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citizen science

The Great Sunflower Project

Science Scope—July/August 2021 (Volume 44, Issue 6)

By Jill Nugent

Bees provide important ecological services, including pollination of flowering plants.
Figure 1. Bees provide important ecological services, including pollination of flowering plants.

One-third of global food production depends on bees and pollination. Bees pollinate many species of flowering plants, including agricultural crops such as almonds, apples, avocados, tomatoes, pumpkins, and more (see Figure 1). A multitude of food items commonly consumed can be tied back to pollinators—even dairy products—as dairy cows consume alfalfa, a crop which relies on pollination. The ecological services of bees positively impact roughly 90 agricultural crops that rely on pollination.

Today, pollinator populations are changing, and many species are experiencing a decline in numbers. Loss of habitat is a leading driver in pollinator population decline, along with additional impacts to the environment such as pesticide use.

The Great Sunflower Project launched in 2008 to address questions about pollinator populations across varying habitats including urban, rural, and suburban landscapes. The project has over 100,000 participants contributing to pollinator citizen science. The Great Sunflower Project offers students and educators a number of ways to get involved and make a difference for pollinators and their habitat. Little is known about bee activity at the local community level, and the project is working to fill gaps in the data to increase our understating of pollinator populations. In fact, because of the work of citizen science participation, the project has one of the most extensive databases on pollinators and their habitat. By participating in this pollinator project, students will be able to draw real-world connections to biodiversity, food webs, sustainable agriculture, global food production, and more.

Project goal: To identify where pollinators are declining to help improve habitat

Your task: Observe a plant and report pollinators

Science discipline: Life and Environmental Science

There are many ways to get involved in the Great Sunflower Project (see “Project Home”). In fact, the project has three programs, including the original program in which students plant a lemon queen variety sunflower and identify any impacts of pesticides on pollinators. A second opportunity in the project is the Pollinator Friendly Plants and Places Program, in which students contribute to science by conducting a pollinator count. Students may conduct the count in a variety of settings such as the backyard, a local park, or the schoolyard. Finally, a third program of the project is the Habitat Challenge where students evaluate and take action to improve local pollinator habitat. As students participate in the Great Sunflower Project, they are able to submit data in a number of ways, including an option to submit observations directly to the SciStarter page (see “Project Link on SciStarter” and “SciStarter Great Sunflower Project Education Page”).

Materials you will need:

  • Smartphone, tablet, or computer
  • Internet access

In the Great Pollinator Habitat Challenge program of the project, students have the opportunity to evaluate and assess local pollinator habitat. This can be done in the schoolyard or in the community. Many students may choose to assess the pollinator habitat around their homes.

After assessing the local habitat in its current state, students can research and make plans to improve the habitat for pollinators. In this way, students experience taking action on a community issue that they have researched. If students are interested in restoring local habitat around the schoolyard, those efforts yield an outdoor extension of the classroom learning environment and can lead to a number of investigations and further projects.

As a culmination to the Great Pollinator Habitat Challenge, students are encouraged to share and communicate their efforts with the greater community, providing a powerful learning experience that helps to cultivate 21st-century skills, including collaboration, creativity, and communication.


The Great Sunflower Project at a glance

When: Anytime.

How: See “Project Home” as there are a number of options to participate and get involved.

Where: United States

Time needed: Variable, as much time as desired. When observing a flowering plant for pollinators, five (or more) minutes are recommended.

Special equipment needed: None

Cost: No cost to participate

Contact for more information: Forums for the Great Sunflower Project:

Safety: As with any science lab, classroom, or field activity, always ensure that you are following recommended safety practices; for more information on safety in the science classroom, visit


Project home—

Project link on SciStarter—

Project Video—

SciStarter Great Sunflower Project Education Page—

Pollinator LIVE—

PBS Nature American Spring LIVE—

Jill Nugent ( teaches science online, engages educators in citizen science experiences for the classroom, schoolyard, and beyond, and serves on the SciStarter Team. Follow SciStarter on Twitter: @SciStarter.

Citizen Science Environmental Science Life Science Teaching Strategies Middle School

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