DULUTH -- It was spring 2020, and teachers across the region were watching as their students stayed inside under stay-at-home orders, with schools closed and pandemic fear in the air.
But an idea to get kids back outside showed promise: The Great Lakes BioBlitz invited teachers, students, families and anyone else interested in environmental awareness to get outdoors and find as much nature as possible right around their homes.
Socially distanced, of course.
The BioBlitz sent citizen naturalists outdoors documenting nature with their cellphone cameras and reporting it for science.
“They’re creating a biodiversity catalog,’’ said Marte Kitson, education coordinator for Minnesota Sea Grant based in Duluth. “It was a response to a need teachers identified to get their kids back outdoors, and involved with nature, during the pandemic when they were out of school.”
Flash forward a year. Many kids are back in school, at least part time, the pandemic is still roiling around us and organizers have scheduled the second Great Lakes BioBlitz to run April 22 to May 20.
The effort requires a photo and/or audio recording of the sighting, which is then saved in a massive catalog of biodiversity reports. The key to the project is a website and app called iNaturalist. By downloading the free app on Google Play or the App Store, the user becomes part of a worldwide community of thousands of citizen naturists. So far, nearly 62 million biodiversity sightings have been filed using the app.
iNaturalist is a joint effort of the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Sciences.
"You can either use the app to take the photo and it’s automatically in the system or, if you are using a camera, you can upload it," Kitson noted. iNaturalist also can be used as a crowd identification tool.
Once the user uploads the app, they can also join the Great Lakes BioBlitz group.
Brian Scott, a science teacher at Duluth’s Harbor City International School, said BioBlitz and iNaturalist are perfect tools for kids to get outdoors for learning.
"It helps them improve their (nature) identification skills for sure," Scott said. “But it also just increases their appreciation for nature when they see what’s around them.”
Harbor City students are still distance learning from home, so the effort is especially valuable to add firsthand outdoor learning away from any instructor and classroom. All three Harbor City science teachers will have their classes involved, Scott said, and students will be asked to make and record five to 10 new observations weekly during the BioBlitz.
"Kids are good at doing things with their phones," Scott noted. “And this is a lot better than having them watch a video or listening to me.”
Scott said iNaturalist is an especially good tool for young naturalists because it’s a safe place to make rookie naturalist mistakes.
“If you get a good photo, it (the app) will give you suggestions for an ID,’’ Scott said. “And if you identify something incorrectly, the people who respond are very positive and respectful.”
Anyone can be involved in the BioBlitz, joining students and individuals in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario.
Anything that’s alive counts as biodiversity, from a migrating goose to the first frog of spring to a marsh marigold blooming in a swamp.
Kitson said spring-blooming flowers were the biggest stars last year "probably because they stand still" for easy photos, compared to birds and animals, but also because they were popping when the BioBlitz occurred.
"The goal is to get folks outside and seeing things in nature," Kitson said. "Getting the biodiversity record is a bonus."
For more information on the Great Lakes BioBlitz, contact Marte Kitson, environmental literacy extension educator for Minnesota Sea Grant, at email@example.com or 218-726-8305.