Smartphones as a tool for kid citizen scientists

Happy Belated National S.T.E.M./S.T.E.A.M. Week!

Did you break out out your party hats lab goggles? We’ve been celebrating here in San Diego, California, and there have been celebrations all around the nation this last week. If you missed out there are still ways kids can be scientists any day to work up some S.T.E.M./S.T.E.A.M. As a citizen scientist parents and children can add to real research that the professional scientists can use to discover more about our world (Silverton, 2009). With today’s technology apps (mobile software applications) can easily connect budding scientists with the researchers that need some observation, identification, or other elements to help them in their expertise (Graham, 2011). I like that these apps are ready to go anytime, anywhere, to fit in with our ever changing schedules of dance classes, piano practice, playdates, leading outdoor Tinkergarten classes, and laundry. Instead of gearing up with lab goggles, gear up with hiking boots and smartphones!

What I want is to try to motivate my daughter (6 years old) to want to go for a nature walk with me, at least the toddler is easy enough to strap into a soft carrier. I downloaded a few new apps hoping to prevent the usual struggle I have with encouraging my daughter to go outdoors. I love getting out. A nice nature walk is good for my mental health but I’m also hoping to promote the idea that our family cares for nature. Engaging with nature and connecting our environmentally friendly behaviors to what we see in the world will help my children shape their sense of responsibility for the health of the earth (Broom, 2017).

iNaturalist obervation

Last Monday my children and I tried the iNaturalist app for the first time. The iNaturalist app records biodiversity by enabling users to be citizen scientist by posting pictures, or “observations,” of wildlife along with some automatic exact details such as time, geographic location, and any notes that the user wants to add. The observation can then be identified by other citizen scientists or experts. The collected observations with verified identifications can be used by professional scientists. Professor Rosenberg from Virginia Commonwealth University observed that fiddler crabs have been recently been found farther north than they had been thought to live after finding iNaturalist observations of the crabs online (Rosenberg, 2018). A study on butterflies found that iNaturalist was more effective at discovering an area’s biodiversity than the Malaise or tent traps but iNaturalist did have an issue with mis-identification which made a local butterfly seem like an invasive species ( Prudic et al. 2018). Another study looked at the issues caused by the bias created in surveying with iNaturalist because people tend to use the app when they are in popular nature sites (Fourcade, 2016). In the future I will take my daughter to make some observations on a more local and less traveled trail but our first attempt was at a popular nature area in San Diego, CA. Our playdate happened to be there anyway.

We took a little adventure out to Mission Trails Regional Park to wander with a few friends. I hadn’t really looked at the smartphone version of iNaturalist before we set off but I had taken a peek at the website after learning about it from a citizen science discussion with my graduate class on Biodiversity in the Age of Technology. Also,from the Plant101 talk with Botany Curator Jon Rebman who encouraged the audience to add to the project for the San Diego County Plant Atlas.


Once I opened iNaturalist on my phone, my daughter found the buttons easy enough to navigate. She added a few photos of some random shrubs and invertebrates we encountered through our day. I tried to do some quick notes before submitting the observations, hoping to help anyone who would try identifying the species on the website. When I last took a look at the observations we posted, a few of the wildlife photos had been tagged with some helpful identifications. I showed these to my daughter but she had little attention span for sitting still with me by that time in the afternoon. Overall iNaturalist did cover many points for S.T.E.A.M. and could potentially cover more with a little more effort.

iNaturalist S.T.E.A.M. Breakdown

Science: Contributing to biodiversity logs

Technology: Using some high tech smartphone features

Engineering: Hmmm… We flipped a few rocks over and had to think about structure when trying to identify species

Art: Having fun with photography

Math: Counting wildlife parts for identification, “Leaves of three, let them be.”

After looking at what had been updated on iNaturalist I wanted to see if Zooniverse could hold a little more attention when on a living room couch. I find the thought of being a citizen scientist from my couch really intriguing. I’m being a couch potato and helping the world too. Zooniverse enables citizen scientists to help from wherever they might be as long as they have use of a smartphone. The app is divided into different sections depending on the subject. Once  a subject of study is chosen, instructions are given to help with identification of the multitude of photos. We chose to look at a few different studies that had to do with animal identification. The first study we opened was from researchers with Animal.us, Cascadia Research Collective, and Allied Whale studying whale populations, migration, and social structure (Zooniverse, n.d.). Most of the photos were of tail flukes and only wanted to know if there was at least one animal present in the photo.

For my six year old this became a little tedious and her attention easily waned. The pictures may have been better for a preschooler and their parent to count animals or learn the word “whale”. I can see myself one day using this app to pass time with midnight breastfeeding when I’m too tired to get anything  accomplished but still would like to feel like I’m doing something to better the world. Zooniverse would probably be more soothing than social media apps and less brain power then reading scientific articles for my grad studies. My daughter and I then took a peek at Sage Grouse and Steller sea lion studies that were a little more complicated but not intriguing enough to hold my daughter’s attention. Although my little one was ready to wiggle away by this time, I could imagine children that have an affinity for hidden object picture puzzles to be entertained for a few minutes and help researchers along the way. I have tried another project on the Zooniverse website that wasn’t formatted for the app version of Zooniverse that was more interesting with a variety of animals in the photos. I think it will be worth checking the app periodically to see if there is a project that fits with the level of learning I’m looking for to keep my child engaged.

Zooniverse S.T.E.A.M. Breakdown

Science: Look through all types of photo data including animals, weather, and space

Technology: Access to photos from around the world and beyond from a smartphone

Engineering: Possible discussion on how the photos are taken

Art: Some of the photos are beautiful or inspiring

Math: Sometimes counting, sorting, or problem solving

Nature based S.T.E.A.M. apps can do more than collecting and sorting through data. There are field guides, trail maps, and article based apps to give families knowledge to explore and love nature. I suggest trying to find a few that are right for your family to see what fits your needs. As I tell my daughter, everything needs  to be in moderation. If you are like me and tend to keep phones far from kids, this might be a good way to explore how they are handy for learning and contributing. On the other hand, if your family seems to have plenty of screen time, finding a few apps to explore nature might be a good transition to the outdoors for some healthy exercise and nature time. Let me know what you try and what your little citizen scientists thought of  the experience!


Broom, C. (2017). Exploring the relations between childhood experiences in nature and young adults’ environmental attitudes and behaviours. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 33(1), 34-47.

Fourcade, Y. (2016). Comparing species distributions modelled from occurrence data and from expert-based range maps. Implication for predicting range shifts with climate change. Ecological Informatics, 36, 8-14.

Graham, E. A., Henderson, S., & Schloss, A. (2011). Using mobile phones to engage citizen scientists in research. Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, 92(38), 313-315.

Nugent, J. (2018). iNaturalist: Citizen science for 21st-century naturalists. Science Scope, 41(7), 12–13. Prudic, K., Oliver, J., Brown, B., & Long, E. (2018). Comparisons of Citizen Science Data-Gathering Approaches to Evaluate Urban Butterfly Diversity. Insects, 9(4), 186.

Rosenberg, M. S. (2018). New record and range extension of the fiddler crab Uca princeps (Smith, 1870)(Brachyura, Ocypodidae) from California, USA. Journal of Crustacean Biology, 38(6), 823-824.

Silvertown, J. (2009). A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24(9), 467-471.

Zooniverse (n.d.). Whales as individuals. Retrieved on March 2, 2019 from https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/tedcheese/whales-as-individuals/about/research

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