Celebrating National Science Month with Citizen Science

[Contributed by Carlyn, Circulation Supervisor @ Macon County Public Library]

April is National Science Month. There are many ways to celebrate, from reading about a famous scientist, to taking part in a science fair. You might attend Family Science Night at your library or school. One way to become more actively involved is to take part in a citizen science project.

First, what is citizen science? Citizen science has been described as “voluntary public participation in the scientific process.” In other words, anyone – everyone – can get involved with real scientific research! Most citizen science projects take a supporting role, in which the general public assists with projects developed by working scientists. Scientific research often involves either gathering or sorting through large quantities of stuff – data, photos, etc. Much of this work is being done by non-scientists with a minimum of training, which means that anyone can become a part of it. Adults, children, families, groups, or individuals all have a wide variety of opportunities.  Early examples of citizen science often involved using private computers’ idle time to crunch data, but today there are thousands of projects out there available for people to get involved in different ways. A lot of projects are done from a computer or smartphone, while many others involve getting out and about to gather information. These projects offer the public tremendous opportunities to take part in genuine scientific research. They provide scientists with free assistance; they provide hands-on science learning opportunities; and they create connections between the public and the science community.

Currently, most citizen science projects are in the natural sciences and astronomy. For example, many research projects involving birds have involved public participation for years; the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count , touted as the world’s longest-running citizen science project, dates back to 1900. Other birding projects include the Great Backyard Bird Count, eBird, and NestWatch. These projects, and others like them, help scientists to gather large amounts of data from locations all over the world; to do this solely with paid researchers would be prohibitive in both cost and scope, but by enlisting the assistance of thousands of private citizens the costs are minimized and the data pool greatly expanded.

While these projects involve outdoor time, some biology projects are done on a computer, such as EteRNA, which uses a game-like interface and fun graphics to teach non-scientists how to create new RNA.  Astronomy projects are often done on a personal computer or smartphone. Galaxy Zoo, for example, asks participants to view photographs of distant galaxies and identify characteristics about them. This allows scientists to narrow their focus to study only the galaxies that most interest them. Some citizen science projects require participants to attend training workshops, but the majority require little or no training, and any minimal necessary training can usually be completed in a few minutes online.

Increasingly, citizen science projects are making use of smartphones to collect data. Did you feel it?  is an app that allows citizens to submit their experiences with earthquakes, providing a great deal of information seismologists would otherwise be unable to gather. mPing gives people the opportunity to submit weather data, again greatly increasing the amount of data available for study. Project Noah lets people use their phones to share wildlife encounters, contributing to information about our planet’s biodiversity. Noisetube collects information about noise levels wherever a participant happens to be.

A citizen science project that is active right now throughout FRL is NC Candid Critters, and you can get involved through your local public library. Each library in the Fontana Regional Library system has Candid Critter kits ready for you to check out! With the kit, you are equipped to set up a special camera on either your own land or public land, leave the camera to take daytime and nighttime photos for several weeks, and then you get to see the results, identify the animals photographed, and add them to a huge database that is being used by scientists for a wide variety of research. In the process, you’ll also connect with another citizen science site, eMammal.

Does this sound a little daunting? Not to worry. Before you check out a camera kit, you’ll complete a short online training. It took me less than an hour. The training shows you exactly what you need to do, from choosing a location, to setting up your camera, to identifying the photos your camera captures. Once you’ve completed the training, you’ll be put on a list of approved volunteers for the project, and you’ll be able to check out a camera kit. My camera went up on March 11, so this past Sunday it was time for me to collect my camera and see what critters were photographed.  On this first deployment, I got several sightings of squirrels and raccoons; I’ve redeployed in a different location and in another three weeks I’ll have a second set of photos to identify, upload, and share.

Raccoons from my NC Candid Critters camera, taken at night (4:30 AM, to be exact). The one on the right is easy; don’t miss the one on the left, of which all you can see is the glowing eyes!

NCCC racoons

There are so many other citizen science projects, it’s impossible to list them here. An excellent book on the subject is Citizen Science Guide for Families: Taking part in real science. While the title gears the book toward families, it is equally useful for adults, groups, or individuals. Additionally, there are two great online websites that provide access to lots of current projects.

SciStarter serves as a clearinghouse for citizen science projects. Scientists can submit projects to the site, and people can pick from hundreds of projects to pursue. There are many projects that can be completed online, and many others that involve indoor or outdoor activities. SciStarter includes projects around the world as well as local or state projects.

Zooniverse serves as a clearinghouse for citizen science online projects involving analysis of large amounts of data. These often involve viewing and identifying photos or videos, ranging from Arizona bats to the Milky Way galaxy. Other projects involve deciphering handwritten data, ranging from Elizabethan journals to 1940’s African tree research. All Zooniverse projects have built-in tutorials which make it easy to get started.

Citizen science is the subject of a new television series as well. The Crowd and the Cloud is a four-part series airing on World Channel and selected PBS stations this April. You can also watch the series online and get additional information about citizen science at http://crowdandcloud.org/.

So what are you waiting for? It’s so easy, and so interesting, to become involved in citizen science today; the question isn’t whether to get involved, but which project to dive into first! The NC Candid Critters camera kits will be available at our libraries through July 2017, so that’s a great place to begin. Visit the NC Candid Critters website, http://www.nccandidcritters.org/, to get started as a citizen scientist.

Love and the Feathered Rex

Who are you looking at? Recent discoveries suggest there was nothing sluggish about Velociraptor. (Photo courtesy of Jurassic Park III)
Who are you looking at? Recent discoveries suggest there was nothing sluggish about Velociraptor. (Photo courtesy of Jurassic Park III)

By Luke

When I was a kid, I was gob-smacked by the movie “The Beast of Hollow Mountain.”

The womanly charms of Patricia Medina couldn't compete with the sense-shattering awesomeness of The Beast of Hollow Mountain.
The womanly charms of Patricia Medina couldn’t compete with the sense-shattering awesomeness of The Beast of Hollow Mountain.

beast_of_hollow_mountain_1This glorious American-Mexican co-production featured rugged cowboys, the low-cut charms of Patricia Medina (who fostered strange stirrings that I wouldn’t understand for a few more years), stampeding cattle and treacherous patches of quicksand – the essential ingredients for a kid’s classic. But haunting the dark center of this 1956 horse opera was an astonishing Tyrannosaurus Rex that chowed down on cows and vaqueros alike. A stop motion idea by animator Willis O’Brien (whose career peaked two decades before with “King Kong”), this dinosaur lodged itself in my cerebral cortex and planted a lifelong passion for these magnificent creatures.

Fortunately, there was plenty of cultural dross and gold to nurture this budding romance. Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “The Land That Time Forgot” set the template for the strata that would pile up over the years – an isolated land where dinosaurs are still able to fulfill their destiny (eating one another in spectacularly bloody battles), betrayals, cliffs or swamps or some form of treacherous natural barrier, and, somewhere, somehow, a tiger-skin-bikinied cave chick to rescue and fall in love with.

There were variations of this theme in pulp novels, comic books, TV shows and movies, and for a dedicated kid like me it was an endless banquet. It found its full flowering in 1933’s “King Kong,” still a dazzling achievement after all these years – if you ask me, “Kong” is the quintessential American movie, technically astonishing, operatic in its oversized emotional core and leavened with surprising moments of playfulness and sensuality (witness Kong toying with the shattered jaw of the T-Rex, and how on earth did O’Brien get permission to animate Kong slowly stripping Fay Wray down to her dainties?).

Even after 80 years, the battle between King Kong and a Tyrannosaurus has lost none of its visceral power. (Photo courtesy of Turner Classic Movies)
Even after 80 years, the battle between King Kong and a Tyrannosaurus has lost none of its visceral power. (Photo courtesy of Turner Classic Movies)

The only trouble was, back in those days, scientists were convinced that dinos were sluggish, slow-witted reptiles whose own gigantism ensured that they’d be out-played by the frisky mammals playing in their shadows. It was hard to imagine that your plastic brontosaur was stomping a native village when it really didn’t have enough strength to haul itself out of the lake.

But thanks to revolutionary discoveries in the 1960s and 70s, it became apparent that there was a lot more to dinosaurs than anyone had guessed. They became hot-blooded, agile and as dynamic as they always were in kids’ imaginations. Paleontologists began to explore the Mesozoic Age as a discrete ecological system of which dinosaurs were only a part. For a remarkably complete view of this new interpretation and the evident excitement that now informs this science, read “Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life” by Scott D. Sampson.

Don't call me "Fluffy." Even with the inclusion of feathers, T. rex was the apex predator.
Don’t call me “Fluffy.” Even with the inclusion of feathers, T. rex was the apex predator.

Well, eventually this new vision of the Terrible Lizards was translated into the popular descendants of Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World,” reaching its apex in Michael Crichton’s  “Jurassic Park” and Steven Spielberg’s irresistible widescreen adaptation. All those new notions that we dino-lovers had held close to our hearts were finally planted into the general public’s consciousness – they were energetic creatures capable of sudden bursts of speed, intelligent problem solvers, and the forerunners of the birds that have blossomed in nearly every environment.

But here’s the thing – in the 20 years since “Jurassic Park” premiered, the understanding of dinosaurs has rendered big chunks of the novel and movie as moribund as those beasts that used to float around in their swamps. It turns that our views are still evolving in ways as surprising as Tyrannosaurus done up in feathers and sniffing around late Cretaceous plains looking for carrion.

If you’d like to explore this new world, pick up “My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs” by Brian Switek. It’s a paleontologist’s valentine to these remarkable creatures that will not be corralled and a meditation on the ways science will not be contained. Even if you still think of these creatures as sluggish lizards, you can’t help but be caught up in Switek’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for his subjects. “My Beloved Brontosaurus” is a new book that’s been waiting 65 million years to be told.mybeloved_poster

GSNP Today

By Stephen

My last two blogs covered the resources in the Fontana Regional Library system about the Smoky Mountains, before the park existed, and the grassroots movement of the early twentieth century to get the park established along the Tennessee/North Carolina border.  This time I will list guides that can be used when visiting the present day park.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the national park system.  Within its boundaries are a myriad of opportunities for all sorts outdoor activities from just riding in an automobile to following trails oMy  last two blogs listed resources in the Fontana Regional Library dealing with n horseback or by foot power.   Fishing, birdwatching, wading in cool streams are just some of the other activities visitors can enjoy.  Listed below are some resources in the library’s catalog to help a reader get more out a visit to the park.

An overall guide to the park can be found in Rose Houk’s Exploring the Smokies.  The book’s subtitle:  “Things to see and do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park” suggests it might be useful to a first time visitor to the park.

Flora and Fauna: Wild animals in their natural habitat and wildflowers, as well as views of the mountains, attract visitors to the Smokies. Bill Lea has established himself as the premier photographer working the park.  The library has three of his books which depict all three of these  –  Great Smoky Mountains Wildlife PortfolioCades Cove:  Window to a Secret World, Great Smoky Mountains : Wonder and Light.  Richard Smith’s Wildflowers of the Southern Mountains, Leonard Atkins’ Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains, and Peter White’s Wildflowers of the Smokies will help the reader identify the flowers they find in the park. Other books in this vein are Trees & Familiar Shrubs of the Smokies and Ferns of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

GeologyA Roadside Guide to the Geology of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a useful way to learn about the formation of the mountains while traveling through the park  in the comfort of an automobile.

Hiking:  There a variety of hiking trails in the park that range from easy, that a child can handle, to strenuous.  The guide can depend on how seasoned hikers are in your group and whether or not there are children along.  If you having children who are hiking, here are two books:  Day and Overnight Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park  and Time Well Spent:  Family Hiking in the Smokies.  The latter book is age specific  with regards to individual trails.   The classic guide is Bill Beard’s Hiking Trails of the Smokies.   If you concentrate on hiking  the AT in the park, use Exploring the Appalachian Trail:  Hikes in the Southern Mountains, especially Hikes #18-#24.   The park officials have produced a video about encountering wildlife when hiking that anyone planning a hike in the park should see.   Day hikers and overnight backpackers should also read NPS advice for hikers.

Waterfalls:  Waterfalls are a favorite hiker’s destination. Waterfalls and Cascades of the Great Smoky Mountains is a useful guide to finding them.

Fishing:  The streams of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are attractive to anglers of all ages, especially  those who enjoy fly-fishing.   Three guides exist to fishing in the park:  Don Kirk, Fly-Fishing Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains; H. Lea  Lawrence, The Fly Fisherman’s Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park;  Jim Casada, Fly fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.   Casada grew up in Bryson City and has fished in the park all his life.

DVDs:  If you want to visit the park from your home, there are two videos available.  Exploring the Smokies takes the viewer on a four season tour of the park.  National Parks of the Appalachians includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Shenandoah National Park.

Are you a “Twitcher”?

Are you a “twitcher”?

Wikipedia gives the definition as someone who travels a long distance to see a rare bird.

By Faye

Here in America people often find it relaxing to watch birds. It’s estimated that approximately 60 million people in the United States feed birds. According to Susan Hayes, executive director of the Wild Bird Feeding Industry in Sioux Falls, SD, the US has $1.45 billion in yearly sales of bird feed.

Bird watching and gardening seem to go hand in hand. I know I really enjoy numerous birds in my flower gardens. An Eastern Bluebird couple found my new birdhouse and has just hatched the second family this year. And the Yellow Finches love my flowers. Not a seed left on the Black-eyed Susans, Red Hot Pokers, or the Echinacea! Sunflowers are also a big favorite.

Red Sunflower

 Be sure and place water close by in partial shade. Birds need it not only for drinking but for  bathing too. They are so funny frolicking around in a shallow pool of water.

 Are you a birdwatcher or just need a little help on identification? If so, be sure to check out some of the great books at the library. Who knows you may become a “twitcher”.

Birds of Eastern North America :  photographic guide by Paul Sterry & Brian E. Small.

The armchair birder : discovering the secret lives of familiar birds by John Yow.

Wildlife gardening  by Martyn Cox