Category Archives: Education

Teens Designing Zooniverse-Themed Programs for Their Peer at the Adler Planetarium

This summer high school juniors and seniors from the IIT Boeing Scholars Academy program joined Zooniverse educators at the Adler Planetarium for six days of program prototyping. The IIT Boeing Scholars Academy seeks to inspire high-achieving Chicago-area teens to lead and serve through STEM with an emphasis on pursuing higher education. One component of the summer portion of the program is to embark on a Service Through STEM project during which the scholars coordinate with Chicagoland organizations on projects benefitting the organization. That’s where the Zooniverse team based at the Adler Planetarium comes in.

The Problem:

It probably doesn’t come as a complete shock that the dedicated corps of Zooniverse volunteers is not largely comprised of teens. That’s something we’d like to change. What better way to figure out how to better get more teens involved in Zooniverse projects than by going straight to the source? Sixteen IIT Boeing Scholars worked with Zooniverse and Adler educators on strategies to engage more teens in Zooniverse citizen science projects at the Adler Planetarium.

The Goal:

In order to develop ideas of how to better engage young people in Zooniverse citizen science projects, the sixteen IIT Boeing Scholars stepped into the role of informal science educator to develop a series of museum programs to potentially implement at the Adler Planetarium based around Zooniverse projects.

Museum Program Development:

A huge component of any informal museum educator’s job is to develop programming. Programs come in an endless array of formats – perhaps a five-minute science demonstration, a series of workshops for teens, or an interactive activity within a museum exhibit. As the saying goes there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and that’s certainly true of program development. No matter which model of program development you follow, there is a set of common considerations to be made including

  1. Who is this program for?
  2. What is the content of this program?
  3. What is the best format or program model to use?
  4. What should the audience take away?


Answers to these questions formed the skeleton around which the programs would be built.

Who is this program for?

This was the easiest question for the IIT Being scholars to answer. Since we’re looking for ways to engage teens in Zooniverse projects, the audience for the scholars’ programs was their high-school aged peers.

What is the content of this program?

The content for the programs being designed by the scholars was limited to the science content behind active Zooniverse projects. While a constraint, with over 20 active Zooniverse projects the list needed to be considerably narrowed down. The teens began assessing Zooniverse projects to determine which would be of the most interest to their peers. After careful review they selected Radio Galaxy Zoo, Condor Watch, Cyclone Center, and Planet Hunters as the projects that would be most engaging to teens. The science case behind each of these projects would be used as the meat and potatoes behind the programs the scholars designed. 

What is the best format or program model to use?

There are endless possible formats for an informal science program at a museum. In order to explore the options the IIT Boeing Scholars spent time exploring different museum programming models at the Adler. The participated in a 45-minute field trip workshop designed for 7th-12 graders, watched science demonstrations facilitated in Adler’s exhibits, explored museum exhibitions, and watched a planetarium skyshow. After this exploration the group created a menu of museum program models and defined them so that we could develop a shared vocabulary of what program models they would be working with.

  • Structured Workshop – a longer facilitated hands-on program with a set start and finish time
  • Unstructured Workshop –a longer hands-on facilitated program where museum guests can come and go as they like
  • Demonstration – a short facilitated program on the museum floor
  • Exhibit – one small piece of an exhibition that (e.g. a model and accompanying text panel about Saturn)
  • Exhibition – a collection of exhibits that group together around a central theme (e.g. Our Solar System)
  • Planetarium Skyshow – a presentation including images, music, and narration presented in one of the museum theatres

What is the goal of this program?

Some informal science educators would call them learning goals; others might call them program objectives. Whatever they’re name, program developers should identify what they want their audience to take away from a program. These may be experiential goals like “Have fun” or more content driven goals like “ Program participants will be able identify lead poisoning as a threat to the endangered California condor population.”   The IIT Boing Scholars aimed to incorporate at least one experiential goal and one content goal in their programs.

The Programs:

Once they were able to answer the questions above, the scholars were ready to put some meat on skeleton the questions provided. The scholars broke into four small groups with each group working together to write a rough draft of a program outline that could be used by a person unfamiliar with their ideas to facilitate the program. Here are the program ideas they came up with…

Program Name: Save the Condors

Featured Zooniverse Project: Condor Watch

Program Model: Demonstration

Description: This 10 minute floor demonstration was designed to bring awareness to the problem of lead poisoning within the critically endangered California condor population and publicize how members of the public can assist scientists in their continuing efforts to save this species. The demonstration starts off with a video placing the viewer in the shoes of a condor suffering the effects of lead poisoning. Next the facilitator shows a hands-on activity showing how lead spreads throughout the condor’s body when it ingests a lead bullet embedded within the carcass on which it was feeding. The demonstrations ends by introducing Condor Watch as means to help research scientists better understand how to detect early warning signs of lead poisoning.


Program Name: Inside a Cyclone

Featured Zooniverse Project: Radio Galaxy Zoo

Program Model: Planetarium Skyshow & Demonstration

Description: This group created a storyboard and script for a short skyshow. Unfortunately time did not allow for the development of a prototype that could be projected in one of the museum theatres. This program delved into the science behind tropical cyclones, also called hurricanes or typhoons. It introduced the mechanics of how these storms work, safety precautions that should be taken in the event of such a storm, and the drastic impacts these weather events can have on people and property. Cyclone Center was introduced as a way for people interested in meteorology to participate in the important research behind tropical cyclones.


Program Name: Are We Alone?

Featured Zooniverse Project: Planet Hunters

Program Model: Demonstration

Description: This 5-10 minute floor demonstration was designed to take place on a small stage on the museum floor. Using the Drake Equation, the facilitator engages audience members in a conversation about the possibility of alien life in our galaxy. The program ends with an invitation to actively participate in the search for habitable worlds through Zooniverse’s Planet Hunters project.


Program Name: The Mystery of the Universe: Black Holes

Featured Zooniverse Project: Radio Galaxy Zoo

Program Model: Structured Workshop



This 30 minute workshop was designed to introduce teens to perhaps the most asked about of space phenomena – black holes. Through a video, hand-on demonstrations, and a small group activity the facilitator guides program participants through. Radio Galaxy Zoo is presented as a way for teens to continue their exploration by helping scientists locate supermassive black holes.


We really enjoyed working with these bright and motivated young people!

Demonstrating Citizen Science at Adler Planetarium

Today’s guest post comes from Jesse Feddersen and Rachel Wolf about their experience developing a citizen science themed floor experience at the Adler Planetarium as part of the summer school sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. 

Jesse Feddersen is a PhD student in the Astronomy department at Yale University. He is especially interested in observational studies of galaxy evolution. He believes scientists have a responsibility to actively engage in public outreach, and it’s fun too! When he’s not doing science or outreach, Jesse enjoys hiking, baking, and singing songs from Frozen. Do you want to build a snowman with him?

It doesn’t have to be a snowman…

Rachel Wolf is a PhD student in the Physics and Astronomy department at the University of Pennsylvania.  Her research focuses on observational cosmology using Type Ia supernovae.  She loves sharing science with the public and is especially passionate about getting kids excited about science! In her spare time, she loves to cook, host game nights, and cheer for her UCLA Bruins!

“I don’t need to help scientists, I’m already a scientist!”

The sentiment of one precocious little girl perfectly reflects our philosophy: everyone can be a scientist, and through Zooniverse and other citizen science projects, contribute to research projects in the fields they find most exciting.

We came to Chicago for a summer school sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. This two week program was designed for graduate students in astronomy and physics who are interested in education and public outreach and partnered them with teams at the University and Adler Planetarium. We chose to work with the Zooniverse team at Adler.

On our first day at the planetarium, we met with Laura and the citizen science team and situated ourselves in Zooniverse HQ. This felt a little like meeting the Wizard of Oz, or getting a backstage pass to a Queen concert. We soon realized that to planetarium guests, the Zooniverse presence at Adler was confined to a room hidden away in a dark corner at the end of a hallway. There were few exhibits or demonstrations explaining what the Zooniverse is and how to get involved. It seemed like a great starting point for increasing exposure was to create an interactive activity introducing planetarium guests to the Zooniverse.

Early on, we decided to tailor our demonstration to elementary school kids and their families. We spent some time looking through the various Zooniverse projects and thought, “We could teach about galaxy formation!  We could teach about magnetic fields and solar activity! We could look for cute pictures of baby elephants all week!” The more we brainstormed the more we realized why we were so excited. Sure, images of space are mesmerizing and everyone loves baby elephants, but we were also just really curious about these things. As astronomers, it’s our job to be curious and to figure out new things. But science is certainly not limited to people like us – it’s for everyone! That’s when we decided our activity should get at the core of the Zooniverse and demonstrate just how everyone can be a scientist.

We knew we wanted to emphasize key components of citizen science projects, like observation and collaboration, but we weren’t sure how to integrate these ideas into an activity that would attract a sugar-buzzed eight year old. Our hook had to be exciting and offer guests a unique “I’m in a space museum” experience. After much thought, an idea finally hit us: how cool would it be if we had a meteorite small enough for guests to hold?  From there, our activity almost designed itself(even though we had yet to confirm the existence of said meteorite). After discussing our first draft with Laura and Julie and making a few changes, we had a solid outline of what we wanted to do. “Mystery Rocks” was born!

Step 1: Present the guests with a problem. We incorporate the meteorite into the activity by having guests compare it to Earth rocks (found in the flowerbeds outside the planetarium). Our opening line sounds something like, “We have some rocks we know nothing about. Can you help us?”

Step 2: Make some observations. At this point, we offer our rocks to the guests and encourage them to make observations using the tools available (magnifying glass, magnet, etc). After a few minutes, we ask guests to shout out their observations as we write them on a whiteboard for everyone to see.

Step 3: Classify the objects and vote. We then group the rocks based on the observations (e.g. rough v. smooth, heavy v. light, magnetic v. non-magnetic) and have guests vote on the classifications. Our goal was to make this part of the activity tactile.  After rummaging through the supply cabinets of the public programs department, we found some clear plastic graduated cylinders and large, colorful, fuzzy pom-poms that we thought would do the trick. For each classification, we use the pom-poms as our “ballots” and the graduated cylinders as our “ballot boxes” and have each participant cast his or her vote in a different box. After determining the group consensus, we write the classifications of the rocks on the whiteboard.

Step 4: We just did science! Here is our chance to emphasize how everything we just did in the activity is precisely how science works. We then introduce the idea of citizen science and talk about the Zooniverse.

Step 5: Use the voting results to learn about the rocks. Hopefully we still have the group’s attention and can discuss how to use our classifications to learn about the rocks.  We ask the group if they can tell us where the rocks came from and then blow them away with the fact that they are actually holding a rock from space!

Having cobbled together a prototype of our activity, we headed upstairs to try it out with visitors. Our first trial run was in the Planet Explorers area, with a group of kids:


 Here’s the initial set-up of “Mystery Rocks” (first image) and a mid-activity shot of the whiteboard full of observations (second image). We tried to write down everything the crowd observed!

We took two big lessons from this first demo. The first was that kids love distractions, and we provided them many by having lots of clutter on the activity cart. The second was that kids love pom-poms and stickers, and having these props helps to keep their interest. Surprisingly for us, most kids were not very impressed when we told them they were holding a meteorite, but were more interested in making observations about the rocks. We would never have come to these realizations ourselves, and we learned just how invaluable it is to actually test an activity, even if it is still rough around the edges.

Using our experience on the floor as a guide, we changed our procedure to make “Mystery Rocks” more effective. We tested the activity with Adler’s Education and Public Programs department, as well as their teen interns. We got some excellent critiques about our hook and how best to communicate concepts of citizen science. We also learned the requirements for floor programs and documented “Mystery Rocks” for future use at Adler and beyond. Keeping all the feedback in mind, we took the floor again, ready to excite planetarium visitors about citizen science!


“Mystery Rocks” by the beautiful Milky Way panorama just around the corner from Zooniverse HQ.  This gave us an excellent opportunity to talk about Galaxy Zoo! 

The philosophy of citizen science, and of “Mystery Rocks”, is that everyone can participate in science. Of course, our little visitor already knew this and we’d like to inspire this same enthusiasm in others by showing how everyone can be a part of the scientific community. Our activity not only demonstrates how science works, but also how much learning thrives through teamwork. Many people we interacted with during our time at the planetarium had never thought of themselves as scientists and we hope we changed that! This little girl, however, was clearly excited about a life in science:

Us: “What kind of science do you do?”

Girl: “I’m an inventor! I’m going to invent wings that people can wear, and a way to go to the places you see on TV. […] I’m going to work in a lab!”

Us:  “Well you know, we’re scientists, but we don’t work in a lab.”

Girl: “Well then you can’t be scientists!”

We’ll just have to work on that another time.

We would like to thank Laura and Julie for all of their guidance and support as we developed our activity! We learned so much from you and had such a great team working with the Zooniverse team!










Guest Educator Bloggers Wanted

Are you a classroom teacher or informal educator using Zooniverse or other citizen science projects in your teaching practice? We’d love to hear about how you’re doing it and share it with others!  Whether you’re using Seafloor Explorer with third graders, Radio Galaxy Zoo with adult learners, or Operation War Diary in a history museum.

If you’re interested in sharing how you use citizen science to engage students or other audiences on the Zooniverse Education Blog, please email with a brief description of how you’re doing it.

Taiwan Teachers Workshop

Teacher professional development workshops run in conjunction with science meetings offers educators and scientists a unique opportunity to learn from one another.  On Sunday March 2, 2014 the Taiwan Teachers Workshop was held as part of the Citizen Science in Astronomy Workshop  at the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Academia Sinica in Taipei.  The Citizen Science in Astronomy Workshop brought together astronomers, data scientists, and web developers together to discuss the challenges of working with large datasets and best practices in utilizing the power of citizen science to work with these datasets.  Recognizing an opportunity to bring Zooniverse project scientists together with area educators,  Meg Schwamb, Stuart Lynn, Lauren Huang and Mei-Yin Chou worked with teachers to introduce concepts of citizen science with special focus on Planet Four and Galaxy Zoo.  Earlier this year these two projects were translated into Traditional Chinese as part of  Zooniverse’s push to translate various projects into as many languages as possible through the efforts of our extensive volunteer community.


To add to this translation effort, a number of existing Zooniverse educator resources were also translated into Traditional Chinese including Planet Four & Galaxy Zoo lesson plans and Galaxy Zoo teacher and student guides.  You can find the workshop presentations and links to the translated educational materials at

 Funding for the Taiwan Teachers Workshop was generously provided by Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology.




My Path to Informal Science Education

It seems as though how one gets into informal science education is different for everyone. I’m going to share my experience of how I became an educator with Zooniverse at Adler Planetarium. I feel very lucky to be in my current position, and there was a lot of researching and networking involved in getting to this point.

My background is in Astronomy and Space Physics. I went to University of Kansas for my undergraduate career and earned Bachelors of Science degrees in Astronomy and Physics with a research certificate. During this time, I was engaged in outreach opportunities and practice presentations through departmental organizations and internships. We were asked to present our research for a variety of audiences, including professionals, school children, and the public. My advisors had taught me that it was part of the job of being a researcher to be able to communicate my work to anyone.

I went on to graduate school at University of Michigan for Space Physics. My graduate advisor was quite supportive of us participating in education and outreach, but I quickly learned that this is not the case with all advisors. After spending three years in a science program geared toward becoming a researcher, I changed my academic goals. I wanted to work primarily on informal science education.

I had been so focused on conducting research for the past six years of my life that I was not sure how I make such a jump to another path. I started by looking for volunteer opportunities and working on my graduate advisor’s NASA Education and Public Outreach (EPO) grant. I also asked everyone I met at museums and through NASA EPO about how they got into their informal education positions.

Some of the career paths I heard from informal educators involved graduate programs in education or museum studies, participation in teacher training programs, and employment or volunteering throughout high school and college at informal education institutions. I did a search for programs (programs I found are included below), but I ended up finding out that there was a graduate certificate program at Michigan that could be completed in one year. Within two months I had found the program, applied, met with the director, and was accepted for the following year’s program. No one from my department had been involved in this program and as it turned out very few science or engineering students ever had. I felt very lucky with how things worked out.

The Museum Studies Program at University of Michigan seems quite thorough for a program that can be completed in one year. The program includes museum seminar courses covering all aspects of museums, several museum visits to experience different types of museums, elective courses involving the museum area of your interest, and a practicum or museum internship. The practicum is where your networking skills really come in handy and was how I found an internship at Adler Planetarium. I interned in the citizen science department where I now work, and some of my fellow museum studies students also found work at the institutions they interned at. Most museum internships are unpaid, but the museum studies program at University of Michigan tries to help people out with funding during their practicum. Volunteering can also give you experience though, since some volunteers work on a particular project in an area that interests them.

From my experience thus far, I recommend a few things. First, volunteer, even if you only have 3 hours a week to help out. It shows that you are interested in being a part of that field and gives you experience. I also recommend taking advantage of as many opportunities as possible to learn more about informal education, because it happens in many places that you would not always suspect. Finally, make sure you get out there and network. It could be through workshops, volunteering, or even online sites such as LinkedIn. Meet other people in informal education to hear about the path of their career and to gain a connection with other institutions and people in the field.

Museum Studies Programs

Museum Education Programs

Informal or Science Education Programs

There is a group of informal educators at Northwestern University that have been putting together resources like this, you can find these resources at:

Cosmic Curves: Investigating Gravitational Lensing at the Adler Planetarium

Today’s post comes from Kyle Sater, Senior Educator for Public Program Development at the Adler Planetarium. Kyle’s enjoys making STEM fun and relevant for everyone, especially when it involves Star Wars and legos. He lives in Chicago with his wife, who is also an educator, and his lovable cat Boots. 

It’s a funny thing: Einstein was usually right. His General Theory of Relativity predicted that gravitational masses can alter the direction of light, creating strange lensing effects in deep space. In short, light can be bent and we can see those effects—sometimes arcs, sometimes full-on rings, in far-away galaxies.

In 2013, the Adler premiered Cosmic Wonder, full-dome sky that takes guests on a journey to the far reaches of space—to places like enormous galaxy clusters, some which are acting as gravitational lenses because of their gravitational mass (with the help of elusive dark matter). To further the experience for guests after the show, the Public Programs department developed a cart program that attempted to make lensing more…tangible.

As you can imagine, the challenge was taking a relatively abstract concept, like gravitational lensing, and creating a museum program suitable for guests with different background knowledge. At the Adler we engage in “backward design,” meaning we develop 1 or 2 large learning goals and work backwards to find instructional methods that will work on the floor. But we also value inquiry-based exploration and want guests to have fun! So we started with a basic premise, “How can we detect the invisible?” and “How can light be bent?” and create experiments to explore these concepts. In this case, we utilize a quilting frame with taught fabric interwoven with a battery-powered light strand, and placed a heavy object (billiard ball) on the fabric. This helps illustrate that, even if we can’t see an object, its mass “warps” space-time and can bend light. As a follow up, we challenge guests to use a special acrylic lens and a laser to create their own “lensed objects” on the exhibit wall.

Adler Planetarium floor interpretation volunteers ready to engage museum guests with Cosmic Curves.
Adler Planetarium floor interpretation volunteers ready to engage museum guests with Cosmic Curves.

Our in-house team of facilitators, Mission Specialists, are crucial to the success of floor programs like Cosmic Curves. This program, more than others, requires a comfortability with the content, especially since they’re talking about cutting-edge topics in cosmology. And even then, guests can always surprise you! After all, a 1st grader and a grad student studying physics are coming from vastly different places.

Zooniverse projects, like Space Warps, and apps like GravLens only further the experience for our guests. So get classifying on or learn more by coming to the Adler!

Thoughts From the Classroom: Kat

Kat is sharing her impressions of Galaxy Zoo and Radio Galaxy Zoo as the fifth post in our Thoughts From the Classroom series.  

My name is Kat and I attend a school called GATE Academy.  Let me tell you a story about my experience with Galaxy Zoo.

Two months ago, my teacher discovered Galaxy Zoo.  She thought it would be a good class activity, so she had us read some articles as background information for what we were about to be doing on Galaxy Zoo.  These articles included information about the different characteristics of the different galaxy types and how this galactic information ties into the evolution of our Universe.  It hadn’t occurred to me before that galaxies tie into the Universe as a whole, but it made sense once I read it and I thought it was fascinating.  Then we started actually classifying galaxies as our class assignment.

In retrospect, I should have been amazed and acknowledged how incredible looking at these far-off galaxies was, but I just didn’t see it at the time.  I overlooked it because my mind was set on it being a class assignment and how I just needed to do it to get a good grade.

When I started, all that came up on my screen were pictures of blobs of clumpy blurry things.  I wasn’t very impressed.  Everyone around me, though, started seeing beautiful, wonderful images of incredible galaxies.

This is when I understood what a privilege it was to be participating in this new, cutting edge, amazing research.  On my screen showed actual galaxies from outer space.  It struck me how little we know about the universe around us, because nobody really knows what’s out there.  We have hypotheses, but, honestly, anything could be out there. I became proud of the blobs I classified, because you really needed to look and observe the characteristics, unlike perfect, sharp, clear galaxies (but these were really quite beautiful).  There was more mystery in the blobs for me, so classifying them correctly (or as close as I could get) became my challenge.

I learned a lot about classifying these galaxies along the way. The Zooniverse taught me about how galaxies can be spiral, irregular, or smooth, with bars, clumps, and varying sizes of central bulges.  I learned about how black holes are visible in radio telescopes but not in infrared.  I also learned the different types of black holes, such as compact, extended, and multiple.

After seven weeks of classifying these galaxies, my classmates and I had classified over 9,000 galaxies.  We were all proud of our accomplishment and of all we had learned along the way. I definitely recommend you at least try classifying on Galaxy Zoo, whether its galaxies or black holes or what have you.  Why not?  Don’t you want to say you’ve had the experience?  Would you like to contribute to our knowledge of the universe, or even do your OWN original research about the wonders around us?  If you have any of those interests, or just want to check it out because it sounds cool (and trust me, it is), definitely go to Galaxy Zoo and start classifying.

Thoughts From the Classroom: Riley & Harrison

This fourth post in our Thoughts From the Classroom series comes from Riley and Harrision.  Riley and Harrison are 8th grade students at Gate Academy and are both Galaxy Zoo volunteers.


Galaxy Zoo is a great program. It was brought to my attention when we began using Galaxy Zoo in class. It was extremely interesting because I had never seen pictures of our universe like the ones I am able to see on Galaxy Zoo. On one picture, we found an amazing spiral galaxy with such a huge level of clarity, you could even see individual stars. It just blew me away.

Galaxy Zoo is enlightening about the true scale and beauty of our universe. In the background of these immense galaxies you can see dozens of smaller galaxies, which are really just as huge as the one you’re getting a close up of. How cool is that? The structures are so massive but detailed down to the tiniest level, as demonstrated on Earth. I think that everyone should give themselves a chance to appreciate our Universe.

Galaxy Zoo really provided me with food for thought, and I recommend it strongly to anyone with the vaguest curiosity about what’s up there.


I’m Harrison, and I used Galaxy Zoo in my middle school class. We instantly loved it because, it’s the perfect combination of learning about the different types of galaxies and having fun while doing it.  Using Galaxy Zoo also gives you a feeling of helping scientific research, by helping progress our scientific understanding of the Universe. The website is user friendly allowing you to classify galaxies, check your personal account, and see other information with a click of a button. The website is interactive and awesome showing you breath-taking pictures that you get to classify. There is so much to do and you can easily be lost for hours. I would recommend Galaxy Zoo to anyone.

Snapshot Serengeti Brings Authentic Research into Undergraduate Courses

Today’s post comes from Annika Moe. Annika is a post-doctoral fellow in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota and has a background in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. She is currently working to incorporate authentic research experiences into courses for non-biology majors and incorporate learning technologies into the classroom.

 ‘What is that?” My officemate crossed the room and squinted at the image on my computer.

“Tawny-colored herbivore?” I tilted my head and considered a new angle of the extreme close-up photo before me. “Lion?”

“Mmm… wishful thinking…”

“I’m calling it a Hartebeest. They seem to always be standing around under trees.  This camera’s probably fixed to a tree” and I clicked on the “Next capture” button.

“Trotsky!” we both sang out as we watched a lone warthog plod half-ways across the screen.  We had decided it was an appropriate name for the jolly looking animal that kept appearing at a number of different camera sites. Next capture.

This went on for a couple hours as I familiarized myself with Zooniverse’s Snapshot Serengeti project.  I couldn’t stop pressing that button… Next captureNext capture…  It was addicting.  Something about this experience was transporting me across the world and tapping into a child-like sense of wonder that I hadn’t felt in a long while.

Snapshot Serengeti was a perfect fit for what I wanted to accomplish.

“Incorporate an authentic research experience into a laboratory course for non-biology majors.”  This was the charge I was given when I arrived at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 2012.  With funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the College of Biological Sciences had hired a group of post docs to tackle this challenge across a number of the “non-major” courses offered by the Biology Program.

With a degree in ecology and evolution, I made a beeline for BIOLOGY 1001: Ecological and Evolutionary Perspectives.  What fun! Working with my favorite student demographic (non-biology majors) on my favorite subjects!

It would be a great challenge.  This may be the only biology class these students take during their college education.  Many may believe that they have no interest in or talent for science. They could be future engineers, business leaders, teachers, politicians, computer scientists, comedians, or journalists. What do we want these students to take away from their one biology class? What is an authentic research experience, and can students authentically experience science in such a short time?

 I had recently read a paper by a group from Stanford University [1] that gave a number of suggestions for successfully integrating faculty research into undergraduate biology education. Snapshot Serengeti met some of the more challenging suggestions.

  1. Low barrier of technical expertise for students to collect data Check.  Snapshot Serengeti has an intuitive user-interface and tutorial tools. Students can learn to collect data with little to no instruction.
  2.  Established checks and balances for student-collected data Check. Snapshot Serengeti has a data quality control system of multiple identifications and ID confirmation through consensus.
  3. Diverse, but constrained set of variables for developing hypotheses Check.  The data collected by the Snapshot Serengeti project consists of a manageable number of variables and metadata associated with camera locations.  The nature of the data generally directs investigations toward asking questions about distribution patterns over time and space.
  4. Central database accessible to all students Check.  The researchers behind the Snapshot Serengeti project are led by Dr. Craig Packer, professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior and instructor of BIOL 1001 at the University of Minnesota.  The current quality-checked data set from Snapshot Serengeti is readily available to our students.

And so I prepared a six-week laboratory module in which students used the Snapshot Serengeti project to make observations and collect data, generate testable questions and investigate those questions using the combined data from all Snapshot Serengeti participants.  While it is impossible to experience all aspects of scientific research in six weeks, the module uses exploratory research and observational study to highlight a few key pieces of the process.

 The first two weeks are spent exploring, observing and wondering about Serengeti wildlife. Students read and discuss scientific papers on Serengeti ecology.  They learn about trophic dynamics and interactions through building a Serengeti food web.  Students spend time using the Snapshot Serengeti website and practice generating observations and questions from both individual photos and sets of photos across space and time.  From this pool of experiences, students draw on their own intellectual curiosity and understanding to form their research questions.

The third week introduces the students to the Snapshot Serengeti database.  Students are given instruction on how to use the data filter and graphing functions in the statistical program Jmp.  They are given time to explore the data and computer program to try and address a few testable questions given to them at the start of the lab session.  Students compare different data visualization methods and discuss their relative utility in displaying different types of data.

During the fourth and fifth weeks, students work in groups to investigate a set of their own questions, organized around a theme in Serengeti ecology.  Groups are let loose with the database and Jmp program to investigate their questions and prepare a presentation of their findings. During these two weeks, Students experience the challenge that researchers face in identifying the data that truly addresses their questions and organizing the data to test their ideas.

In the final week, groups present their research to the class and reflect on what they’ve learned about the nature of science and the research process.

During Fall of 2013, we piloted this module in 3 lab sections involving 59 students. I had no idea what the students would take away from the six weeks of working with the Snapshot Serengeti project.  The assignments were open-ended and students largely left to figure out how to address their questions without explicit instruction. I expected that they would be confused, frustrated and perhaps even angry.  I was afraid that working with a giant spreadsheet of numbers would bore them.  I was hoping for something great, but prepared for a disaster.

I was shocked by what I saw during the pilot of the module. Students were huddled over their computers for the entire two hours of each lab period, working furiously to find patterns in their data.  They were on task, engaged and asking questions.

I was even more amazed when I asked what they had learned from their experience.

They recognized the creative nature of science:

“Being a design student, art has always been a stronger subject than science [for me]. With this lab I realized the two are very similar.  The process of discovery is the same and even science takes creativity.”


“I did not realize how much trial and error [is involved] because the usual labs… had instructions for how to do them properly.  This time I was creating the process.”


 They recognized the difference between logical thought and empirical evidence:

 “I learned that most of the time your common sense thoughts are not backed up strongly by research.”

-Political Science and Philosophy

 “[I learned] that failing to find what you were looking for is still a result and happens often in science. “


They experienced the scientific method as more than a blind march through a series of steps:

“I learned it’s not as linear a process as I thought it was.  Hypotheses and conclusions change alongside the discovery of new data; it’s a fluid process.”


They recognized that the direction of research is driven by questions:

“I knew that it was really important to continually ask questions but I did not realize how integrated it was to the process or how naturally more questions appear.”


Reflecting back on some of my initial questions about what makes a research experience “authentic”, the answer really isn’t that complicated.  Scientists have the freedom pursue the questions that interest them and the freedom to follow where those questions lead. Give students the tools to ask and investigate questions, then give them the freedom to be a scientist.

Zooniverse and Snapshot Serengeti offer an amazing exploratory platform from which to awaken curiosity and dive into the scientific process.

 “Try to find out something interesting. Interest is the best motivation.”

-Actuarial math and accounting student

[1] Kloser, M.J. et al. 2011. Integrating Teaching and Research in Undergraduate Biology Laboratory Education. PLoS Biology. Vol 9:11. e1001174.

Educator Opinions Needed on Planet Hunters Educational Resources

The prospect of discovering a whole new planet in Planet Hunters is super amazing and awesome.  I sometimes refer to it as the “sexiest” outcome of any Zooniverse project (sorry lions and plankton). Here at the Zooniverse we’ve found that young people get pretty jazzed about the prospect of discovering a new world too. We want to deepen that excitement by helping students to understand the science behind the project.

Over the past year educators have been developing the Planet Hunters Educators Guide.  Specifically targeted at middle school students (11-14 year olds), this nine-lesson unit aims to help students gain an in-depth understanding of the science behind Planet Hunters. Topics addressed include the transit method of detecting exoplanets, habitable zones, working with Kepler data to determine features of the different exoplanets, and much more. Last spring we conducted a first round of teacher review of the initial set of lessons. Since then they’ve been updated and improved based on the incredibly valuable feedback provided by teachers from around the world.

We’re carrying out a second round of teacher evaluation on these the revised lessons. Care to lend us your opinion?  We need teachers to tell us what they think about these lessons and how to make them better!

The Details

  • If you’d like to help us create this educational resource please fill in this Google Form.  
  • We’ll email you directly with instructions on accessing the lessons and evaluation forms by Friday February 14th.
  • US-based teachers who complete either of the following options by 5pm CST on Wednesday March 10th will receive a $25 Amazon gift card via email. 

1.)  Pilot at least two lessons with students and complete a short feedback form for each lesson.


2.)  Read at least four lessons and complete a short feedback form for each lesson.

We welcome the opinions from educators from any country, but are only able to offer the Amazon gift card to US-based teachers due to grant restrictions.  If you have any questions please comment below or email