You're the Scientist
Verifying Data Collected by Peers


Overview: Students explore ways to assess the accuracy and reliability of data reported by Journey North observers.


1 period and ongoing during the season


As part of Journey North's Internet Field Team, your students collect backyard observations and share them with classrooms across North America. This throng of student observers expand the eyes and ears of scientists in ways never before possible. But in order for the data to be valid and useful, these observations must be accurate. How can we assess their reliability?

The scientific community employs a formal review process through which scientists present and defend their observations, data, and findings to colleagues (peers) via scientific journals and conferences. If a scientist were to make an unusual or unexpected field observation, he or she would be expected to provide a photograph, have corroboration from a colleague, or provide a thorough and convincing description of what was observed.

Journey North asks observers to follow specific protocols for each study. However, with so many observers, there are many opportunities for error. This lesson helps your young scientists question and try to validate data reported by Journey North observers.

Laying the Groundwork

  • Explain to students that Journey North projects rely on observations from students in many classrooms across North America.
  • Ask, How do you think collecting reports from these Internet classmates benefits each study? List responses in one column.
  • In another column list responses to this question: What drawbacks or challenges do you think this poses? Accept student responses. They'll have a chance to consider some of the challenges to getting reliable data in the next section.


  1. The following sightings were reported by Journey North observers. Have your class read one or more of these. For each one, ask, Do you trust this piece of data? Why or why not? If the sighting seems unusual, ask, What factors could have caused this? (For instance, observer error, strange weather or winds.) What questions would you ask the observer?
    • A kindergardener in Minnesota reported a sighting of 500 monarchs in Minnesota in February. The kindergarden teacher said her students were just learning to identify monarchs at the time.
    • A school in North Dakota reported their tulips emerging on February 19. The report said that the nights were still very cold and they had to cover to keep them from freezing.
    • A surprising report arrived on September 1, 2003. A monarch was sighted across the Atlantic ocean!
    • On April 9, a monarch was reported in New Jersey. Other monarchs reported at the time were in Georgia, Alabama, Kansas, and Missouri. The New Jersey report was sent by a naturalist who tags hundreds of monarchs each fall.
    • A student in College Station, Texas, reported seeing his first monarch on May 20. Many monarchs were reported in Texas in March and April.
    • A New York student was on vacation in Florida in April. She reported sighting the first monarch there. 
  2. Discuss the types of questions students think they should ask to verify accuracy of an observation. For instance:
    • Who is the observer and what is his/her level of experience?
    • Has the observer participated in this project in previous years?
    • Is the observer following Journey North's protocol?
    • How regularly was the observer watching for monarchs (robins, hummingbirds, etc.) before reporting the first one in the region?
    • Is the observer likely to have seen a monarch in his or her region, given the average temperature and climate?
    Question the Source!
    When Jim Hateli's second-grade students were confused about an early monarch sighting in New Jersey, they decided it must be a mistake! But when they questioned the reliability of the observation, they discovered that an expert naturalist reported the sighting. They decided to trust its accuracy. Throughout the scientific process all data and information should be scrutinized and verified — even if it came from primary sources!
  3. As updates arrive this spring, have students read them carefully for clues about the quality of each observation. They should routinely ask, "Do new observations fit established patterns? What other factors might have affected the accuracy of the report?"

    If your students question the accuracy of an observer's data, encourage them to e-mail the observer directly. The e-mail address is included with all entries for this purpose. Take this opportunity to teach your students how collaboration works in the scientific community.

Making Connections — Discussion and Journaling Questions

  • Ask, How do you decide when you can trust information? Do you put more confidence in certain books? Newspapers? People? Discuss the criteria you use.
  • Ask students to interview adults about how they judge the reliability of the different information sources in their lives. They might ask, for instance, "Do you believe everything you see, hear, and read? What's an example of misinformation you've gotten? What questions do you ask about new information?"

As students review new data submitted by Journey North observers, check that they routinely ask critical questions about its accuracy.

National Science Education Standards

Ask a question about objects, organisms, events. (K-4)

Scientists make the results of their investigations public; they describe the investigations in ways that enable others to repeat the investigations. (K-4)

Scientists and engineers often work in teams with different individuals doing different things that contribute to the results. (K-4)

It is part of scientific inquiry to evaluate the results of scientific investigations, experiments, observations, theoretical models, and the explanations proposed by other scientists. (5-8)