TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Determine whether you want to use iNaturalist
- Be Sure to Make Useful Observations
- Be the Steward of Your Class's Data
- Test Test Test / How to Test Your Own Protocols
- Children and the Law
- Teach Students About Copyright / Require Them to Post Their Own Photos
iNat might seem like the perfect blend of science and mobile technology, but too often it gets misused in the classroom despite the best of intentions. As a result, iNat gets a flood of poor observations, copyright violations, and offensive content. And often, the students participating don't have a good experience or get much out of it.
We find that iNaturalist works best when people want to use it, not when they're required to use it.
If you think you want to use iNaturalist with your students, please carefully read this guide, which goes over potential legal issues, common pitfalls, and best practices.
Please remember, every observation added to iNaturalist is publicly viewable by anyone and that the iNaturalist community is composed of volunteers. Be respectful of their time and energy.
If you have questions, check out the Educators category of the iNaturalist Forum.
Determine whether you want to use iNaturalist
Try it out yourself
Try to add 20-30+ observations before considering how you will use iNaturalist with your students. iNat will make a lot more sense to you after some firsthand experience. This can be as simple as using the app on a short hike or a walk around your block, or better yet, try to use it at a place and time that are similar to where and when you are expecting your students to use it. Please don't just install the app, make an observation of your dog, and think that you are sufficiently prepared.
Consider Using the "Seek by iNaturalist" App for Your Students Instead
Check out Seek by iNaturalist which is an fun, privacy-focused and gamified app that provides live ID suggestions. It may be a better fit for your class than iNaturalist because it doesn't actually post observations to iNaturalist, but still provides some tools such as automated species identification and nature journaling. While the iNaturalist app is rated 4+ on the app stores, that assumes that teachers use a classroom log-in or acquire parental permission before students sign in since you otherwise must be 13+ to create an account. We instead recommend Seek as the easier alternative for young beginner naturalists.
Explore Existing Observations First
Before your class adds any data, explore what has been observed in your area. iNaturalist already has the boundaries for every country in the world, and two administrative levels below that (e.g. for the United States, iNaturalist also has all state and county level boundaries). Use the nearby observations to reflect on what has been recorded, why, and what makes for good documentation.
Consider using field guides, sketching, and hands-on exploration rather than a smart device
While it may sound quaint or old fashioned, consider having your students (especially those in elementary and middle school) take a break from screens and instead get their hands dirty looking for bugs, worms, and weeds, then sketch what they've found and/or look them up in picture books or field guides. Learning to sketch an animal or plant is a great way to sharpen observation skills and really get to know an organism.
Be Sure to Make Useful Observations
If some of your goals are for your students to get some identification help, to engage in discussions with the iNaturalist community, and to make observations that are valuable to others, here are a few useful pointers:
Observe wild organisms: Most students seem to focus on the cultivated plants and animals they can find near their classroom. The iNat community is interested in wild organisms, and respond more to pictures of weeds and bugs than to cultivated roses and hamsters in cages. Many students don't actually understand the difference between cultivated organisms and wild organisms, so this could be a great opportunity to discuss this with them. If students do make observations of garden plants or other non-wild organisms, remind them to make sure to mark those observations as "Captive/Cultivated" before uploading them.
Take identifiable photos: Photos of distant trees or speck-like birds will not garner much attention because they're usually hard to identify, so make sure you show your students how to fill the frame with your subject, perhaps using the phone or camera's zoom. Because smartphone cameras are designed primarily for photographing humans and landscapes (and, apparently, food), taking an in-focus photo of an insect or a plant is actually quite difficult. Using your hand to hold a flower or plant still can be helpful, but make sure the plant is not dangerous. A quick lesson on how to use various features (focussing, point focussing, light level adjustment, etc.) of a smartphone camera may also be in order.
Take multiple photos of an organism for one observation: Many organisms, particularly plants and insects, cannot be identified to species from a single photo. Show students how to take multiple photos from different angles (top, bottom, side, front, back), and/or photos showing different features of the organism. For plants it's especially important to take pictures of flowers or fruit. Photos of flowers or fruit AND leaves are the most helpful. Be sure to add multiple photos of the same organism to the same observation.
Pay attention to metadata: Metadata is the additional information associated with a photo that captures when and (often) where a photo was originally taken. If students post photos that are screenshots of photos, they will lose the original data which may result in incorrect data entry. Depending on the method used, sharing photos between two devices may also lose important metadata such as location. Watch for locations and dates that may not make sense and help your students correct them.
Be the Steward of Your Class's Data
Since most students are forced to use iNaturalist, they are often not responsive to comments and identifications from the community, and often don't respond to data quality issues (wrong coordinates, copyright infringements, etc.). Many members of the iNat community find this frustrating, so we'd appreciate it if you could take responsibility for these issues by looking over all the contributions from your class and following these best practices:
Add identifications: Try to identify all of your students' observations to the best of your ability, and consider identifications added by the community. If you agree with community opinions, please help out by adding agreeing identifications, but if you disagree, please add contradicting identifications.
Manage data quality: Every observation has a "Data Quality Assessment" area at the bottom where the community can vote on issues like whether the organism was wild or not, whether the location and date look accurate, etc. Please make sure to use these tools to flag any issues with your students' observations.
Watch out for copyright violations: Investigate suspicious images from your students. Google Images is an excellent tool for this. Use the camera icon in the search box to search for similar images by URL. Or, in Chrome, you can right-click the image in the observation and select "Search Google for image". This will often reveal whether someone just uploaded an image they found on the internet.
Watch out for inappropriate content: Unfortunately, much of the inappropriate and offensive content that has been posted to iNaturalist has come from students who have been assigned to use iNaturalist. Look out for insults, racist comments, selfies, and joke IDs, and be very explicit with expectations and consequences before using iNaturalist with your students. Each observation on iNaturalist is public and available for the entire world to see.
Test Test Test / How to Test Your Own Protocols
You definitely don't want to learn how to use iNat at the same time as your students, so make sure that you test out your protocols before teaching them to others. That means test out the following: recording observations, adding comments, and adding identifications.
As a part of your testing and as part of your students' learning curve, you will all inevitably want to make some test observations of subjects that are easy and close at hand, such as pets or a house plants, but you'll get far more out of your test observations if you follow these guidelines:
DO photograph weeds: Weeds are both wild and always nearby. Take a step outside and find something growing in the cracks of the sidewalk, or a leaf that's fallen to the ground.
DO mark captive / cultivated organisms: If you do photograph organisms such as pets, zoo animals, houseplants, or garden plants, make sure you mark them as "captive/cultivated" from the app or use the Data Quality Assessment on the website to mark it as not wild.
DO delete your test observations promptly: If you have no intention of keeping them around, please delete them as soon as possible.
DON'T photograph pets or house plants: These are okay, but they're not likely to get input from the iNat community so you won't be testing community responsiveness very well.
DON'T photograph people's faces: Especially when kids are involved. Many students will be used to posting pictures of themselves to semi-private social media outlets, but iNaturalist is completely public, so please ensure that you and your students respect each others' privacy.
DON'T require students to make Research Grade observations: With some exceptions, Research Grade observations must have a Community ID at the species level. This often motivates some students to blindly agree with each other's IDs, leading to inaccurate data and little actual benefit for the students. Furthermore, many organisms (including some spiders, insects, fungi, and plants) cannot be identified to the species level using only photographic evidence, so observations of them may never attain Research Grade. Instead, focus on exploration, discussion, and use of field guides—valuable skills for any nature enthusiast.
DON'T set excessive observation, species, or identification requirements, or set grading, prize, or contest conditions that have the effect of creating a "race" among students. The community does not react favorably to influxes of low-quality observations or identifications from users who are unlikely to continue using the platform when their course ends.
Class Bioblitzes and Projects on iNaturalist
Many educators organize bioblitzes and/or create Projects for their students. Please be aware that creating new iNaturalist places (e.g. a local park or schoolyard) or a Traditional Project requires that your account have at least 50 verifiable observations. For more information about those topics, please refer to Managing Projects.
Children and the Law
One common workaround is for a teacher to add observations on behalf of the students, without including any personally identifiable information. Rockburn Elementary School teachers set up anonymous, general accounts that students were able to use to record data, but these accounts were administered by the teachers. If you go this route, make sure you take responsibility for the general accounts that you create for use by underage students. For younger children, please consider using Seek instead (see above).
Teach Students About Copyright / Require Them to Post Their Own Photos
One of the most frequent problems we have with classroom participants is that students and more importantly teachers often fail to understand that iNaturalist is for posting your own photos from nature, and that those photos should be evidence of your encounters with living things. They should not simply be photos copied from books or the internet to illustrate the kind of thing that was observed. Copying photos is almost always a violation of copyright law (it certainly is in the US), and is not what iNat photos are for. Be aware that accounts that have multiple copyright infringements may be suspended, and then you'll have to contact us to reinstate it.
So at a bare minimum, please tell your students to post their own photos and not arbitrary photos from the web. You could also use this as an opportunity to teach them about copyright and proper attribution when reusing other people's creative works. It's perfectly ok to post iNat observations that don't have a photo.
We recommend that you not have your students include an identification card in their photos in order to prove they're not plagiarized. iNaturalist observations are viewable by anyone on the internet, and identification cards and passports contain sensitive information which can be exploited for nefarious purposes. If you don't feel you can trust your students to submit their own images, then iNaturalist may not be a good fit for them.
Here are a few notable examples of iNat tutorials and use in the classroom, including coursework, lesson plans, and protocols:
- National Geographic has a BioBlitz guide (pdf) along with pre-BioBlitz and post-BioBlitz classroom materials that are aligned to Next Generation Science Standards and National Geography standards. Each classroom-tested activity was specifically tailored to use iNaturalist and contains all of the instructions, powerpoint presentations, and worksheets on the hyperlinked pages.
- CalAcademy's Science Action Club Bug Safari unit uses iNaturalist to explore small creatures with big environmental impacts. On local field expeditions, middle school youth search for bugs, collect specimens, and post photos to SAC's iNaturalist Project. Designed for out-of-school time, SAC uses games, Projects, and exciting investigations to inspire youth to explore nature, contribute to authentic citizen science research, and design strategies to protect the planet.
- Connecting Students to Citizen Science and Curated Collections website (2021) with course documents. Geared toward undergraduate students. Contributing authors include Erica R. Krimmel (UC Berkeley's Sagehen Creek Field Station), Debra L. Linton (Central Michigan University), Travis D. Marsico (Arkansas State University), Anna K. Monfils (Central Michigan University), Ashley B. Morris ( Middle Tennessee State University) and Brad R. Ruhfel (University of Michigan).
- City Nature Challenge Education Toolkit
- iNaturalist Training presentation prepared by Richard Smart from Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
- Julie Wittmann's iNaturalist Project & Curriculum (Montgomery High School, Santa Rosa, CA, 2012). Julie (aka protecthabitat) has done a great job documenting her work integrating iNat into a high school biology class. Her Project is still online if you want to check it out. She also has a recently published paper in Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal: Using iNaturalist in a Coverboard Protocol to Measure Data Quality: Suggestions for Project Design (Wittmann, Girman, and Crocker, 2019).
- UC Berkeley Geography 171: Natural History for the 21st Century. This is undergraduate class Scott (aka loarie) has been teaching for 2 years at UC Berkeley. It explores how the practice of natural history is changing with the influence of new technologies, and how it still plays a major and possibly increasing role in our understanding of nature. 2013 and 2014 Projects are still on iNat.
- iNaturalist Species Bingo cards by Lena Struwe. Includes instructions, teacher's grading rubric, and presentation slides (species are pertinent to eastern North America, but could be modified for your region)
- Exploring iNaturalist Data in Your Classroom by Anne Lewis. Guided videos demonstrating using the species/location search, examining potential food webs in a particular area, tracking organism locations across the seasons
- Macaulay Honors College at CUNY. Kelly O'Donnell (klodonnell) has been starting the fall semester with a BioBlitz for her college sophomores since 2013. The BioBlitz is the foundation for semester-long Projects about biodiversity, culminating with a poster presentation at the end of the semester. You can read more here about the data they collected in 2015.
- iNaturalist used in teaching about natural history collections in the Connecting Students to Citizen Science and Curated Collections Project.
- Taylor Wichmanowski (aka mr_wich) created several YouTube videos demonstrating how he uses iNaturalist with his high school students. He also created five thorough lessons for teachers demonstrating how to use iNaturalist in a unit on biodiversity.
- Urban Ecosystem Biodiversity Investigation by Chris Widmaier. Example assignment to compare biodiversity in two areas using iNaturalist and other data.
- Quick Intro to iNaturalist powerpoint slides on Slideshare by cassi saari, @bouteloua - Just a few slides with introduction to iNaturalist including adding an observation (from browser) and screenshots of the website that you might find helpful to drop into a larger presentation on iNaturalist or organism identification.
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