Biodiversity Survey part 2: Observing and Identifying Local Species

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Students will begin work on their biodiversity survey and be able to upload their photos and written observations to the iNaturalist platform.

Big Idea

Knowing what you don't know is an important first step in an inquiry-based project.


In this second part of the Biodiversity Survey project, students will go outside and take photographs of organisms on campus, return to class and upload those observations to, and use online and physical guidebooks to identify the organisms they observed. 


Planning ahead for this lesson, you should probably get permission from your school's administration to take students outside to explore campus for at least an hour.


To understand this lesson's place in the whole sequence of lessons for this project, the following outline is provided:

  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


This project description sheet provides student-facing instructions and describes the entire project in terms of requirements for successful completion.


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.


Connection to Standards:

In this lesson, students will conduct field research and use technology to produce and update their work.

Warm Up: Best Practices Reminder

10 minutes

Having spent the end of the previous lesson registering for iNaturalist, in this lesson we pretty much jump right into using the site's tools to record observations.

At the beginning of class, I let students know that we'll be going outside to explore and take photos of organisms we encounter.  Before we go outside, however, I distribute the project description handout and go over section 2, explaining that each student must make 10 observations and contribute them to our biodiversity survey project.  As the focus of this lesson is simply providing time to go outside and begin making observations, the rest of the project description handout will be covered in the next lesson

After the brief explanation of the goals for the day, I go over the following three guidelines from the iNaturalist teacher's guide to help guide the students to make quality observations:

  1. Take identifiable photos: photos should be as clear as possible, include identifying characteristics of the organism, and the subject should fill the frame of the photo (students may need to zoom or crop their photo after they take it).
  2. Take multiple photos: students should take pictures of as many parts of an organism as possible.  This is especially important for trees and flowers.  I ask my students to take pictures of the whole plant, and then separate pictures of the leaves, bark, flowers, fruit, seeds, etc.
  3. Focus on wild organisms: I remind students that most of the trees and flowers we will encounter on campus were planted by landscapers and are not naturally occurring at this location.  Although observing these cultivated plants can be useful, I encourage students to focus on weeds, wildflowers, and epiphytes when possible.  I also remind them that although a plant may be cultivated, any insect or other animal feeding on it, or roosting in it would be a good example of a wild organism.

Since it is important to give a sense of scale whenever possible, I do encourage students to bring along something that could provide that scale in a photograph.  For this purpose, I made a few metric rulers out of popsicle sticks.  They aren't exactly precision instruments, but they are helpful when held next to a leaf or insect in a photo.

Once we have gone over these best practices, I ask students to get their phones and cameras (and any measurement tool) ready and we go outside. 

Explore: Making Observations

60 minutes

Once we have gone over the best practices when using iNaturalist, we go outside to make observations.

Similar to the Who are the Creatures in your Neighborhood? lesson from earlier in the year, I like to spend about 15-20 minutes in 3-4 areas around campus so students can find a variety of organisms.  At my campus there are fairly distinct areas with varying sun exposure and landscaping.  Although most of the vegetation is cultivated, there is enough variety that different types of animals are present in different areas.  (For example, there is an area on a far edge of the campus with some older coniferous trees that date back to the time when the campus housed the Ambassador Hotel.  The area is shaded by an adjacent high rise and the trees have different insects and features than the more exposed succulents and palms on another side of school.)

As students are looking for organisms to document I walk around and answer any questions or offer any guidance that I can.  I also try and remind them to be on the lookout for weeds, wildflowers, and other non-cultivated plants growing on campus. 


The hardest part of this segment of the lesson really is just getting the students to move from one area to the next.  Many students get really focused and excited about examining a particular tree, or the insects within a single flower, etc.  I try and be flexible with the timeline of moving from one place to another because, after all, fostering this kind of enthusiasm for examining their living community in more detail is the overarching goal of the project.  Still, I like to make sure my students have the opportunity to explore a few different areas on campus.

I also like to check that all students are making observations and taking photographs.  I didn't really have any problem with students not engaging in this activity, but I still like to check in to make sure everyone is gathering at least one observation that can be uploaded to iNaturalist once we return to the classroom.

After we have visited a few areas and I am certain that all students have at least one observation, we return back to the classroom.  If you don't have a block schedule, then you could do the observation and identification sections of this lesson on the following day.

Uploading Observations

30 minutes

Once we are back in the classroom (get ready for groans), I ask students to get laptops and return to their groups.

I then ask for a student volunteer to email one of their photos to me.  I do this so that I can show students how to upload a picture off of their computer and onto iNaturalist, so once I receive their email, I download their photo and add it to my desktop.

I then project my computer on the screen and walk students through the process of uploading  an observation.  In this screencast, I show how I walk students through this process:



If you prefer, you might just show your students the tutorial video from iNaturalist.  I like to upload a student observation live as it gives students an opportunity to ask questions about the process and one lucky student winds up already completing 1/10th of their project.

One important note is that students should always be sure to sync photo data when uploading a photo.  This allows the location, date and time of an observation to be automatically included in the observation which not only saves a lot of time, it is also much more accurate than relying on memory.

Once I have gone over the basics of uploading a photo and recording an observation, I ask students to upload one of the photos they had taken earlier when we were outside and complete an observation.  I then walk around to help where needed.  In my class, some students had already uploaded observations using their phones and the iNaturalist app (available on both Google Play for Android and the Apple App Store) during my demonstration, so I encourage those students to help out any students that are having difficulty with the site.

Analyze: Identifying Observations

20 minutes

Once all students have at least one observation uploaded, I walk them through the process of identifying the observation.

In this screencast, I show how I would walk students through the process of identifying an observation:


As I explain in the screencast, although there is an "ID please" option that adds a student's observation to a searchable list by iNaturalist community members, I require my students to make their best efforts at identification using the guides on iNaturalist before relying on the greater community to do all the work for them.

In addition to the online guides, I have a set of Audubon Society field guides.  Some students really prefer using a physical guide rather than the online guide and it's nice to give them the option if possible.

My basic guideline for identifying observed organisms is to leave your observation at the most specific taxonomic level they can be sure of.  By this I mean that if you know it's a spider, but really aren't sure which kind, then I ask that they only identify it as belonging to Order Araneae.  This allows students to make the job of other community members that may help identifying the species much easier in that by identifying their observation as a spider, it may come up in the search results of a community member with some expertise in spiders that is looking to help other users identify their observations.