Join a Citizen Science Project

In the Northern Hemisphere, spring is in the air, and maybe you're looking for an excuse to get outside a bit more. Look no further: I have a round-up of citizen science projects you can join. It's a good time to get involved. During a year when budgets are tight, those of us who can't contribute monetarily to our favorite scientific, medical, tech, or environmental organizations can donate our time instead to scientific research projects.

Rachel Zurer provides us with an excellent definition of citizen science:

The idea behind citizen science is that ordinary folks, spread all across the country (or the world!), can collect valuable data on a breadth and scale that would be impossible for a single researcher to do on her own. It's particularly suited to projects that require lots of field observations but not a lot of special tools – things like counting creatures or measuring snow. And while the Internet has made the process of recruiting volunteers and reporting data easier than ever, for most projects, no technology is necessary.

At TreeHugger, George Grattan underscores the importance and accuracy of citizen science:

But the Citizen Science model doesn’t assume professional accuracy in each volunteer and doesn’t depend upon it to work. Rather, like the joke from an old SNL skit about how the “Bank of Change” makes money, it assumes its profits lie in volume. With so much work to be done—most people have no idea of the infinite amount of daily “grunt work” required by even the most basic field science projects—60% accuracy multiplied by hundreds or thousands of helping hands moves the scientific ball significantly down the field toward quality data, even factoring in the need for training, monitoring, and sorting out the inevitable errors.

Where Big Science works by putting a few very highly trained people with a lot of money at their disposal in charge of rare and expensive machines, Citizen Science works by sending nearly anyone you can grab into the field with a simple task, simple equipment to do it, and a willingness on the scientists’ part to sort through the results. It’s messy, at times, but it works.

(And Big Science has its messiness problems, too: the Large Hadron Collider broke within hours of first being switched on this September, proving that world ends not with the sucking bang of an artificially-created black whole, but with the sucky whimper of a badly soldered part. Whoops. If a volunteer mistakes the occasional beaver for an otter, it doesn’t add up to a million dollars of downtime a minute.)

Anthony Williams of Wikinomics shares Galaxy Zoo founder Kevin Schawinski's thoughts on the difference between citizen science and crowdsourcing. Galaxy Zoo uses citizen scientists to classify images captured by a robotic telescope.

Zurer points us to a number of citizen science projects, including Frogwatch USA, Project BudBurst, and the Bay Area Ants Survey.

If you're into animals, there are dozens of projects in which you can participate. Like bugs? DNLee of Urban Science Adventures! blogs about Firefly Watch. Prefer birds? Darlene Cavalier, AKA the Science Cheerleader, brings us news of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's NestCams and CamClickr, in which citizen scientists can play a part by classifying still and video images of birds. You can participate as little or as much as you like; Cavalier reports that CamClickr participant Claire K has classified 188,000 images. Are you a mammal person? Cavalier highlights Project Squirrel, which she describes as being not just about squirrels, but also about the efficacy of citizen science itself:

Project Squirrel is designed so that anyone of any age can participate, and could be incorporated into all of our daily routines without much disruption. Squirrels are very easy to see and identify without extensive effort for citizen scientists. More importantly, citizen scientists can gather data over a much broader region than what scientists alone could cover.

Also, Steve and his other scientists are not just studying squirrels - they will also be studying US. The scientists at Project Squirrel are also going to use this project to understand the effect that participation in citizen science has on participants (this will be tested through an upcoming portion of their web site that is not yet published). I have a feeling their conclusions are going to be very positive! And so, getting involved and documenting your experience will also help provide information that can be used to recruit other citizen scientists to action!

Worried about water? GIS and Science reports that Marylanders can help Patuxent Riverkeeper with projects on water quality and in mapping, surveying, and clearing water trails for paddlers.

Residents of Manchester, England can join in fun bubble-blowing experiments to map air flow and urban climate.

If you're into gaming (and microbiology), then definitely check out Cavalier's review of Foldit, where you can solve puzzles to help science. The folks behind Foldit are studying protein folding.

GrrlScientist hosts the second edition of Scientia Pro Publica, which rounds up posts about scientists writing for a public audience, scientists working in the public interest, and citizen science participation, including one community's participation in prepping and rearticulating the skeleton of a sperm whale.

You can learn about even more projects via New Hampshire Public Radio and Citizen Science Projects.

What are your thoughts on citizen science? And what's keeping you from participating in it?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.

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