I use iNaturalist a lot and I love everything about it. Everyone around me knows about iNaturalist because it seems to enter into every conversation I have. I use it in a lot of ways but there is one way in which I use iNaturalist that is incredibly important to me but also makes me very nervous. I use iNaturalist in my classroom with my students.
I am a college professor at Austin Community College here in Austin, Texas and I use iNaturalist extensively in my BIOL 1407 (Structure and Function of Organisms) class (this is the equivalent of General Biology II). I generally teach 3 of these each semester and so I am handed around 70 brand new students each semester for which I attempt to train as iNaturalist users. I first started using it in late 2016 and I have used it every fall and spring semester since.
So why do I get nervous about it? I have read many threads on using iNaturalist in the classroom and have posted a few things myself but one thing is pretty clear to me and that is that there are a lot of people who don’t particularly like when iNaturalist is used in the classroom. Trust me, I get it. I understand why this is the case. I think it is captured best with the term “observations under duress”. You get bad observations, bad conduct by the students and an absence of the teacher. So from the very beginning I have known that I must be careful in how I present iNaturalist to my students and that I must be a steward of their observations. I feel I have done this and to me the results have been extremely positive. Therefore I wanted to share with you the results of my class this year and also provide you with all the materials I use in the classroom.
First, I use iNaturalist for the entire 16 weeks of the course. My students start making observations by the second week of class and are often scrambling to finish up their last vertebrate observations the last Sunday of the semester (which happens to be this coming Sunday). In the second week of class we have an entire iNaturalist lab. In that lab we cover how to use the app and the website and then I follow that up with a local field trip to practice using it. I have broken my class up into 5 modules or units and for each of those units, staring with unit 1, they must complete various iNaturalist observation tasks. These tasks, which I call projects in the course, are reflective of the material that we are covering that unit.
Below is a link to my entire class structure with iNaturalist and includes the lab, the 5 projects and the extra credit. Please feel free to use any of it you might find interesting and also please feel free to offer comments on how it could be improved.
I want to say a word about the extra credit for a moment because I think it really highlights the impact that the students can have. Every fall I use the Texas Pollinator BioBlitz in iNaturalist for my extra credit project but in the spring I can use the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge. This year for the CNC my students and I made a total of 3,436 observations during the CNC time period. You can see the results at the following project link:
All of Austin had a total of 16,049 observations and so my students and myself represented just over 21% of the total observations in Austin for the CNC. This is a very positive impact on my class and on the iNaturalist community here in Austin.
Another testament on how effective iNaturalist was in my classroom comes from the students themselves. I conducted an anonymous survey this week about my course and I had 52 students respond. I will let you take a look at the results here.
Of course the use of iNaturalist in the classroom isn’t always smooth. I have difficulties especially with my protist unit because when you mix microscopes with students the results can get “interesting” but I believe that it still works because while I do have grades equated with the observations it isn’t all “under duress”. For instance, I created a badge system in blackboard (our college’s learning management system) that helps create positive awards for completing tasks. I have achievements for observations, identifications, special projects and for the projects themselves. It may seem silly to some of you but the research on goal and achievement oriented learning is very convincing. You can find my badge achievement descriptions at the link below. It includes a picture of the badge they get and a description of the achievement. I have several students comment on how they loved the badge system I put in place and that it drove them to make more observations beyond the required minimum.
Finally, I wanted to leave you with the results over the last 3 years. I created an umbrella project that is a collection of all of my previous class iNaturalist projects. The numbers of observations have changed because of the number of classes I teach and from the requirements which I am always trying to improve. So I feel like over 51,000 observations for my classes (and a few other faculty members who I convinced to use it in their class) is a very positive aspect of using iNaturalist in the classroom.
I know this was a long read but I feel like the classroom has a lot to offer the iNaturalist community but I also want to say to other teachers that this isn’t for the part-time-iNaturalist-user. It requires a lot of effort but of course we all know that if you love something it isn’t that much effort after all.
P.S. - I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all of the identifiers that help make these projects work. The amount of positive interactions all of you have had with my students is greatly appreciated and the students often come to class talking about the conversations and feedback you have on their observations. Special thanks goes out to @sambiology , @connlindajo , @caliche_kid , @joshua_tx , @franpfer , @aguilita , @jimsinclair , @alisonnorthup , @greglasley , & @gcwarbler for the very large number of contributions to identifications for my students over the last 3 years.