They go down a gravel road, wood-chip-covered trail, floating boardwalk and into the canopied woods near Afton. Once there, St. Paul students get to experience science hands-on.

St. Paul public schools have partnered with the Belwin Conservancy for the Belwin Outdoor Science program, where students bring the classroom to creeks, fields and even their own backyards.

Josh Leonard, education director of Belwin Outdoor Science, compared science to baseball: In order to learn, it is best to get out in the field.

“You’re basically doing science rather than reading science,” said Leonard. “It’s really exciting how many things are out there.”

That includes technology, too. New citizen science apps like eBird and iNaturalist allow users to interact with nature while contributing to larger scientific research.

Citizen science is when the general public aids in collecting data from their surroundings for scientific analysis, usually through a research project with professional scientists. Projects can range from monitoring migration patterns of monarch butterflies to identifying plant species for phenology research.

The process works like this: A user spots something, say, a pretty flower. They snap a picture of it. But exactly what kind of flower is it? They can upload that image to an app that identifies the image, geotags the photo and uploads it to a larger database. This database is then used by scientists for research.

One of the goals of citizen science apps is to get students more involved in the educational process by turning the outdoors into an interactive learning environment. According to 2015 research from the Programme for International Student Assessment, U.S. students rank 24th in science proficiency out of 71 countries. A poll conducted by Lockheed Martin, the aerospace and defense contracting company, found that only 38 percent of students were naturally interested in science, according to their teachers.

At Belwin, bird studies classes can walk the preserve and record a list of the species spotted. Then those data are uploaded into eBird, which offers tracking catalogs and species mapping for ornithologists.

Students are the “receivers of information,” according to Leonard, and then share their findings with real scientists through these applications.

“Their eyes light up,” said Leonard. “They’re excited to contribute something valuable.”

Teachers as students

Citizen science is changing classrooms and curriculum, blurring the line between learner and educator.

The University of Minnesota’s Driven to Discover citizen science research program is a two-week course for educators that teaches how to incorporate citizen science into the classroom. At a recent session, more than 40 teachers participated, some of them taking up nets and hunting for dragonflies while others collected pollinators in gardens. The data they gathered were then uploaded into applications like eBird, Nature’s Notebook and the Great Sunflower Project for classification and collection.

“Digital applications like that are now replacing field guides,” said Robert Blair, principal investigator with Driven to Discover.

In attendance was Kristin Gabel, a teacher at Eden Prairie High School. Gabel has her AP Bio class work on pollinator projects, with students creating their own research questions, exploring outdoors and uploading data to the Great Sunflower Project.

“I’ve even had kids go home and count bees in their own backyard,” she said.

Taking the classroom outdoors creates a lasting impression with students.

“We do it the very first thing in the school year, and it’s one of the things that they’ll still talk about at the end of the school year,” Gabel said.

Thom Green, a fourth-grade teacher at White Bear Lake who has been teaching for over 35 years, just started to incorporate the applications into his curriculum during the last school year. Green enters data from his class’ rain gauge to CoCoRaHS, an organization that monitors data on precipitation. Green hopes to implement Nature’s Notebook into his teaching this year, having students study tree phenology.

“It adds so much more meaning for the kids,” he said. “It makes 9-year-olds feel like real scientists.”

It has affected his view on teaching, too. “I look outside my window now and say, ‘How can I use that to teach science?’ ” Green said.

Quality over quantity

Having users continually contribute has been a challenge for citizen science apps. According to a 2015 study by Georgia Tech professor Henry Sauermann and Chiara Franzoni of Politecnico di Milano, most users are one-and-done in uploading images, with only 20 to 40 percent being returning users.

By sheer size and usage, classrooms can help contribute more extensive data on certain areas or habitats. Kids also make great citizen scientists because they tend to be more curious and open than adults.

This all depends, though, on the quality of data an elementary student can provide. Blurry images and incomplete data sets can make unusable what was meant to be helpful.

With the Driven to Discover program, teachers are able to test applications to see how they would work with students before applying them to the curriculum. Green said that applying the applications to his own research helped him imagine possible student science projects, too.

Another app, iNaturalist, allows users to identify plants and animals in their surrounding environment, and also includes a list of tips for educators on how best to use the application in the classroom. To help limit the amount of poor-quality photos uploaded as observations, iNaturalist also launched Seek, an affiliated application that follows the same premise but does not upload observations.

Not everyone is giddy about bringing the digital to the natural. Critics say that it’s easy for kids to get overexcited and disturb habitats when trying to capture images or upload information on their findings. And some of the more interactive apps, such as ones that feature bird calls, can disturb wildlife in the surrounding area.

At Belwin, educators and students are careful to leave the ecosystem as close as possible to how they found it, returning findings to their habitats and staying on clear pathways away from sensitive areas.

Since introducing citizen science applications to his classroom, Green has noticed a difference in how his students view their surrounding environment.

“I have fourth-graders thinking of that as part of our classroom instead of just the weeds of the playground now,” said Green. “They love science more than ever.”