The burgeoning use of Internet technologies in the classroom has enabled students to explore a nearly limitless reservoir of human knowledge. In the past four years, however, major research organizations from across the globe have begun to offer students not only access to their findings but also a way to actively participate in gathering, sorting, and analyzing scientific data.

Open Air Laboratories, or OPAL, is a British organization that strives to spark people’s interest in the outdoors and gain valuable insights into the health of Britain’s forests. Backed by a coalition of universities and museums and led by Imperial College, London, OPAL offers a variety of downloadable surveys that encourage students to go out in the field and document their natural surroundings. As part of OPAL’s Tree Health Survey, for instance, students can measure things such as trunk girth, foliage density, root structures and more.

Whereas OPAL prompts students to examine their external environments, a crowdsourced initiative from Cancer Research UK inspires them to look to the world within. The ingenious website asks participants to identify and evaluate photos of real cancer cells. Alongside hundreds of thousands of fellow citizen scientists, students learn to differentiate between cancer cells, tissue cells, and red and white blood cells, all while tracking their progress on individual web profiles.

Scientific American and the University of Oxford, among others, have teamed up to run Whale FM, an international research project that allows students to delve into a huge database of killer whale and pilot whale calls recorded using undersea hydrophones off the coast of Norway and the Pacific Northwest. Orcas maintain some of the most stable social groups in the animal kingdom, living in matriarchal pods whose unique calls form distinct dialects. Students can listen to the clicks and whistles of these creatures and document their similarities and differences in an effort to understand them.

Thanks to projects like these, students of all levels can become involved in cutting-edge scientific research and gain a hands-on understanding of the material. The classroom is no longer a place where students just learn from the scientific community—they can contribute to it, too.

Further Reading

Emeli Warren, “Students Get Hands-On Science Experience with Inquiry,” Publishing Solutions Group blog, March 19, 2013