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25th May 2017
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25th May 2017

Citizen science

Teaching citizens especially learners about the basics of science can help protect our fragile biodiversity. Photo: Madelene Cronje.

Struggling to get your learners excited about science? Bored with reciting definitions out of textbooks? A new movement towards citizen science could help you turn your learners into budding scientists who contribute to global science, or help protect natural resources in your part of the country, writes Sarah Wild

What is citizen science?

Citizen science, or crowd-sourcing science, allows people with no scientific background or training to collect data and conduct research. The global prevalence of computers and smartphones allows anyone to contribute to a number of science projects around the world. But don’t worry if you don’t have these resources: some of the projects out there only require you to have old-fashioned pen and paper.

Projects for you:

  • Looking after our water

The miniSASS project is the brainchild of the Water Research Commission, environmental consulting organisation GroundTruth, and the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (Wessa). It is an inventory of the life in our rivers and dams — the type and number of small animals living in our water bodies are an indication of whether that water is in a good condition or not. By identifying whether specific animals are on the miniSASS list, you and your learners can let officials know if your river or dam is healthy. It’s based on SASS (the South African Scoring System), which is what government scientists use to determine water body health.

The miniSASS website is full of resources, methods and a step-by-step “how to”. There are different resources, for grade five through to grade 11. Want to teach your learners about biodiversity and water health while helping policymakers understand the state of South Africa’s waterways? Then miniSASS could be for you.

For more information, take a look at:

  • Virtual museum

Not everybody in South Africa can access our natural history museums, where we keep records of the animals and plants we share our country with. But don’t worry — the University of Cape Town can bring one into your classroom. Their virtual museum is home to 17 different citizen science project, in which citizens upload pictures of mammals, birds, fungi, dung beetles and other types of creatures found in South Africa.

The pictures are uploaded together with the location of where they were taken, so we can see the distribution of species across the country. The Southern African Bird Atlas Project, for example, which started in 2007 and is on the site, has more than a million records of local bird species and where to find them. You can upload some images, get a list of the animals that live in your area, find out what their names are, and obtain the tools for your students to identify them.

Here is their website: which has information about how to “visit” the museum, or how to contribute to it.

  • Star gazing

When it comes to the stars, most of it is online. Given the large quantities of data that we have about stars and distant galaxies, it’s just not possible to do it with pen and paper.

GalaxyZoo is one of the oldest citizen science projects: using millions of images collected from sky maps, people are requested to classify what kind of galaxies are in the images. There are tutorials about how to classify galaxies, but perhaps most exciting is the wealth of lesson plan and educational material they have for learners aged 10 and up. For more information, check out:

There’s also a project called the Great Worldwide Star Count ( that allows you to measure the pollution and light pollution where you live, with a handy magnitude chart that you can download. As astronomy and space science become more and more important in South Africa, these resources could help your learners get in on the action and excitement.


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