Cavity Nester Citizen Science Study: Field Biology Boosts Math and Science

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American Kestral
Photo from https://madisonaudubon.org/

In 2012, HawkWatch International (HWI) created a school-based “Cavity Nester Urban Bird Study” in partnership with the Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE) in 2017. Designed to be a student-led expansion to the project, the study has allowed them to start studying all cavity-nesting birds living in urban settings.

In this project you’ll learn more about how citizen science increased student awareness related to cavity nesting species, specifically the American Kestrel, a species in decline across much of its natural range. Both the Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE) and Farmington High School participated.

What were the goals of this project?

Barn Owl from Field Journal
Barn Owl from Field Journal , Project Artifact

The goals for this project were to collect data that allowed an understanding of the
survivorship and reproductive success of the American Kestrels, and to reinforce high school math and science concepts by allowing students to gain hands-on experience in field biology. Students would complete a field journal where they would record observations, collect data, and draw conclusions. They would also present their findings at a symposium open to their peers, families, and the broader community. The journals and presentations were to be shared to draw attention to the project and its benefit to local students.

How did they approach the project goals?

This goal was achieved through several visits to each classroom, a total of eight visits — focusing on project and monitoring procedures, natural history information about American Kestrels and other cavity nesters, nest check ethics, and how to determine the age of nestlings. They brought in live birds to connect students to the natural history of raptors, as well as actual monitoring equipment for the students to become familiar with the technology used and to ensure a comfort level with the process. 

Participation in Large Scale Citizen Science

Working directly with the students and teachers in the classroom and in the field to practice and understand the necessary protocol to monitor the nest boxes, capture photos and videos of the activity in the boxes, and to enter their nest box data. Project leaders worked with students and teachers to learn how to use the technology employed to check the nest boxes and how to use the data platform, Jotform, to enter the data. And they participated in the regular monitoring of the nest boxes.

Journaling for students and lesson plans for teachers

They developed sixteen lesson plans related to both math and science, as well as a journal developed with teachers for students to keep track of their own data. The journal also included some valuable reference information about the American Kestrel and the nest box procedures.

How did they achieve their goals?

Through the project, three visits were offered to SLCSE and five visits to Farmington High School. These visits helped develop relationships with students and teachers. At each visit, they established an aspect of the project, covering the concepts of natural history of cavity nesters, procedures for the project, and practiced how to use the technology and equipment necessary for the project. This was accomplished using Powerpoint presentations and actual equipment in the classrooms. 

Additionally, they went out with the students and teachers on nest box checks to make sure they understood the process and equipment use.

What was the impact of this project?

Here is a quote from one of the participating teachers. 

“We have a student at our school who is autistic and struggles socially and academically. In an effort to provide opportunities for students of all abilities, we’ve invited this student to participate in our nest box monitoring because of his love of birds. Each week we checked the nesting boxes, and this student was required to complete all of his homework to attend because he was not actually in the statistics class. He did not miss a week. He is constantly telling me about the new information he is learning about random raptors. Just today he went out with his group to check his assigned boxes and there were some people there from Hawkwatch who were kind enough to point out some nearby raptors. His enthusiasm about birds keeps growing.” -Emma Chandler, SLCSE science teacher 

Working on this allowed educators to develop and execute an in-depth citizen science program. They often only see students for one class period and then part ways, but with this project, programs were offered for teachers and students on a regular basis throughout the semester. They were able to share their passion with them and engage students in a way wherein they started looking forward to checking boxes and developing “relationships” with the nestlings in their assigned boxes. Having the students see science careers that happen outside the lab and working directly with scientists was beneficial for students in considering higher education and career opportunities in science.

What challenges did they encounter?

Project Photo
Project Photo

They budgeted for 12 cameras for Farmington High School, but had to allocate 4 of those cameras to SLCSE due to wear and tear on the older cameras. In an effort to mitigate this challenge next time, they plan to meet with the administration of Farmington High School to encourage support for allowing the students to check boxes during school hours. They will also ensure there is a camera and set up for each group, rather than a certain number per school. 

The other challenge faced was ensuring timely and accurate data entry by the students. A greater focus was needed in emphasizing the importance of entering the data in a timely manner from the nest box checks. The same is true for the accuracy of the data entry by the students. A fair amount of time was spent by staff going back and verifying data entries with students and/or teachers. In the future, they plan to practice data form entries more diligently with the students prior to actually checking nest boxes in an effort to prevent these kinds of challenges moving forward.

Explore Citizen Science

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