Educators - How do you use iNaturalist or Seek?

I’ve been meaning to start a thread about this for a while and was spurred on by comments here to finally get around to it.

If you are an educator who has used iNaturalist or Seek, can you please share your experiences? I would especially be interested in the following:

  • How did you decide to use it in your curriculum? Were there any resources you drew from?

  • How influential were curriculum requirements in shaping your use of iNat in the classroom?

  • What were your goals with using iNat?

  • How did it go? Do you think the students benefited from it? Any success stories and/or constructive criticism?

It would be great to hear from you.

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I was looking for an app that was free, had no advertising, and for which favorable reviews were available on line. In December 2018 I settled on PlantNet and worked with the app over the next three months. In the week ahead of my planned deployment of the app PlantNet updated and converted all of my observations to “invalid observations” for reasons I knew not. Over the next few days I tried to determine what was occurring, but could not. I started looking for an alternate and found that iNaturalist met my criterion. I had doubts however that an app which was designed to handle all flora and fauna could possibly have the identification skill of a dedicated plant app. Thirty minutes before my planned app class I thought I would give the app a try. I took a single picture of Sphagneticola trilobata, an invasive plant here. iNaturalist listed the flower as the top hit. I was instantly sold on iNaturalist. With a single observation in iNaturalist, and many more in PlantNet, I suggested to the class that they could try using either app. I wrote of this first day in my blog.

The reason for the long story is to provide background to how I arrived at using iNaturalist in a classroom with only 30 minutes and one observation worth of experience. This would lead to a number of errors in usage by my students which I would work on cleaning up post hoc. By the following week I had decided to never again use PlantNet in class and to use iNaturalist in the future. This too I wrote up in my blog. The blog covers the reasons why I abandoned use of PlantNet.

Nothing more than Google searches for reviews and Google Play store user reviews of the apps.

Not directly influential: the course that I teach is an ethnobotany course, we are often identifying cultivated/captive plants that are used by the islanders. I designed the curriculum with the mentoring of Dr. Michael Balick at the New York Botanic Garden.

Introduce students to the use of technology in identifying plants. I am also hopeful some might become interested in using the app beyond the class. My students come from dozens of different islands scattered across the western Pacific ocean, they have the opportunity to document flora and fauna in places where iNaturalist has not been used.

The students were excited to use the app and produced a number of observations, primarily captive/cultivated observations. The second blog article noted above reported on the results.

Perhaps the most egregious error in usage was my own ignorance of the captive/cultivated flag, a result of having been a 30 minute user prior to deploying, which in turn was a result of the sudden odd behavior of the app I originally planned to use and had experience using. As with any smartphone app, anyone can download and use the app, oftentimes without any clue that there are community norms surrounding the use of the app. New user restrictions are perhaps an appropriate way to ensure community norms are learned and observed, but the restrictions being proposed in another thread would not have slowed me down that day from having the students experiment with iNaturalist.

I do now worry about the abandoned accounts issue, I cannot assure that my students will continue to use iNaturalist, quite frankly many will not. But I also know that the student account option is a closed issue. I will continue to watch Seek and see if this evolves to being a useful tool for use in a collegiate level course.

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I’ve have used the iNaturalist website as part of the computer computer program with 3rd-5th grade students at my elementary school.

How was it used:
My school is located in the SF Bay Area, so I bookmarked the local Places Page to the class website that the students use. I directed the students to navigate to the page and gave them a brief explanation of what iNaturalist was. Next, I explained that the Places page was a collection of all the living things that people have observed in our area, ranked by how frequently they were observed. I demonstrated how you could learn more about specific organisms by clicking on its picture and then clicking “Read Full Wikipedia description.” Then, I let them spend ~ 20 minutes exploring the site. Finally, students wrote a 1 paragraph essay with facts about a local organism that they were interested in.

Curriculum Requirements:
Curriculum requirements were not influential in the my use of iNat in the classroom. In my personal opinion, the curriculum requirements at the elementary level are wholly inappropriate or unhelpful for student learning.

Goals using iNat:
The primary goal was to help my students build an appreciation and love for naturalism. Many of them live in an extremely urban setting and don’t get much exposure to the rural and open spaces that are socially considered to be “wild places.” My hope was that this exercise would foster a deeper appreciation of urban wildlife, and the idea that all places are wild and worthy of ecological study and interest.

How did it go?:
It went well! Most of the students were pretty engaged with the website. There were good discussions about what makes a place “wild” and why some organisms have more observations than more common ones (specifically “why are there more observations of red-tailed hawks than
pigeons, even though we see pigeons much more frequently?”). Almost all of the students wrote an essay on an organism that they had never encountered.

Future Projects:
At my school site, we don’t have any cameras or tablets that the students could use to make and upload observations to the app, but I’ve thought about how I would do an iNat observation activity if we received them:

(1) Create an iNat account for the school with a name and a profile description that makes it clear to other users that this a group account for an elementary school, and to please be understanding if some of the observations are initially poor quality/wrong.
(2) Load the same iNat account onto all the devices/tablets that students will use.
(3) Demonstrate how to take and upload observations. Explain the difference between “captive/cultivated/wild” and how to mark that on an observation.
(4) Escort the children around the school premises, and allow them to take photos of any wildlife they encounter.
(5) The teacher curates, in real time if possible, student observations on the group account. They should verify that any captive/cultivated observations are marked as such, and possibly delete poor quality observations.
(6) Once back in class, let the students review their observations from the day.
(7) Occasionally check back in observations, to see if any new identifications have been added.

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How used
I do a small curriculum unit on “being a naturalist” with elementary school students. I’m a sub, so I use this when I have a 3-day stint that has at least a free hour every day.

Curriculum
There’s a 2nd grade standard (& I think this is developed throughout K-5 standards) that aligns really well:

2. Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity
2-LS4 Biological Evolution: Unity and DiversityaaStudents who demonstrate understanding can:
2-LS4-1. Make observations of plants and animals to compare the diversity of life in different habitats.

Day 1
We review the concept of food webs and the potential diversity of life within one small spot. I usually ask them to guess how many different kinds of plants and animals people have seen within our city/county/state. They brainstorm what they’ve seen at their home or the school. Then I pull up the iNat map on the projector and let them choose which observations we look at. This is a hit with younger kids, who can usually use a map well enough to recognize notable locations (close to their house, the lake, the school, etc.)
I started on this coming from the Lost Ladybug Project and I still find that a useful lens as metamorphosis is a weirdly prevalent topic in elementary curriculums (or maybe the kids just like it most). We then discuss how different creatures might look different and be harder to notice depending on where they are in their life cycles. Timelapse videos of ladybugs or butterflies are usually a hit during this. I have sometimes had them draw the life cycle if we have enough time.

Day 2
They’re usually jazzed about the idea of looking for animals at this point, so we have a guided discussion about what careers people have that might lead to them looking at animals or plants a lot. I then introduce the concept of being a “naturalist” and how anyone can do it anywhere - even KIDS. Like @madronyut, I have kids who might not get to go out and explore conventionally appealing places often, so my goal is to get them looking for animals in their backyard/on the sidewalk, rather than just when they go on a fishing trip. There are a few YouTube videos about being a naturalist that are sometimes helpful. Then I tell them that WE get to be naturalists.

At this point, everyone must solemnly agree to be a good naturalist: someone who OBSERVES without interfering. (Look very carefully at wild things, not pets, but make sure it is still there to live its life cycle and be observed by scientists.) There’s always the one kid who decides to pull the wings off the moths or whatever so I have found it necessary to be very clear about this and have a complete no tolerance rule.

Depending on age group, I pass out checklists or bingo and assign groups or partners to work in, and we hit a clearly defined area out near the field. If they see something on the list, they call me over and I try to take a picture on my cellphone. We don’t have tech for the kids to do it themselves and frankly, no one needs 8 year olds posting freely on iNat. Sometimes this involves me running across the field after a fast bee like an idiot and the kids get upset about missed pics but generally I can snag enough pictures for them to be satisfied.

After the designated time (usually 15-30 mins), we head back in. They practice sketching one of their observations and making some notes about it.

Day 3
Overnight, I usually get a few IDs and can do the legwork myself on most things to at least a semi-satisfying degree to have “answers” for them about what we saw. (They don’t usually care if it’s genus vs. species, for example).

On the projector, I pull up the map again and orient them as we navigate to the school. We spend some time clicking on each observation, looking at the picture, and guessing what it might be before we review the identification. This is usually a chance to talk about what characteristics they noted (ie spotted, small) and how the name might relate.

We finish by anticipating future species they might observe as naturalists. Usually, this involves letting them choose a few more spots on the map to look at. Sometimes we talk about the state flower, etc.

I have to say, this is a huge hit and I’m always happy with its lasting impact on the kids - over the next few days-weeks I often find them “being naturalists” on the playground and watching ants, squirrels, etc. Great for curiosity and empowerment!

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I use iNaturalist extensively in a college course at Austin Community College called Structure and Function of Organisms (BIOL 1407) and I have done so for the past 2.5 years. I use it for the entire semester and have broken it up into 5 modules. I correspond the module iNaturalist project with the material I am covering in class. Below is my project focus for each module.

Module 1: General observations. In this module (3 weeks) they have to learn how to make an observations (I do this through a lab exercise) and then they have to post a minimum of 30 observations that meet the criteria of the project and of iNaturalist.

Module 2: Protists. They have to make 15 observations on Protists which requires them to do sampling of bodies of water and bringing them to class to take pictures of under a microscope.

Module 3: Plants and Fungi. They have to make 30 observations of plants and Fungi.

Module 4: Invertebrates. They have to make 40 observations of any invertebrates.

Module 5: Vertebrates. They have to make 20 observations of any vertebrates.

The instructions for each module project are clearly spelled out in handouts that I constructed as well as the project page in iNaturalist that I use. I am happy to give anyone a copy of my handouts if requested. You can find the main project for my current course at the following link.

https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/2019-spring—acc-biol-1407-class-diversity-project-eckerman-

How did you decide to use it in your curriculum? Were there any resources you drew from?

In previous iterations of this class I had the students take photographs of organisms and keep them in a field journal. I had been thinking along the lines of something like iNaturalist to make it easier and so when I stumbled across iNaturalist it was a perfect match for what I wanted in the classroom.

How influential were curriculum requirements in shaping your use of iNat in the classroom?

The class I teach (BIOL 1407) is perfect for iNaturalist. I focus on the biodiversity, form and function of protists, plants, fungi and animals and this is a perfect way of getting a little “hands on” with the organisms. I am working on setting up the use of iNaturalist in other courses that have a less-than-perfect match but I still find it necessary to emphasize the interaction with nature in order to appreciate it. I have also used iNaturalist as a single module project in an environmental science course before.

What were your goals with using iNat?

One of the statistics that has really struck me over the past few years is that the average American spends between 90 and 95% of their entire life indoors. I have always believed that you can teach someone about nature through the classroom and television but they don’t really buy into the necessity of conservation unless they feel that they have a stake in it all. So my primary goal was to stimulate interest in organisms that the students run into every day and to use a tool that they will have long after they are done with this class. My secondary goal was to get them more familiar with the material in the class by associating their observations with some of the things we discuss in lecture.

How did it go? Do you think the students benefited from it? Any success stories and/or constructive criticism?

It hasn’t been without its challenges but the overall result has been very positive and very encouraging.

Pros:

  • The students are engaged and are constantly bring photos to me after or before class of stuff they saw in the field and asking me about it.
  • The students seem to really enjoy the aspect of being pushed outdoors and they often get their friends and family involved in helping them make observations.
  • Students often continue to use iNaturalist after the class is over. Last summer I noticed almost 30% of my students from the spring were still using it to make observations.

Cons:

  • The way I grade the observations is that I have to sort through each student’s observations to make sure they meet the criteria that I have set forward in the instructions. This can be very time consuming especially in a semester where I have 3 of these courses. The protist section is the hardest because when you mix students, microscopes and protists then all sorts of observation mayhem can occur.
  • A very few students can put off the project and get very overwhelmed when the project is due and it can lead to cheating in the form of copying other student’s observations or posting something from online.
  • As the instructor for the course you have to stay on top of the observations to make sure you guide the students in the appropriate direction (e.g. making sure they have the appropriate locations and dates).

All-in-all I felt like the students definitely benefited from the projects. This shows up consistently in the course evaluation and for many students it was their favorite part of the course. I have had students tell me how they got their family members also stuck on iNaturalist and how it has made them appreciate the organisms that are around them.

Criticisms:
As much as I love iNaturalist I think there are a few things that could be done to support a teacher who wants to incorporate this into their classroom. Although I can’t be too harsh because one of the things I have noticed is that iNaturalist is trying to listen to the community and has been good at responding. For instance, I really like how they changed projects so that it is much easier to gather all of my student observations instead of having them add each of their observations separately. However, there are some things that could still be better.

  1. Classroom designation. One of the biggest problems I have is cleaning up the data. I emphasize to my students how this is real data and so I hate having bad data in iNaturalist. But it is inevitable that a student or two will put up something without location information or a bad picture and they never correct it (even if there are negative consequences to their grade). I have no way of correcting it and as the teacher who is trying to guide them on this journey in iNaturalist it would be very helpful if I could have a heavier hand in shaping their observations. I used to collect all of their login information so I could do that but it felt very invasive and so I stopped doing that after one semester.

  2. Classroom tag. One of the biggest objections to using iNaturalist in the classroom by the community is the high volume of bad observations that get added and that they have to sort through for identification purposes. It would be nice to have some kind of tag on observations that are part of a classroom setting. This would allow some users to avoid those observations and not be frustrated by them but also attract other users who are interested in sharing their knowledge about organisms with students.

  3. Sorting options in a project. Right now when you go to a project it will only sort the observations of the users in a project by the number of observations made. It would be extremely useful to be able to sort by username instead. I am trying to look at 70 students and I am spending a lot of time jumping around trying to match usernames. It appears in the project that I should be able to sort by username but it doesn’t work. I have tried this in multiple projects.

I have really enjoyed using iNaturalist in the classroom and I have kept track of all of the observations made here at ACC (Austin Community College) over the last 2.5 years. You can find it at the following link.

https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/acc-biology

We have reached over 44 thousand observations and I think that this will not only encourage other students down the road but also other faculty to start using it in their class.

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I saw the head of the master gardener program with my local cooperative extension program today and mentioned I had seen she was on iNat. I asked how she mainly uses it, because I was curious, and to my delight she shared that she uses it to ID seedlings of questionable origin, insect nymphs that don’t have clear recognizable field marks for most folks, and that she includes a tutorial on using iNat in her gardening talks, workshops and programs mainly for the aforementioned reasons and geared specifically towards an audience of master (or almost) gardeners. Don’t know if that’s useful info, but I wanted to pass it along…she educates a lot of people in the area.

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I’m so sorry I never followed-up with this thread, things got a bit crazy with CNC. Thank you all so much for your input, it is much appreciated. I’ll take a deeper read as soon as I can and make some more specific responses.

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My use is perhaps different: I am a bilingual specialist in Sweden. I am using Seek as a way of encouraging bilinguals to learn English taxonomy.

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it may be slightly peripheral but i showed Seek to a friend/neighbor who is a pre school teacher and now apparently a bunch of the teachers at her school are obsessed with it.

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I am interested in using Seek at an evening Girl Scout Camp, with girls from ages 6 to 13. Would love to have some Seek teacher guides like those I’ve found on teaching iNat, though many of those are focused on older students and multi-day instruction. I’m not sure how to demonstrate Seek to kids who walk up to our booth, but am thinking I will supplement a demonstration by making up a 3x5 size handout that pulls info from the page that introduces Seek 2.0 (with idea to give parents some understanding of philosophy behind Seek).

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