Lesson Summary


Previous lessons in the "Your Virtual World" have investigated the impact of computer innovations on society. In this lesson, students will learn how using technology can enhance our abilities to solve larger and broader problems (problem solving). The lesson begins by examining reCAPTCHAs, which most students will be familiar with, but they may not realize how they solve two significant problems.


  • Students will learn how computers are used to aggregate the computational power of individuals to solve large-scale problems through citizen science activities, and participate in a citizen science project. Aggregate problem-solving is sometimes called "crowdsourcing."


  1. Getting Started (5 min) - Think-Pair-Share about reCAPTCHA.
  2. Guided Activity (40 min) - Students examine citizen science and discuss its uses in the scientific community.
  3. Wrap-up (5 min) - Journaling about potential additional uses of mass data collection.
  4. Optional Activities.


This lesson is an adaptation of the Code.org lesson for Unit 5, Lesson 4.

Learning Objectives

CSP Objective

Big Idea - Impact
  • EU 7.1 - Computing enhances communication, interaction, and cognition.
    • LO 7.1.2 - Explain how people participate in a problemsolving process that scales. [P4]

Math Common Core Practice:

  • MP1: Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  • MP2: Reason abstractly and quantitatively.

Common Core ELA:

  • RST 12.4 - Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases
  • WHST 12.1 - Write arguments on discipline specific content

NGSS Practices:

  • 8. Obtaining, evaluation, and communicating information

Key Concepts

  • Distributed computing solutions can be used to solve problems, collect data, assist with collaboration, and assist scientific research.

Essential Questions

  • How does computing enhance human communication, interaction, and cognition?

Teacher Resources

Student computer usage for this lesson is: required

Lesson Plan

Getting Started (5 min)

Think-Pair-Share: Solving problems with reCAPTCHA

  1. Show an image of a reCAPTCHA (by visiting a website that employs this technology or from an image search).
  2. Direct students to describe for their elbow partner when and where they have encountered this on the web and discuss why it is used.
  3. As a class, view the video Fight Spam and Save Shakespeare and discuss:
    • What two problems are being solved with reCAPTCHA?
    • How has reCaptcha used the aggregate computing power of millions of people to solve problems in digitizing old books?
    • Have you heard of other aggregate solutions to problems that are currently being solved?
    • Are there other problems you can think of that a strategy of capturing the work of millions of people and their computers might be able to solve? 

Guided Activities (40 min)

Part 1 (10 min) - Learn about tracking birds with citizen science

Part 2 (15 min) - Participate in citizen science 

  • Direct students to the Zooniverse website: https://www.zooniverse.org/#/projects 
  • Allow students to participate several times. Encourage them to pick a different project each time.
  • As a class, briefly discuss how the student responses will help scientists.
  • Discuss with the class the components of citizen science.
    • A problem to be solved. (How can a computer be used to identify objects? How can a program learn about those objects?)
    • A way for people to participate. (Create data for identifying objects, ex: Plankton)
    • A website or app to aggregate data. (The Zooniverse website)
    • A way to turn the data into knowledge. (Students can brainstorm possible algorithms to handle the data captured.)
  • Ask students if they know of other citizen science projects (an Internet search will turn up dozens, possibly some in your area).
  • Optional: have students work for 5 minutes in a group to identify the components of a selected citizen science project. Have each group share their ideas with the class.
  • Engage students in a discussion of problems that they think a citizen science project could address using computers to harness the power of data from many individuals.

Part 3 (15 min) - Guessing what you are thinking

Play an on-line game which aggregates human information. (Direct students to Akinator.com or 20Q.)

  • Discuss how the game acts intelligently.
  • Have students work in small groups to devise a method to collect data to teach a computer how to play 20 questions. Each group should share their ideas.

Wrap Up (5 min)

In their journals, have students describe a potential web site that uses multiple user input to collect data. Emphasize data collection that would be beneficial to high school students.

Optional Additional Activities

Add knowledge to Wikipedia

The purpose of this activity is for students to contribute their knowledge to the aggregated collection of knowledge known as "Wikipedia."

  • Divide the class into teams of two.
  • Instruct students to think of topics they have some knowledge of: a sport, music, their community, a hobby, or other expertise. Direct them to explore the content on that topic on Wikipedia.
  • Each team should work independently to learn how to modify a Wikipedia page and then add some content to the topic. Encourage students to be independent learners by working to learn how to make edits with as little help as possible from the teacher.
  • At the end of class summarize student learning through a discussion or by summarizing the steps of the Wikipedia editing process in their journals. Additionally, students could collaboratively write a paragraph about how they worked together to complete the task.

Learn about Kickstarter

  • Direct students to research Kickstarter.com. Ask them to choose a current project that they think is worthy of funding and justify that judgment. Suggest that the students think of a project that they would like to see as a good candidate for Kickstarter.

Use Search Trends as Predictors 

  • Ask students to learn about how search trends can be used as predictors. They should share what they learned with the class by any creative means.

More Citizen Science

  • Find a citizen science project that is of interest to you. Participate in the project. Report your experiences in any creative format: a report, a diorama, a website, video, etc.

Picture Stitching 

"Picture Stitching" is the practice of blending hundreds of photos to create one huge detailed picture.

  • Investigate the stitched photo of the 365-gigapixel image of Mont Blanc that was created by stitching together 70,000 images http://www.in2white.com/# . 

Evidence of Learning

Formative Assessment

During the activity, can students identify crowdsourcing or a citizen science project?

Summative Assessment

Sample assessment questions:

  • Explain the dual purposes of a reCAPTCHA.
  • Explain how people can add value to citizen science projects, using several examples.
  • Explain how people can add value to an on-line guessing game. 
  • Create a possible flow chart or description of how data collected online can be used to help computers learn.