noun: citizen science
- the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.
When I was a kid, I had a burning desire to see how much electricity was in a bolt of lightning. I didn’t understand watts, volts, amps, or Ohms yet. All I wanted to know was if those bright streaks that crashed to the ground were strong enough to power a light bulb. So I wondered…if I stuck a metal pole in the backyard during a thunderstorm, and I borrowed some of that copper wiring from Dad’s garage, could I wrap the wiring around the pole and lead it into the house where I’d wrap the other end around a light bulb? Surely when lightning struck the pole, the bulb would illuminate!
Well, you’ve probably noticed that I’m still alive and not fried to a crispy-crisp. This is largely in thanks to my mom who somehow foresaw that my genius plan wasn’t foolproof, and she prevented what most likely would have been either a shocking demise or an extended stay in the wing of the hospital reserved for Darwin Award aspirators.
Not all of my ideas were quite that terrible, but they usually revolved around my desire to be a part of answering questions—not just reading from my books. I wanted to send a robot into a volcano, not just see the pictures. I wanted to cruise the Serengeti in a Jeep, tracking prides of lions, not just memorize my beloved ZooBooks. Luckily, now more than ever, there are outlets for folks who have the desire answer a question about their natural world in a hands-on manner—sans the danger factor. This is where citizen science comes in!
Citizen science is essentially the fancy name for when the general public assists in formal research in some capacity. Participation can be short term, long term, narrow in focus, or broad in participation. Although amateur science has existed ever since folks could ask a question about their universe, receiving guidance and feedback from a principal investigator or assistants can be a huge help.
And don’t be fooled that citizen science can’t be important because each individual’s contribution might be small. Even NASA has relied on citizen scientists to help analyze a universe full of data (see what I did there). On the wildlife front, Andrew Dennhardt, doctoral candidate at Michigan State University, relied heavily on citizen science data for his work creating computer-generated models of golden eagle migratory trajectories and estimates of population size.
“Citizen-science is a positive force in research today,” Dennhardt says. “and, in fact, I could not have completed my own Master’s research without it. When exploring the nature of things that are rare and widely distributed, a researcher really needs the ability to gather lots of data on broad scales, but that often comes at great cost. For my Master’s research, such data involved detailed knowledge of the migratory movements of golden eagles in secluded mountains of Pennsylvania. One longstanding citizen-science program in the region, called HawkCount, readily fulfilled my need and was free of charge. To me, that’s one of the greatest benefits of citizen-science initiatives: providing affordable widespread data on rare/common phenomena to researchers. Standardized programs are even more valuable in that the quality of the data collected is far improved. More still, citizen-science initiatives often get the general public involved and personally invested in the scientific process, which is wholly beneficial to society at large.”
With all of this in mind, I looked up some the coolest citizen science projects out there (totally objective, of course.) Before I tell you about all of my fabulous finds, though, I do want to give the disclaimer that my goal isn’t to force a new wave of science majors or career-changers. I just want you (yes, you 🙂 ) reading this to explore the learning process, make a few discoveries, engage with the scientific community, and most of all, have fun while doing it. You don’t have to be in a lab to learn—heck, I’m in a coffee shop at this exact moment—and you’ll connect more with new information if you are approaching it in a hands-on manner rather than just Googling it. So have fun! And if you try any of these, be sure to let me know what you think!
1.) The Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Counts —Until the early twentieth century, a solid Christmas day tradition was for sportsmen to go out into the woods and simply shoot as many birds as they could. Naturally, this isn’t the best plan for maintaining wild populations…plus, it’s kinda dumb. So the Audubon Society instead challenged citizens to not hunt as many birds as they could, but spot as many birds as they could. This idea took off, and over a century later, the Christmas Bird Counts are still a flourishing practice. They have even generated a century’s worth of bird monitoring data (I believe the technical term would be a “crikey ton” of data.) These counts occur within a few weeks of Christmas every year, and they happen all over the country—probably even in your own neighborhood or town! To get find a group in your area, see the link above and scroll down to “Join the Christmas Bird Count.”
2.) National Geographic’s Great Nature Project—This is a particularly exciting project if you’re an aspiring photographer! With the goal of capturing biodiversity around the planet, the Great Nature Project asks citizens to take pictures of the environment around them and submit them. Easy as that! Well, I’m sure you have to include location/date, but still, it’s an easy way to capture beauty and help document the natural world at the same time.
3.) MIT, NIH, Max Planck, and others Eyewire—Beat the artificial intelligence! Researchers from this supergroup of institutions are trying to turn three dimensional models of neurons into two-dimensional images, and you can help with that. To ensure replicates, this games asks for human assistance in mapping the 2D images based on the 3D models. Although you will be guided by the AI host, replicates of tons of different people trying to map the same neuron will maximize accuracy of the 2D images. So just by playing this computer game, you’re helping neurologists understand the complex networks of neurons in vision!
4.) USGS North American Bird Phenology Program: This one is good for folks who rock at data entry. The USGS has over six million records of bird migration data (“phenology” refers to phases or event—such as migration), but they were originally paper-based and now scanned into digital copies. The program needs volunteers around the country to transcribe the data on the digital records into a database that will be available to the public. Definitely an important job, but obviously way bigger than what a single lab can handle.
5.) NSF Aurorasaurus—This is another supergroup of a project. Masterminds at NASA, Penn State, and Science Education Solutions are behind this work with documenting any visible auroras around the world. This project is simple to participate in, and there are two different ways you can contribute. First, if you see an aurora, you can take a picture and submit it along with the time/date/location. Since most of us are in common aurora-viewing range, though, the other way you can participate is by verifying submitted images of auroras. Sometimes folks send in sunrise or sunsets, or maybe even urban glow. You can help researchers sift through tons of pictures by voting on which images are auroras and which are not.
6.) Cornell Lab of Ornithology Nest Watch7—This one is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. During bird nesting season…you would watch nests. This one can get a more involved since you’re asked to check on nests at regular intervals, but the observations take almost no time at all. The data is super important for monitoring bird populations, and the data from previous years has been published in scientific journals!
7.) Scripps Research Institute Mark 2 Cure—A quick word of caution here: this one is tough, no questions asked. Yet it is incredibly important and would probably be the most valuable to the citizen scientist; it could even save someone’s life one day. Essentially, this project needs volunteers to help read, sort, and categorize various biomedical literature into a searchable database. This will help medical researchers who can’t possibly keep up with the sheer volume of scientific literature on a daily basis. It would require reading or at least skimming academic papers to help enter them into a network that looks for links and comparisons. It could be tricky, but if you’re up for a challenge, totally worth it.
8.) University of Wisconsin – Madison SatCam—Any techies out there? This project looks for citizens to help optimize the use satellite data. After downloading their app, you just occasionally need to take a picture of the ground and then the sky above. That’s it!
9.) University of California – Berkeley Stardust at Home —Try to identify stardust collected from a comet?! Um, sign me up please. (No, really, I’m trying this.) A 2006 mission of the aptly-named space capsule “Stardust” collected, erm, stardust from the trail of a comet. The particles brought back from the mission have been undergone imaging via scanning microscopy, and now citizen scientists are needed to help sort through the images to determine what is stardust and what is not.
10.) AZA Frogwatch—Coordinated by zoos across the country, Frogwatch USA is a national effort to keep track of amphibians. Lori Pepka, coordinator of the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium chapter of Frogwatch filled me in on some of the bigger picture of the project: “Amphibians in general are a sign of a healthy ecosystem. Their skin is semi-permeable, and they can take in oxygen from the water through their skin. That also means that they can take in toxins from the environment through their skin. They act as a canary in a coal mine; they are considered an indicator species for a healthy environment.” Globally, frogs have been in decline for the past few decades, especially with the rise of chytrid fungus; but as a part of Frogwatch, you will be helping to collect monitoring data that will be used right away to monitor long-term trends.
“Citizen scientists are essential to data collection for [programs like this],” Pepka says. “Which require large scale and long-term data (impossible for a single researcher to accomplish!). I have always been interested in frogs and toads, and learning about them by engaging in Citizen Science just makes them that more appealing!” If you are interested, be sure to give her a buzz by contacting the education department!
So did any of these catch your eye? Pique your interest? There are tons of other citizen science projects out there, just waiting for the right person or family to join in. Give it a shot! And let me know how it goes if you do try something out 🙂
And as always, keep exploring!