by Julie West, Oak Meadow Science Teacher
Citizen Science: How YOU can get involved in real science!
There is a new craze hitting the streets, and hopefully this one is here to stay. It's called citizen science. With the advancement of technology, smartphones, and instant data retrieval and input, it has become easier and easier for "regular" people to do real science.
So much of science research is the methodical, sometimes tedious, collecting of data. When you read scholarly scientific articles and reports, it is not readily apparent how much time went into collecting that data. Not only time, but often infinitely monotonous hours of recording time in seconds, counting, observing, watching, etc. And then sometimes the technology breaks down. Cameras freeze up in the Arctic. Animals shed their radio tags, data cards go bad, or electrical systems short out. My daughter, whose research entails recording whale sounds, had a hydrophone in the ocean for seven months. With excitement, they went to retrieve the appliance, only to find that something had fried inside and they had only three weeks of data. There goes another season!
The fieldwork is the fun part! Now we have to go back to the office or lab, do more observations, and then spend days and weeks at the computer, entering data, collating, interpreting... And then we have to go back out there and do it again, and again, and again, because as any scientist knows, the more samples that are studied, the more validity there will be in the results.
Why not get some help? The old answer was, "because it costs too much, and we have no funding." Now we have a new answer: Yes, let’s! There are people everywhere interested in contributing to science, especially if it’s made easy for them. With citizen science, it is. Citizen science is rapidly gaining acceptance in scientific circles. Not only do citizens collect and report data, but they are becoming valuable helpers in analyzing the vast amount of data that is now available due to increased technology.
For example, here is a project where you can help identify what is on the ocean floor. We have technology to take millions of pictures, but who is going to look at all these pictures? This is something you can do at your leisure.
Or you can look the other direction and classify galaxies.
If you would rather spend your time outside observing nature, there are many options for you to help out. Here’s a neat one where you get outside and record pollinators that come to your plants.
Here’s one of my favorites - categorize roadkill! Do you realize how much valuable information (about animal movements and populations) can be obtained from roadkill, something that is usually ignored? Unlike live animals, roadkill doesn’t run away from you when you approach! You can help science when you are out for a bike ride or a walk.
You can record when and where you see an aurora, help create a map of marine debris, help map carbon-producing power plants, count frogs, watch birds, measure snow and ice depth—the list goes on and on.
It is easy, however, to get bombarded and a little lost with all the data yourself. I recommend finding a topic you are interested in and sticking with it for a while. Find one project that gets you outside, and one project where you help analyze data with your computer. Meddling halfway in many projects doesn’t really give you the depth that you need to feel like you’re doing real science. Learn the subject that you are getting involved in, and use this as a tool to broaden your scope of science.
There are many citizen science projects, both outdoors collecting data, and indoors analyzing it, described on the following websites:
- Scientific American
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology (some of the most well-developed citizen science birdwatching projects, adaptable for all ages)
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
- Zooniverse (a “master list” of citizen science projects)
The best part is that these are not just classroom activities, using hypothetical scenarios to mimic how science is done. While those activities are inherently valuable, think of the additional value of being an active contributor. The scientific world appreciates every contribution. Science is now something that is not up to them to do, but for us to do. As Albert Einstein said, “the whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” Regular citizens doing real science - ride the wave of citizen science. Surf’s up!
© 2013 Oak Meadow; Originally published in Oak Meadow’s educational journal, Living Education, Fall 2013; Used by permission