By. Katie Levedahl, Director of Informal Learning, California Academy of Sciences


The Informal Learning team at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco is strongly committed to providing young people with real world science experiences.


We believe programs that increase a young person’s interest and enthusiasm in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are critical to addressing the most important sustainability issues of our time. By incorporating citizen science projects into our educational programs, the Academy is empowering youth around the country to use STEM skills to help scientists solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. The time has come for all educators – both in and out of the school day – to including more real world science experience in our educational programs. Luckily, citizen science provides a platform for us to do that.


Since 2004, the Academy has been supporting our Careers in Science interns in conducting citizen science-based research in partnership with the Long-Term Monitoring Program and Experiential Training for Students (aka LiMPETS) program. Each summer our high school interns develop questions, collect data, investigate and analyze their findings, and present their research at the American Geophysical Union conference. Not only do our interns gain valuable skills and experience by completing the full scientific process, but their data continue to provide a consistent and valuable data-set for scientists.


Given our long standing success of using citizen science for STEM education with our interns, we started to ask how we could expand these experiences to reach more youth. How could we use citizen science projects to spark interest and enthusiasm in STEM for youth across the country? How could we provide the much needed support for educators to design and deliver high quality STEM experiences?


To accomplish these goals, our team leveraged national citizen science projects to engage middle school students in afterschool programs. Thanks to our wonderful partners at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, NASA, and iNaturalist we launched our Science Action Club (SAC) program with two San Francisco based clubs in 2011. Through games, projects, and hands-on activities, youth in SAC investigate nature and use citizen science to document their discoveries, share data with professional scientists, and design strategies to protect our planet. Afterschool staff receive in-depth training on SAC kits, resources, and STEM teaching techniques for the informal learning environment.


(source: California Academy of Sciences)


This spring, youth and educators in 125 cities will participate in one of our 350 clubs around the country. Although several key factors contributed to our success in scaling this program, our evaluation efforts remind us that engaging with a citizen science project is key to our program’s success.


As related by a SAC trainer in Anaheim, California: “Citizen science is a great way for students to see themselves in a different role within their community. When students are able to conduct research, collect specimens or data, learn to use scientific tools, and share their findings with others, they develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for their environment. As they start to ask critical thinking questions and connect their findings to real world experiences, they realize that they are part of a bigger picture and that one person really can make a difference and influence others. What an amazing and powerful gift we can give our youth!”


Complimentary afterschool STEM programs such as SAC can also make an important difference in the school day. Seventy-five percent of youth in SAC reported that the program makes them more excited about science classes in school. These data reinforce the valuable opportunities that museums, afterschool programs, classrooms, and other partners have to work together to tackle STEM education challenges. School day classrooms can extend citizen science engagement to afterschool activities to meet the needs of the Next Generation Science Standards. As one SAC partner in Cuddeback, California told us, “We took our citizen scientist skills one step further. After our observations received a positive identification from the iNaturalist scientists, students were inspired to perform their own background research that led to more investigations.”


For educators who are interested in designing their own citizen science programs, we have developed a Citizen Science Toolkit for Educators, which includes lessons, readings, and worksheets for educators to adapt and modify as needed. This free toolkit is designed to help communicate the value of citizen science to students and cultivate their sense of empowerment and impact when performing science investigations. And, as an added bonus, it’s fun!


For more information about SAC or citizen science resources for educators please contact Katie Levedahl at or connect with her on Twitter: @KatieLevedahl


This work would not be possible without our vast network of afterschool partners. Special thanks to the California School Age Consortium, National Girls Collaborative Project, and OregonASK.


About the Author

Katie Levedahl drives the strategic design, implementation, and wide-scale expansion of science education resources that transform science learning. As the Director of Informal Learning with the California Academy of Sciences, her work includes leading a team in creating innovative programs that address STEM education deficits.