How do you use iNaturalist data with students?

Many educators have their students make observations, which is awesome, but there are tens of millions of existing data points available for use as well.

How can iNaturalist be used as a data source in an educational setting?


I would love to hear any ideas, since we’re going remote again (thank the gods).


I discovered a while ago that iNaturalist has a YouTube channel. I think this excellent video about mushrooming needs to be pointed out to middle school and high school educators
While I’m not a teacher I volunteer at a school garden, and I have used iNat numerous times to identify the critters in my nature slideshows. I had a lot of help on my most recent one about dragonflies.
iNat fosters lifetime learning for any age.


One challenge is that a young observer may take a photograph of a plant, let’s say a dandelion, and then use the photo identification application to help identify it.
It most cases the “ computer vision “ application will put forth , Common Dandelion, as the most likely id. If the student chooses Common Dandelion as the identification then more likely than not, they will be bombarded by comments, from experts,indicating that Common Dandelion is not a good choice, and will likely provide numerous articles to reference indicating why the student is wrong.

So, why is that a problem.

An 8 year old, or a 12 year old is not likely to have studied the early works of Linnaeus and will not have an understanding that the use of the term “ common “ had a different meaning than we give it today.
They may also explore the resources inside the program to help in identifying their plant . They may use the Wikipedia link provided.
There needs to be some allowance made for a student making an identification based on the data provided within the program.
Telling the observer that they should read academic texts and studies before making a identification, while academically true, may not be helpful to an 8 year old.
So , beating up an observer based on taxonomic semantics may not be the most helpful way to encourage further participation from that person.

So, I would start with a simple discussion of taxonomy and terminology and might perhaps even begin with something like Dandelions and include a discussion of how the names were decided upon several hundred years ago.

If you are beginning in the late summer or early autumn , choose a starting point that can create discussion, like goldenrod or milkweed and then discuss the variations as a group.You can even start with sidewalk weeds, if you are in an urban area.

Prepare the students for the possibility that there are people who have made it their life’s work to know about the subtle differences between various milkweed and goldenrod plants and that they may get input from them.

So, students need to be prepared for push back and identifiers need to be sensitive to the change in the usage of this platform brought on by Covid.

Encouraging youth to explore their own gardens and neighbourhoods is hugely important to fostering scientific thinking.

I will say in closing that the Tomas Edison museum has a framed Goldenrod plant on the wall of Tomas Edison’s study in Fort Myers Florida because after decades of searching the world for a good source of latex he landed on goldenrod to be the source for the latex he needed for vulcanized rubber production.

There are many avenues for the inclusion of iNaturalist into the curiosity of young students.

Keep it positive.


Not exactly classroom, but I’ve been running a virtual summer research program for undergraduate students this summer and we have ten students working on four projects using iNaturalist data. All the projects involve using the images as documentation of things like phenology, life stage, species interactions (like what plant is this butterfly on?), or health status of the documented organism. It’s allowed them to brush up on ID skills and research data entry, while working on an independent project using iNaturalist plus other available data on these species (and recoup summer experience after most field-based research programs were canceled).

We had them start with a pretty broad project description provided by the mentors, then we had them do background reading and write a summary of the existing literature and what questions they’d like to answer using the images available and other things we could get for the occurrences (e.g. climate data, elevation, distance to roads, distance to water, land use), then they’ve spent a few weeks scoring images, and now we’re in the statistical analysis phase.

I know this wasn’t super specific, so feel free to ask for clarification if any of that was clear as mud haha.


You make some good points for using iNat with students who are making observations, but this discussion is specifically about using existing iNat data in education (ie using the data available on iNaturalist to ask or answer questions), not making observations.


Given the paucity of flora references for many of the islands in the island nation in which I live, iNaturalist could potentially be valuable as a flora reference. There is a long way to go as there are only 216 plant species recorded to date. An island such as Kosrae, with perhaps hundreds of plant species has only 25 species of plants recorded and 21 of those species were observations I made on a visit to the island. I am unaware of anyone working on a flora for Kosrae and I suspect that the last complete flora might have been work done in the 1950s. I have already used iNaturalist as a flora for the college campus here in my courses.


It really depends enormously on what level of students you’re working with and what the subject is.

The data is excellent for university level GIS projects, as well as botany, zoology, ecology, social data (especially land use/community values mapping), etc.

It can be used in a variety of contexts to show how many of the occurrence maps (for all sorts of things, not just biology related things) that are posted in articles are actually more akin to population maps.

The data can be used to highlight areas that might benefit from additional fieldwork (an important thing in grad school, as well as some undergrad courses) and to help in predicting species ranges (something I was doing in my grad work).

The uses of the iNat data and platform in an education context is really only limited by the imagination of the instructor.

I think it’s important to remember that sometimes that educational aspect may have nothing to do with the actual data itself… for example iNat could be a good example to use in a high-school level history/sociology/politics course to highlight community engagement and the importance of citizen participation in something that at first glance seems too big for any one person to have much of an influence over.


I think these are really good points. iNat observations map locations of humans as well, so they could be used in a social studies class.

Or for younger students, they don’t have to crunch numbers, they can just look at a local map and see where certain things have been observed and discuss why that might be. While the data are good for answering questions, they might even be better for coming up with new ones.

You can also compare seasonality charts on taxon pages. California has a lot of invasive species that are native to the southern hemisphere, so I like comparing the seasonality of a very common one which every kid knows, Oxalis pes-caprae, aka “sourgrass” here.


southern Africa:


Promote existing projects that would be a great resource for educators to assign students to explore.

Projects showing insect life stages: (Elementary & Middle School) (Middle School & up)

Projects demonstrating the utility of plants considered weeds: (Elementary & Middle School) (High School & up)

Projects featuring lesser known organisms: (High School & up) (High School & up) (Middle School & up)


There is an activity in the EcoEd DL library - Using Citizen Science Data from iNaturalist to Explore Bumblebee Diversity and Distribution - that is pretty straightforward and can be used as a jumping off point for how to develop a lesson around iNat. You do need a free account to access the resources.


Whaaatt? Sourgrass is a non-native?!? Staple of my childhood; I had liked to imagine indigenous children long before me enjoying a free, sour-tart snack. Oh, gee!

But, I admit it … I am fascinated to see that it’s late winter appearance here roughly corresponds to it’s more native climate.

There are so many ways to use iNat data in the classroom.

  • Food webs. This activity explorers the trophic levels of Badlands National Park.
  • Habitats. I exported the data for American Robins, Great Blue Herons and Western Meadowlarks in South Dakota and imported into a Google My Map. Note: this activity needs revision and clarification.
  • Biomes. I don’t have the lesson plan for biomes written up yet but it basically involves comparing observations from the tundra to observations from the tropical rain forest.
  • Nature journaling. Fold a piece of paper in half. Label the halves 1 and 2 on the front and 3 and 4 on the back. Select an organism (start with something charismatic like polar bear or black widow spider). Find an exceptional example or use multiple examples. Follow the steps below.
  1. In the first space do a blind contour drawing of your organism. (See this blog post by John Muir Laws for more about blind contour drawing).
  2. In space 2, make another drawing of your organism, this time looking at it.
  3. In space 3 , use words to describe your organism. Full sentences optional. Think about bullets, labels, sentence fragments and titles.
  4. In space 4, use numbers and numeracy to describe your organism. Count, measure, find patterns.

Not a data using strategy but a general iNat in the classroom tip: I strongly encourage Grade 8-12 teachers who have students add observations to iNaturalist to have students send the teachers the photos first so the photos can be reviewed for data quality before being uploaded under a teacher managed account. You can ask an especially techy student or students do the actual uploading after the photos have been reviewed. This also addresses privacy concerns as having students add public data with lat/long is not allowed in some districts even with an anonymous account name.


I’ve done this with students from Liberal Studies in college down to fifth grade. Usually in groups of three.

  1. Collect annual precipitation data from a state or national database.
  2. Plot the data on a map by hand. I used to just get automobile maps from AAA and staple tracing paper onto the maps. In my case it was the state of California.
  3. Draw contour lines connecting the precipitation data by hand.
  4. Pick some interesting plants from iNat found in your state. This will be something best done by the instructor in advance. Douglas Fir, Joshua Tree, Barrel Cactus, Coast Redwood would be useful examples in California.
  5. Have students plot the research grade iNat observations in the state of those plants onto their precipitation maps.