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Strengthening the Next Generation's Relationship with the Natural World

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's education team works with educators to get kids outside for science.

Photo of Ileana Betancourt
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In Short

BirdSleuth K-12 empowers educators to help students conduct backyard nature investigations, understand the science of habitats and other natural systems, and think critically about the world around them.

The Story

BirdSleuth K-12 began about ten years ago because educators wanted support using the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s research and citizen-science projects in their classrooms. Since its launch, the program has offered curriculum, professional development, and other types of support to both formal and informal educators across the country and internationally. The program primarily focuses on getting kids outside, observing birds, and participating in citizen-science investigations in their neighborhoods. Through the citizen-science projects, which are incorporated into the resources, kids can collect data and contribute to a growing database of information that scientists then use to understand the changing environment and furthermore influence policy.

There are two components in particular that make citizen science a strong educational tool. First of all, citizen science empowers youth. It provides a meaningful way they can contribute to a society's understanding of nature which ultimately will help influence policy. (About 50% of what we know about bird populations comes from citizen science.) Students care more about their work when they know that it will will make a valuable difference, and because of this, the learning experience is more likely to stick with them. Second, by encouraging students to make observations in their neighborhood, citizen science connects kids to their local habitats and the organisms which live there. These two primary components are key for influencing environmental behavior in education. 

To effectively tackle climate issues, change is needed on a variety of fronts. In addition to, and arguably more important than technological change is cultural change. By influencing human behavior, a shift from the standard paradigm that has caused climate change is possible. Through reaching youth, we can foster a sense of environmental stewardship in the generations that will soon begin to shape the world we live in. 

Why Birds?

Birds are dynamic, flying, and feathery creatures that are exciting to watch and learn about.  Kids love learning about animals and birds are particularly easy to teach with because they are live and wild animals that are found practically everywhere! Their ubiquitous nature helps make the learning continue even after kids leave the classroom.

Birds are intertwined with not only local habitats, but also (for migratory birds,) habitats that stretch across the country and even internationally. This encourages critical environmental thinking that spans not only locally, but also internationally. For example, by learning about one particular species in the neighborhood, for example, a Wood Thrush, a child can begin to understand the essential components of the bird’s habitat and the challenges that a bird faces in it’s habitat or even during migration that make surviving difficult. As kids realize these survival needs (food, water, shelter, space) and the challenges the bird faces (land development, building windows, light pollution, water pollution, pesticides) they begin to truly understand where it is our responsibility as humans to become better stewards of the earth. They also begin to understand the interconnectedness of all species in the forest and the other places the bird visits as it makes it’s migratory journey. The Wood Thrush journeys all the way from the US to Costa Rica, for example, which means that international climate conservation efforts are needed to protect this species because only protecting habitat in one country is not enough. 

After participating in a BirdSleuth program, youth foster a connection with nature, birds, and the environment. This connection and newfound understanding of the natural world can positively transform communities. For example, in the international program there was a community in Costa Rica where kids shot stones at the birds through slingshots. After studying birds with the BirdSleuth program, the kids went above and beyond their learning.  They not only stopped shooting stones at birds themselves, but they made efforts to stop others from shooting stones at the birds as well.

The Vision

This program continues to work towards reaching more educators and students with resources and support that will help get kids outside and connect to nature. While at times funding-related resources can be a challenge to the program itself, there is a wealth of interest and happy educators that support the program. 

Through education, the BirdSleuth program will continue to team with educators to positively influence the next generation's attitude towards the natural world.  By instilling a sense of environmental stewardship and environmental awareness, the hope is that the young generations will grow to understand the importance of tackling climate change.  As science literate critical thinkers, these youth will work towards helping our society shift towards a way of being that is healthy for the planet and sustainable for all life.

Where is this innovation/innovator located at? Be as specific as you can (country and city).

BirdSleuth K-12 is based at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Sapsucker Woods which is located in the gorgeous land of Ithaca, New York. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a world leader in the study, appreciation, and conservation of birds. Its hallmarks are scientific excellence and technological innovation to advance the understanding of nature and to engage people of all ages in learning about birds and protecting the planet.

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Join the conversation:

Photo of Matthew Ridenour

Thanks for your post Ileana! Wonderful to learn about BirdSleuth K-12. Are you working on this project? In what capacity? We would be delighted to learn more!

Photo of Ileana Betancourt

Hi Matt! Thank you! I'm out in the Bay Area now but I worked with BirdSleuth for five years. The education team does great work and I continue to advocate for what they do!

I was a core member of their team and worked with marketing, resource and community development, and provided professional development opportunities to teachers around the country. They've been helping teachers implement citizen science with innovative education tools and strategies for years now.

To get an idea of how BirdSleuth teachers are taking action and helping the planet, check out the BirdSleuth Action Map!