Connecting class content in schools to the experiences of students is an important part of learning. In our middle school we do this through an expeditionary model. This means that we spend lots of time getting our students outside of the classroom and into the world. In a "normal" school year we would take our students to forests, streams, ponds, and cities. We would ride bikes, busses, and trains to explore and make connections between our lessons in class and the "real world." Like many schools across the country, COVID has changed our educational practice for the time being, restricting us to a virtual world. Fortunately, the virtual world can still provide students engaging and authentic opportunities for experiential education.

MRH Urban Tree canopy survey
MRH Urban Tree canopy survey area

This fall, my middle school sustainability class is conducting a virtual tree canopy study of our urban school district using a suite of tools called I-Tree ( produced in collaboration with the USDA Forest Service. Studies link urban trees with improved air quality, higher property values, lower energy costs, and even reduced crime. With this tool, my students are comparing the different surrounding neighborhoods and looking for trends that might reflect issues of economics and social justice. We are using the US Census Data Portal ( to find housing, economic, and demographic data to answer questions and test ideas about urban tree cover. Students have remarked that they are the only ones who know the relationship between tree canopy and average monthly housing costs in our area. We will apply our findings to policy and action for future urban tree planning and planting. The project is hands on and connects us with our community at a time when face to face connections is not possible. The work the students are doing is meaningful and is a step in making a more sustainable, livable city.

Adélie penguins that are part of the large colony that nests in the Edwards Islands. Edwards Islands #10, Amundsen Sea, Antarctica. Credit to Read:
Adélie penguins - Photo by Sarah Slack (PolarTREC 2020), Courtesy of ARCUS

Fortunately there are lots of citizen science opportunities that we can investigate from our computers. Many of them can be done as an action component to a lesson or as a bigger part of an interdisciplinary exploration. What's great is that they allow us to learn about the world while contributing to its sustainable future. Many projects focus on our polar regions and cover a wide range of science and social studies content.

The citizen science platform, Zooniverse (, has several polar research projects that allow classroom citizen scientists to play an active role in researching these far flung locations. Penguin Watch, for example, engages users to participate in identification and census tasks from drone and satellite photographs.

Weddell seals rest near a sea ice hole. Turtle Rock, Antarctica.
Weddell Seals - Photo by Timothy R. Dwyer (PolarTREC 2016), Courtesy of ARCUS

Seal Spotter, from Phillip Island Nature Park, uses drone footage of seal colonies and citizen scientists to collect data on the park's colonies over time.

You might want to check out The Polar Collective ( - an organization that supports numerous citizen science projects from sea ice to cloud density. These are more advanced than the point and click tasks of the various "spotter" programs but they offer online training materials for the more accessible projects.

There are so many resources out there that can bring research into the virtual classroom. I would love to hear your ideas for engaging students in science research while in remote learning environments. Please share your ideas, tips, and advice in the comments!

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Sarah Crowley

Hi Bill, Thanks for the glimpse into your education world. It is brilliant to bring more citizen science into the 'classroom' at this time. I bet it helps students feel connected to the outside world. Great job!

William Henske

Thanks Sarah! All of us educators are trying our best to bring authentic, real world experiences to our classrooms. It is amazing how creative teachers are getting.

Judy Fahnestock

Nice job by making lemonade out of lemons and finding many interesting online citizen science projects for your students to follow. Maplewood-Richmond Heights sounds like a fantastic school! Does everyone in middle school have to take the sustainability class?

William Henske

Not everyone gets to take it. Some students take band, choir, Spanish, coding, etc. We have an introductory course though that at least half of our kids choose to take. Mine is a new one I created this year to be project-based for students who wanted to continue in their study of sustainability and systems thinking. Its a heck of a time to roll this class out but we are really getting into the data and hope to share our results with the city and local policy makers.

Michael Kilfoy

Nice article, Bill.

I had a question. What is the reason for the correlation between more trees and less crime? Does it have a calming effect, or is there something else happening?

Jonathan Pazol

It's amazing how quickly we had to pivot from in-person activities to virtual. My Ecology Club students formed a partnership with several of the local communities and park districts to explore tree planting in our local area because we have some of the lowest canopy cover rates in Chicagoland. Unfortunately, that's on pause. We'll have to check out I-Tree and see if we can collect more data to share with our community partners.

William Henske

This would be perfect for that! Let me know if you try it. Itree has several other programs- one calculates the values of individual trees and lets you see the effect of planting in different locations around a building!