search by family, shape, color, and habitat (among others); and take notes and upload photos to create digital nature journals. Guides are available for mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and spiders, butterflies, mushrooms, and trees.

NWF has also developed garden guide apps for vegetables and herbs. These apps include plant and care guides, landscaping ideas, and garden plans and calendars to help you grow and harvest in an environmentally-friendly way.

Globe Observer

Free – Available for Apple and Android devices

The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program is an international science and education program that provides opportunities for students and citizen scientists to participate in data collection and the scientific process. The program’s GLOBE Observer app is one way in which volunteers can collect and submit data that scientists can use to track changes in the environment and interpret NASA and other satellite data. The app contains four tools:

Clouds: By submitting cloud photos and sky observations via the Clouds tool, you can help scientists gain a new perspective on clouds – from the ground up – that will help refine satellite-derived models and enhance scientific understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Mosquito Habitat Mapper: Use the Mosquito Habitat Mapper tool to observe, record, and share locations where mosquitoes are breeding to help scientists and public health authorities predict outbreaks and epidemics and communicate information to communities to reduce disease risk.

Land Cover: With the Land Cover tool, you can take pictures of the landscape, identify different types of land cover, and share knowledge of how the land has changed over time. This information helps scientists produce detailed and up-to-date land cover maps that can be used to determine a community’s vulnerability to disasters like floods, fires, and landslides.

Trees: The Trees tool lets you measure tree height to track tree growth over time. Tree height data is used by scientists to better understand biomass gain or loss, which informs calculations of carbon up-take or release into the atmosphere.

If there’s a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s this: we are learning (or re-learning) that humans need nature to thrive. And nature needs us as well. We can do ourselves and the planet good by downloading one or more of these apps, taking a walk outdoors, and recording what we see. Who knows? Your photos and observations might play a key role in bringing about a healthier, more sustainable future.