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.