Cleverly Collecting Data

By Jeremy Lloyd

“Doing science? Outdoors? At camp? You must be kidding!”

The notion that any person, even without a sound scientific background, can contribute to genuine field research is fairly new, and can produce a variety of responses:

  • “Not for me.”
  • “Too complicated.”
  • “Only experts or nerds can do real science.”

As somebody who dropped out of college biology with a failing grade (don’t tell my employer!), I once felt this way myself. But I’ve had to reorient my whole way of thinking because I’ve learned firsthand that science really is for everyone. Anybody can do it, as has been shown time and time again at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, a year-round, residential environmental learning center where I direct summer camp in Townsend, Tenn.

Though this perception didn’t change overnight, the scientific community has come around to the idea that children—yes, children—can be trusted to collect data in the field. The movement has become known as citizen science, which, simply put, involves non-scientists in scientific research.

This begs an important question: Why would any camp director consider adopting a citizen-science project when science isn’t remotely close to his or her camp’s mission?

Why Citizen Science?
For one thing, many projects can be woven into ongoing camp activities. Some can be accomplished in a matter of minutes.

Also, citizen projects are often fairly easy to pull off. No megatron microscopes, lasers, or any other expensive and complicated piece of equipment is necessary. In fact, activities that require participants to be closed up indoors are discouraged because citizen science is all about hanging up the lab coat and pocket protector and going outdoors.

Another important consideration is the concept of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and the role camps play in making sure kids learn during the academic black hole represented by the months of June, July, and August. Citizen science can make real contributions to a child’s academic success by engaging the part of the brain that is required to do scientific thinking. Besides, science in the outdoors is fun—and the best part is that the kids are learning while doing projects, and they don’t even know it.

Finally, doing citizen science has its own built-in rewards for participants because many projects make real contributions to science.

Identify Assets
If you’re not a scientist—and few people are—it may be difficult to know where to begin. Is there a pond, meadow, stream, or patch of woods at camp? This may be the perfect setting in which to conduct a citizen-science project. Even if bricks and asphalt are all there is, that, too, may be enough. For the Globe at Night program, all that’s needed is a night sky and a team of citizen scientists to measure its brightness. The program is one way to raise public awareness about light pollution—and anybody, anywhere, can do it. Check out for more details.

Visit to learn about a host of other project ideas and resources. Consider contacting the county extension office or the biology department of a local university, and inquire about any need for volunteers.

Start Simple
Anyone who runs a camp knows that expenses and time are two limiting factors, but often solutions can be surprisingly simple.

Everyone experiences weather—and kids love to read instruments. At Great Smoky Mountains Institute, the weather station is very basic and requires no electricity. The station includes a high/low thermometer, barometer, humidity gauge, and rain gauge. (A Google search reveals all these items can be purchased for under $100.) Additionally, there’s a Beaufort wind scale (free on the internet) and a bottle of bubbles.

Each morning about 15 minutes before breakfast, a handful of children gather at the station. They record data onto a homemade list, blow bubbles to see which way the wind is moving, and check the river gauge to see if the river has risen or fallen overnight.

After breakfast, the campers read aloud the data, which are then “plugged” into a “weather wheel” that provides the day’s forecast. (Note: The weather wheel isn’t entirely necessary since a falling or rising barometer itself communicates much about imminent changes in the weather.) The data are copied onto a dry-erase board for everyone to peruse throughout the day. A separate board shows the changing river level. Often, a question is asked of the whole group as they’re finishing their eggs and biscuits: “Why is the river 10 centimeters higher than yesterday?” Answer: “Because it rained.” While it may seem obvious, this encourages the kids to think about how their lives and the environment are directly affected by the weather.

All the data sheets are saved, and later (this part requires a little more time) the information is entered into a spreadsheet. This gives campers an opportunity to compute the average daily high and low temperatures in a precise location.

Another idea is to construct a rain pole showing the year-to-date rainfall in inches.

For The Birds
If a camp contains meadows or forest or other suitable avian habitat, consider hosting a bird-banding crew. Bird-banding involves using mist nests to safely capture birds, take measurements, collect other information, and then release the birds without harm. The data collected are vital in determining the health of bird populations and noting what conservation efforts should be undertaken.

In this way, campers have an opportunity to see birds close up while learning about a variety of species, including some of special concern to scientists. Contact a local ornithology club or county extension office to see if any licensed bird-banders live in the area.

Seasonal Changes
As a year-round camp, Tremont is able to tackle projects otherwise limited by the seasons. For instance, in spring and fall phenology—how plants and animals are influenced by climatic changes—is studied. When do the first Hooded Warblers return in spring? When do the buds on maple trees leaf out? When in fall does the first hard frost occur? The gathering of phenological data, going back 30 years, enables campers to notice trends in the timing of bird migration and when flowers bloom.

During every season a clipboard, used to keep track of happenings in the natural world, hangs in a public area where anyone can add to it. A typical entry might say: “black snake spotted outside dining hall” or “box turtle found on road.” By communicating such sightings to the entire camp, campers know their observations count for something.

In spring and fall, monarch butterflies are studied. By capturing, tagging, and releasing these winged jewels—and especially by passing data on to Monarch Watch (, the camp is part of a national network dedicated to conservation efforts on behalf of this beautiful and vulnerable creature.

Empowering Kids
Science can often be a worthwhile end in itself. At camp, of course, the goal is to use this powerful tool in connecting kids with nature. It also teaches citizenship and imparts to campers a sense of a greater purpose outside themselves. Science shows them the art of observation, which they can carry with them as a tool that empowers them throughout their lives. After all, that’s what camp is all about.

Jeremy Lloyd is a program coordinator for Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in Townsend, Tenn. Reach him at