16 Summer Projects For Kids and Families

These fun citizen science projects teach kids about the environment while gathering data scientists actually use for research.

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Frogwatch USA

Dates: Varies by region — whenever frogs are breeding

If you think birds are, well, for the birds, then maybe frogs are a better fit.

Frogwatch USA, developed by the National Wildlife Federation and now a program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is an attempt to use citizen scientists to monitor the health of frogs. As the Year of the Frog in 2008 should have taught us, the health of frogs and other amphibians worldwide is not good, as pollution, habitat loss, an aggressive fungal disease and other stresses affect these charismatic species.

You can help by spending as little 20 minutes twice a week observing the frogs breeding in wetlands near your home. In northern parts of the country, frogs breed primarily in the spring, though some species breed throughout the warm months and some breed year-round in warmer latitudes.

For more information, visit nwf.org/frogwatchUSA.

Project BudBurst

Dates: Primarily in spring and summer

How are native trees and flowers responding to environmental changes like global warming, the loss of species or the decline in native pollinators? That is the question Project BudBurst seeks to answer.

Participants monitor the phenological events of native plants, like the date when Pacific trillium blooms, black locust leafs out or woods strawberry puts out fruit.

The collective observations extend scientists' reach far beyond what would be possible otherwise. Because climate change will have such widespread effects, citizen science is one of the best ways to document it.

For more information, visit Project BudBurst.

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Firefly Watch

Dates: Summer

Fireflies are one of the harbingers of summer — and an early inspiration for many people venturing outside. But they may be in trouble.

Scientists don't have much data about fireflies — where they live, how abundant they are, what environmental factors help or harm them. Firefly Watch aims to change that by enlisting legions of volunteers across the country, but especially in New England, to observe fireflies and report data about their activities in various habitats to a central database that scientists at Tufts University, Fitchburg State College and the Boston Museum of Science can analyze.

For more information, visit Firefly Watch.

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Earthdive, the Great Annual Fish Count and REEF

Dates: Whenever and wherever it's warm, especially July

Going on vacation to a tropical paradise? Consider an earthdive while you're there. Earthdive, supported by the United Nations Environment Program, asks scuba divers and snorkelers to log sightings of key species and human-induced pressures on marine ecosystems.

Or, if you'll be diving or snorkeling in July, join the Great Annual Fish Count, a similar effort to take a snapshot of marine ecosystems around the world. The annual count is organized by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. REEF also sponsors an ongoing Volunteer Survey Project that is active along the U.S. coasts.

For more information, visit earthdive.com, fishcount.org or reef.org.

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Monarch Larva Monitoring Project

Dates: Late spring to fall

The life cycle of the monarch butterfly is one of the most amazing in nature. Best of all, perhaps, is that the butterfly is both beautiful and accessible — giving volunteers ample opportunity to participate in citizen science projects aiding scientists trying to understand this creature.

After wintering in Mexico, adult butterflies migrate north as far as Canada. The eggs they lay develop, and while those adults will never return to Mexico, the generation(s) they spawn will make the return trip in the fall, traveling up to 3,000 miles. Because larvae feed exclusively on milkweed, the abundance of this plant is critically important to the survival of the species.

Participants commit to monitor patches of milkweed weekly to count monarch eggs and larvae, and assess milkweed density.

For more information, visit the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.

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Project PigeonWatch

Dates: All year

Not every lover of the outdoors lives on a ranch in the countryside. Most of us live in cities, and that's why there's PigeonWatch.

Perfect for kids, PigeonWatch is a Cornell Lab of Ornithology program that's nine parts education to every one part science. It's a good way for city kids to become familiar with a common — and surprisingly beautiful (really, give these "flying rats" a second chance!) — birds, and learn about scientific observation in the process.

Another of the lab's programs, Celebrate Urban Birds, goes further, asking participants to spend 10 minutes observing 16 urban birds and reporting their observations. It's a good way to get to know local crows, robins, orioles, swallows, and even more exotic species, like the black-crowned night heron and the peregrine falcon.

For more information, visit Project PigeonWatch or Celebrate Urban Birds.

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The Great Sunflower Project

Dates: Spring to fall

One of the youngest citizen science programs in the country, the Great Sunflower Project is also among the most fun — since it involves planting one's own sunflowers. But the larger goal is much bigger: to understand more about how bees feed themselves, and hopefully how we can help reverse recent staggering declines in bee populations.

All you have to do to participate is plant sunflowers — you receive a seed packet in the mail when you sign up — and when they bloom, observe bee activity on the flowers. It takes no more than 30 minutes per observation.

For more information, visit The Great Sunflower Project.

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Spider WebWatch

Dates: All year

Hey, birds, butterflies, frogs, and even earthworms have their own citizen science project. Why not spiders?

As intensely as many people react to spiders, scientists actually know very little about most of the 4,400 species (or more) that can call North America home. To learn more, Spider WebWatch is asking volunteers to look for nine ambassador species (none of them, of course, venomous) and report their observations of one of three jumper spiders (the bold, bronze, and zebra); one of two garden spiders (the banded banded and yellow — pictured here); the six-spotted fishing spider; the parson spider; the goldenrod crab spider; or the cat-faced spider.

If just hearing those names creeps you out, then this project is for you. Really. Get over your fear and contribute to science.

To learn more (or just see some great creepy pictures) visit SpiderWebWatch.org.

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Milkweed and Nectar Plant Phenology Project

Dates: Spring to fall

A partnership between two projects you'll find elsewhere in this feature, Monarch Watch and Project BudBurst, this project aims to understand how climate change and other factors may affect plants that are critical for the survival of monarch butterflies.

As the title of the project suggests, the focus is the milkweed on which larvae feed and the nectar plants — like lilac, sunflower, and purple coneflower — on which adults feed.

To participate, you identify which plants of interest occur in your area, and then you observe "firsts" — first emergence from soil, first flower bud, first open flower, etc. — and send your observations to the National Phenology Network.

For more information, read this post on the Monarch Watch blog.

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NestWatch

Dates: Spring and summer

Another citizen science project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, NestWatch is exactly what it sounds like.

To participate, you need to have access to a nest with a breeding bird — preferably one of about 25 focal species, like the mountain bluebird pictured here — and observe it during the breeding season.

By reporting your observations, you help scientists gather data over a wide area and long time period about breeding birds in North America.

A similar program for non-nesting birds is eBird, and a NestWatch for photography lovers is CamClickr.

For more information, visit NestWatch.org, eBird or CamClickr.

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Mountain Watch

Dates: All year

The Appalachian Mountain Club's Mountain Watch program seeks to enlist the nation's hikers in an effort to understand changes occurring — due to climate change and air pollution, especially — on America's mountains.

Citizen science opportunities include observations of mountain plants and flowers whose distribution may be shifting as the climate warms, and of visibility, which is affected by smog.

Another good project in which hikers can participate is the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Birds in Forested Landscapes program.

For more information, visit the AMC's Mountain Watch or Birds in Forested Landscapes.

Cooperative Weather Observer Program

Dates: All year

The National Weather Service's Cooperative Observer Program involves more than 11,000 volunteers who take daily weather data that inform experts' understanding of the U.S. climate as it is, as it was — and as it may change. The data gathered helps meteorologists improve their forecasts (and assess how accurate their past forecasts have been).

Volunteers must be trained and commit to daily data collection of such information as the highest and lowest temperature recorded in the previous 24-hour period, and how much precipitation occurred. When your local meteorologist lists the snow totals from recent storms, he or she is relying on the observations of individual volunteers across the region.

To learn more, visit the National Weather Service.

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MonarchWatch

Dates: Late August-October

With all the diligent attention citizen scientists pay to milkweed and monarch larvae, it's only fitting that the actual adult butterfly get some attention. That's where Monarch Watch comes in.

Volunteers can get involved by (carefully) capturing and tagging adult butterflies, collecting important data about their weight and health, and/or observing their flight. By doing so, you help scientists develop data about which monarchs survive the long migration from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico, and how exactly it is that butterflies that have never seen Mexico manage to fly 3,000 miles to reach it.

Are only the large and fat destined to survive? Do monarchs navigate by some internal compass? Or the angle of the sun? These are the types of questions you can help scientists answer.

For more information, visit MonarchWatch.org.

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Journey North

Dates: Spring and fall

Billed as the "premier citizen science project for children," Journey North "engages students in a global study of wildlife migration and seasonal change" by asking them to track migrating wildlife, like hummingbirds, butterflies, eagles and hawks — even gray whales (if you're lucky enough to live along the right coast).

For people who want to get more intensely involved, there's the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology's program, Priority Migrant eBird. This program focuses on five neotropical migrant birds — those that migrate from Central and South America to North America and back, like the cerulean warbler pictured here.

For more information, see Journey North or Priority Migrant eBird.

Great Lakes Worm Watch

Dates: Spring, summer, and fall

Open to residents in the six Great Lakes states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Indiana — this University of Minnesota project aims to understand how earthworms affect the environment.

Earthworms? But aren't they good for soil?

Earthworms are actually not native to North American hardwood forests, and by changing the soil they harm the ecosystem that supports the existing forest.

To participate, check the list of partners working with the University of Minnesota to see if you can get involved.

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Project RoadKill

Dates: March-May (check for exact dates)

You can learn a lot about the living by studying the dead. That, at least, is the premise of Project RoadKill, which like Project PigeonWatch is more about education than science.

Students choose a road each and monitor it twice daily and report what animals are killed there, along with data about speed limit and the like. While it may not provide scientists with useful information, it does remind students that roadways can be big killers of wildlife, and it can prime them for work on other citizen science projects. And it opens a window on the activities of wild animals in local neighborhoods that might otherwise be difficult or impossible to observe.

For more information, visit Project RoadKill.