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Add a twist to your family’s outdoor adventures by becoming citizen scientists: These are volunteers who make and record observations, and then send their data to researchers who rely on the info for important work on nature and the environment. The projects are all free, and great for kids:

Project Budburst

budburst.org

What to do

You and your kids first choose a flower, shrub, or tree to monitor (Project Budburst’s website will help you identify good choices, which can be in your yard or anywhere that’s easy for you to visit regularly). Then, you’ll report online as the plants change (leaves emerge, grow, and fall, for instance) during the seasons.

Why it matters

Managed by the National Ecological Observatory Network and the Chicago Botanic Garden, Project Budburst collects information about plants’ first leaves, flower blooms, pollen, or ripe fruit. By combining data from all over the country, researchers are able to study the timing of spring. That’s a measure scientists use to study how the climate in a particular region is changing.

The Great Sunflower Project

greatsunflower.org

What to do

Start by planting sunflowers (or another flower species added after the project began, including cosmos, rosemary, and purple coneflower). Once the flowers bloom, you and your kids watch and count the number of bees that visit one flower during a 15-minute period, twice a month. Then, submit the data (and photos, if you can snap any) online.

Why it matters

The project began as a way for biologists at San Francisco State University to gather information on wild bee populations, partly in response to colony collapse in commercial hives. Collected data from across North America helps researchers map and monitor the wild bee population, a critical pollinator for food crops and gardens.

NestWatch

nestwatch.org

What to do

First, get NestWatch certified by reading a code of conduct and passing a certification quiz online. Then find an active bird’s nest in your yard or neighborhood, or position a nest box that you buy or build (resources available on the website. You’ll report observations such as the number of eggs, young, and fledglings (young birds just starting to fly). This project is best for older kids, because it’s important to be careful around nests (young kids can cause disturbances that negatively affect the birds). So, be sure to follow the project’s guidelines on proper, safe nest monitoring. FeederWatch is a similar program that’s better for little kids, though there’s a $15 fee.

Why it matters

Scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology use the data to estimate breeding success rates and to examine the impacts of environmental changes on bird populations.

Nature’s Notebook

usanpn.org

What to do

Find out on the project’s site what animal species are in your area that can be observed, and then choose a natural site near you—it could be your yard, a park, or a hiking trail. This might include frogs, birds, fish, or even bugs (there are plenty of pictures, so you’ll know what you’re looking for). Then, visit your site regularly and follow the program’s observational guidelines to look for signs of the animal. You’ll enter what you’ve seen through the project’s website. Like with Project Budburst, you can use Nature’s Notebook to track plant life.

Why it matters

Scientists at the USA National Phenology Network use the data in their studies of how plants and animals are responding to climate and other environmental changes.

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