How Can Children Contribute to Science?

By: Inas Essa

The enthusiasm for science starts with an eagerness to learn its basics, which leads to the next step: the passion for contribution. Although this step is expected from people with a major in science or who are planning to get one, it does not stop there. The general public can also contribute to science and get involved in scientific research and in-field work by means of "citizen science".

What is Citizen Science?

One of the main goals of scientific research is enhancing people’s lives by detecting problems and working on finding new ways to solve them. In other words, scientific research is carried out to benefit people globally. This means that it is deeply tied to our daily lives and that it is not detached from our practices.

That is how the concept of citizen science could be explained. It is active public involvement in scientific research, which has been growing bigger with the intention of improving the transparency and accessibility of science. 

All people with passion for science can participate in many stages of the scientific process, starting from the design of the research question, to collecting data, analyzing and interpreting it, to publication and dissemination of results. The most interesting thing about this is that it is not limited to adults.

Children can contribute to science at a very young age, as well as volunteer their time and energy to help research. This method would not only give children access to research concepts that are not typically taught in schools, it would also make science more digestible for them. Among many initiatives and projects, hereunder are two that implemented the idea of making children active contributors to science by being citizen scientists.

Children as Reviewers and Co-Authors

In a mutual benefit, research can be enriched by the valuable contribution of children, while children can learn better by being engaged in the process, putting knowledge into practice, and being active contributors, even at a very young age. Thus, it does not seem strange to hear about scientific papers reviewed, co-authored, or data collected for scientific research by children.

Examples of children as active contributors to science are the online open-access journal "Frontiers for Young Minds" (FYM) launched in 2013. It publishes articles in STEM by kids for kids, where the peer reviewers are all children aged 8 to 15 years old. Through this project, children can provide comments and suggestions about papers. This helps researchers make these papers more interesting, accessible, and clearer.

Such an initiative has a mutual benefit for both children and researchers. On one hand, it helps researchers pay attention to consider the audience while presenting their complex ideas on more general platforms and serves as a motive to keep an open mind to learning. On the other hand, it benefits children, because when they publish in FYM, this enhances their CVs for a career in science communication, outreach, and editing in the future.

Now, the FYM website has more than 3,200 children reviewers and 550 science mentors consisting primarily of graduate students and postdocs.

Children as In-Field Citizen Scientists

In addition to co-authoring papers, children showed a potential for getting involved in in-field research projects. Research linked to ecosystem functions supporting ecosystem health highlighted how elementary school students could contribute to data estimating vegetation cover, measuring vegetation height, and counting seeds from a seed removal experiment.

In this research, the children counted seeds similarly to scientists but under- or overestimated vegetation cover and measured different heights. Although prior to this study the children had no experience or specialized training in conducting scientific experiments, results showed that children can be involved as citizen scientists in research projects according to their skill level. Yet, more sophisticated tasks require special training to become familiarized with scientific experiments and the development of needed skills and methods.

Researchers showed also that children gained a deeper insight into the ecological background of native habitats and plant-animal interactions. This could support the learning content within the curriculum for grades two to four, besides being an opportunity to apply and integrate active science learning into their otherwise mostly traditional school routine.

Furthermore, through this experience, the children had the opportunity to further develop the understanding of their daily surrounding environment, strengthen their systematic thinking early in the process of scientific literacy learning, and be part of authentic scientific research.

This would be of high importance since conveying the knowledge of biodiversity and ecosystem functions to the public is extremely important. This is because of the alarming issues throughout the globe, which have been growing dramatically and require new forms of communication between different structures of society for better action.

For Science-Minded Children

Since every important thought or trait should be rooted during childhood to thrive further, planting the idea of contributing to science at a young age is vital. To promote science engagement and contribution in children, these guidelines would help:

  1. Let children speak their minds without too much interruption: Studies have shown that children learn better when they are required to explain their reasoning. It helps them make sense of what they are thinking about and the ideas newly acquired.
  2. Connect them to science through breaking news stories: Introducing children to science news is an opportunity for them to consider the process of science, and new data may support science learning.
  3. Immerse them in specific scientific topics: Get children immersed in a subject matter for enough time, rather than jumping from one topic to another, as children learn better from the depth of the material, not breadth.
  4. Make their learning experience interactive: Children do not like lectures. Preschoolers need lots of hands-on experiences and need to receive immediate feedback from teachers and peers, while older children benefit from interactive teaching as well.

Efforts done by children at a very young age should be deeply considered; they can do a lot, benefit others, and benefit themselves. All of this starts with believing in their abilities to contribute and generate good results that are much bigger than their very young age.


Citizen Science