Biodiversity Survey part 1: Community Mapping and introduction to iNaturalist

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Students will be able to create a user account for iNaturalist, explore the site's features, write a summary of the user guide, and make their first observation.

Big Idea

If we're going to use technology to do a project, there is some necessary preparation to set up and get familiarized with the specific tools we'll be using.


This is the first lesson in a multi-lesson sequence that sets the groundwork for the final project of the year. 

In terms of pacing, these lessons take about 5-6 weeks of class time.  However, similar to the Modeling Human Impact project in the first semester, this ongoing project takes place concurrently with other lessons in the succeeding unit.


The descriptions of how I implement this final project in class are spread out over 5 lessons:

  1. Community Mapping and Introduction to iNaturalist
  2. Observing and Identifying Local Species
  3. Citizen Science
  4. Managing a Long Term Project
  5. Making a Collection


Please Note: the lessons are presented above in the order that I approach them in class, but these lessons require some prep work to create a project on iNaturalist.  An overview of how the iNaturalist Project is created is covered in part 3 of this sequence, so I would recommend reading through that lesson before beginning this first lesson with your class.



In this first lesson, students will map their natural community and thereby establish the need to know more about the diversity of life that surrounds them.  The remainder of this lesson involves explaining to students that they will be learning to use a tool that allows them to identify and map the species they share their community with.  Much of this lesson involves troubleshooting student attempts to register and begin working with iNaturalist.


Supplies necessary for this lesson:

  • Poster Paper
  • Markers
  • Rulers
  • Internet capable Smartphones and/or Computers


This lesson owes a debt to Roots and Shoots, a nonprofit organization started by Jane Goodall that has started a campaign for students around the world to engage in community mapping to identify areas of need and environmental problems that could be solved.  Until recently they were giving minigrants to schools that engaged in community mapping and began a project based on that map.  For this project in my class, I applied for the minigrant (fingers crossed) and will apply the funds to materials for this project such as macro lenses, insect collecting materials (nets, jars, pins, boxes, etc.), and plant collecting materials (glue, watercolor paper, binding, wood press, etc.)


The ultimate goal for this project is for students to gain a deeper appreciation for the variety of life all around them.  There's a lot more to "trees and bugs" if you start to look closer and realize the staggering variety of species in either category on a single street.  I hope that by looking closer, students will more seriously consider the importance of protecting the environment and preserving biodiversity. 

My own connection to this project is very personal: the insect collection I completed in my 9th grade biology class brought me closer to the natural world than I ever had been before and helped foster a lifelong appreciation for life, large and small.  With the power of modern technology, I hope my students can gain a similar appreciation for biodiversity whilst also participating in a massive, global citizen science project.


This project description sheet provides student-facing instructions and describes the entire project in terms of requirements for successful completion.  However, I do not distribute this sheet to students until lesson 2 of this sequence, preferring instead to just distribute the instructions to register for iNaturalist at the end of this lesson.  If you prefer, you may just distribute the entire project description handout, but this lesson only covers part one: signing up for iNaturalist.


If you wind up with technical questions regarding the use of iNaturalist at any stage of this project, you can consult the help section of the iNaturalist site.

Warm Up

5 minutes

The warm up for this lesson is pretty simple and does not take much time.

I begin with a short anecdote about the Legend of Zelda videogame, and how amazed I was as a young boy when I first opened it and it had a map.  I then explain that as expansive as that map looked, the game itself was even bigger. 

I then ask students what a map is, and what it is used for.  Many students reply that it is so you don't get lost. 

As I ask this, I'm hoping that students explain that maps are a representation of the spatial orientation of objects and features of a place.  That's not exactly the language I'm looking for them to generate, but I want them to at least present a definition like, "Maps show the locations of things relative to each other" or "Maps help you know what's in a place".

Once we have established what maps are (a simplified representation of physical space), I let students know that we will be mapping our community, but that we won't be focusing on the streets and other things they may be used to consulting a map for.  I then ask if students remember the ecological definition of community from our ecology lesson.  I wait for students to explain that an ecological community is all the living and non-living things that interact in a particular place.  I then explain to students that they will be mapping their ecological community.

I then ask for volunteers to get the supplies for their group.  The supplies are a sheet of poster paper and a set of markers.  I use the large "post-it" style sheets that have grid lines and look like poster sized sheets of graph paper.  It isn't strictly necessary, but the grid helps students thing in terms of proportionate space and the sticky side makes it easy to post up.

Mapping the Community

45 minutes

Once students have their materials, I explain the instructions for the map.  Since this is a relatively short exercise serving as an introduction to a large project, there's no handout with instructions for the map.  I make sure each group has a large sheet of paper and a set of markers, and I then explain the directions orally.

I explain to students that they will map the ecological community surrounding the school.  Although a community includes only the living parts of an ecosystem, their map may still need to include the non-living factors that the community of organisms interact with.  I give examples such as the hawk that roosts in the rooftop sign of a multistory apartment building across from the school, the squirrels that scurry out of the way of cars on the street, and the pigeons that roost in the subway station.

I explain to students that they can choose any scale for their map that they find appropriate, meaning they can include large parts of the city outside of their neighborhood, a few blocks around their home, or just the school campus itself.  Whichever scale they choose, however, I make sure to explain that it should be an area where they are familiar with the living community there.  (see picture, some students chose just the street they lived on, knowing which trees live there, while other students included mountains and parks on the edges of the city, identifying the species that live there but aren't found in the urban core)

After explaining they'll be mapping their community at the scale of their choice, I give a few guiding questions for the map such as,

  • "What lives there?"
  • "What kinds of plants/trees/flowers?" 
  • "What kinds of animals?" 
  • "What kinds of bugs and birds do you usually see?"
  • "What kinds of natural features (hills, mountains, creek, etc.) are nearby?"
  • "Where are water sources?"


I then ask students to begin working on their maps and let them know that they will have just 20 minutes to complete their maps.  I then walk around to each group and just try to engage them a little bit with questions about why they chose the location or scale they did, how they know that a specific plant or animal lives in an area, and try and answer any clarification questions they might have.

After 15 minutes, I ask everyone to put their markers down (this is frustrating to many students because they were told they only had 20 minutes and this is occurring before that deadline).  I then ask students to please just walk around and look at the other groups' maps.  I ask them to consider what the other groups may be including or doing differently that might make their own maps better.  This strategy is to allow the best ideas of the room to spread between groups while there is still time for students to implement the lessons they learned from looking at the other groups.
After 3-5 minutes of looking around at other groups' work.  I tell them that they have 10 minutes to complete their maps.

After all maps are complete, I ask students what strategies they used to make their maps (e.g., one student group only included animals in places they had seen them, while others put animals in places they expected them to be; some groups used google maps or other tools to try and make their maps more geographically accurate).  Even though students have already had a chance to see what other groups are doing at this point, I think it is helpful to allow students the chance to hear students explain why they did what they did.

I then ask the question driving this whole exercise, "Do your maps accurately represent the biodiversity of our community?" After the inevitable response that no, the maps aren't an accurate measure of biodiversity, I ask students why not.  I accept all answers until we can cobble together an understanding that the map isn't accurate because most students just estimated distances and locations from memory and we don't know exactly what kinds of life surround is (i.e., we know there are a lot of palm trees, but don't know if they're the same type; we see and hear lots of different birds, but don't know their names; etc). 

The second aspect of this that I hope they understand (and coach them if necessary), is that there are lots of examples of diversity that we don't know about because we don't always look closely enough.  (e.g., are there insects crawling on the bark of that tree?  What's crawling in the dirt? How are the leaves of the trees on a single street different? etc)

Once we have gone over all of this, I explain to students that we will be beginning a project where we will

  1. map the locations of organisms we encounter and place them accurately on a map of the city using GPS built into their phones
  2. Use guidebooks and online guides to identify the species we do observe
  3. Participate in a community of amateur and professional scientists and collect data that may help scientists conduct research
  4. Learn more about the ways that species interact with each other all around us
  5. Present a virtual or physical collection of specimens we encounter

Introduction to iNaturalist

45 minutes

After students have completed their posters, I ask them to hang the posters up around the room, return their markers, and get at least one laptop for each group from the computer cart.  I also let students know they can use their smartphones to complete this part of the lesson. 

A note on smartphones: As we have more students than computers, I let students know that they can complete this entire assignment using the iNaturalist app (available on both Google Play for Android and the apple app store) on their phones.  I have noticed some functionality issues with the app compared with the website, so it is nice to have both available if possible, but for registration purposes, the app seems to work fine.


While students are cleaning up from the map-making exercise, I distribute the instructions for students to sign up for iNaturalist.

iNaturalist is an incredible resource that allows students to use their smartphones (a technology they carry around with them at all times) to photograph organisms, upload their photos and written observations to the iNaturalist website, and then participate in an online community of nature lovers.  iNaturalist is social media with a purpose and I love that my students can work in a medium they're familiar with while delving deeper into the living world around them. 

I use the projector and my computer to show students what my profile looks like, and I let them know that they will be spend the remainder of the period signing up for iNaturalist and making their own profile. 


The rest of the assignment sounds simple:

    1. Students create a user account on iNaturalist
    2. Students read the getting started guide
    3. Students send use the iNaturalist messaging function to send me their summary of the getting started guide
    4. Once they have sent me a summary of the getting started guide, I invite them to our project (For a detailed explanation of setting up a project for your class, see the 3rd part of this lesson sequence: Citizen Science)

Although this part of the lesson may "sound simple", it rarely is.  For the rest of the time of this lesson, I walk around and help students as necessary.  Some students are pretty self-sufficient on this lesson, but some really need help with multiple details of the registration process, so I try to make myself available to any specific need, but otherwise just walk around to check in on individuals and groups to make sure they're ok.  In a lot of cases, students will help others in their group.

For those students that are ahead of the game and have already registered and sent me their summary I encourage them to either,

  1. Play around with the iNaturalist site and explore what other users have discovered around them
  2. Browse the many online guides available on the site
  3. Complete their own user profile and upload a photo
  4. Use any picture of a plant or animal they may have in their phone already and try to upload an observation

In truth, I only had a few students that were far enough ahead to start looking through their phones for any old pics they might have taken (although those who did used some photos from the who are the creatures in your neighborhood? and a walk through the chaparral lessons), most just need the time to register and read the guide.

Once class is almost over, I let students know that if they have not yet sent me their review of the getting started guide, then it is due as homework before the next class.  I also encourage students to try and begin taking photos of organisms in their community and make observations using iNaturalist, but explain that exactly how we go from taking pictures to uploading observations will be the focus of the next lesson.