A Fabulous Menu of Citizen Science for Thanksgiving

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We’ve updated and reposted this Thanksgiving Day treat,  from Lily Bui!

Dig into this serving of Thanksgiving projects with your friends and family!

monarchWestern Monarch Thanksgiving Count

Help researchers take census of winter Monarch butterflies. Count Monarchs in colonies, during the mornings around Thanksgiving. Get started!

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8 Days Left! Let’s Make More Citizen Science Journalism Possible!

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We’re working with Beacon, an independent platform for journalism, to crowdfund an expansion of SciStarter’s citizen science coverage.

We have 8 days left to reach our goal of $6,000 to make this happen. Today, we’re 13 percent of the way there. Let’s get to 25 percent together by the end of the day today!

You can back our project by clicking here or by visiting this link: 


As a backer, you can subscribe for as little as $5/month, and there are cool rewards, like SciStarter t-shirts, for backers who subscribe for more.

Support citizen science journalism by SciStarter and show it off with this cool t-shirt!

Support citizen science journalism by SciStarter and show it off with this cool t-shirt!

You’ll also receive personalized newsletters from our editorial team, exclusive Q&As with citizen scientists and professional scientists working with citizen projects, and a monthly newsletter, podcast, and audio stories.

Back our project here: https://www.beaconreader.com/projects/help-us-tell-citizen-science-stories, and share this link with your friends and family over the Thanksgiving holiday. 

We’ve got 8 days left — let’s get to the goal together!


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iGEM 2014: The Challenges of Synthetic Biology and DIYBio

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Image: Wikimedia

I’m standing in a crowded arena full of posters at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. To my left, a poster titled, “BioLego: Toxin Cleaner” and a few more down, one called “Edible coli: The Untapped Food Resource of the Century” and another called “Artificial Gene Circuits for Screening Drugs Targeting FAS Pathway.” And get this: all of the presenters behind these posters are in high school. This is iGEM,the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition.

iGEM began in January 2003 with a month-long course during MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) where students designed biological systems to make cells blink. The design course grew to a summer competition with 5 teams in 2004. Ten years later, it now hosts 245 teams from 32 counties. Now a non-profit organization, iGEM does work that seeks to inspire future synthetic biologists by organizing and operating competitions in synthetic biology.

For this competition, university students strive to solve real-world challenges by designing, building, testing, and characterizing genetically engineered biological systems with standard, interchangeable parts called BioBricks. Each team is given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the competition season. Teams use these parts and new parts from their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells. They then showcase their work at the iGEM conference.

Looking at these posters alone, it struck me how much room there is for invention and innovation within the field (e.g. if we can engineer gene circuits, then what about chromosomes and neurons?). And yet it also became very clear why synthetic biology is currently wrought with controversy and challenges.

Challenges of synthetic biology

Before we move on, let’s discuss what the field actually entails. Synthetic biology is most simply defined as the “engineering of biology” (Kuiken & Pauwels), though it borrows from many other disciplines including genetics, molecular biology, information technology, and nanotechnology. The focus of synthetic biology research is usually “to design and construct novel artificial biological pathways, organisms, devices, or systems and to redesign existing natural biological systems to achieve new functions” (Kuiken & Pauwels). Some of the leading research in synthetic biology includes nitrogen fixation in non-legumes to reduce applications of fertilizers; gene drives that spread through sexually reproducing populations (focused on mosquitoes); bioremediation; and more (Drinkwater, et al 8).

Due to the nature of synthetic biology research, social groups that normally embrace technological advance can have significant concerns about synthetic biology, especially around the moral and ethical implications of engineering living organisms (Kahan, Braman, & Mandel, 2009; Kahan et al., 2008). For instance, while some people may be comfortable with synthetic biology applications toward medicine, the same group might be uncomfortable with engineering food. The same research project might have varied effects on the same audience depending on how the message is framed. This poses a challenge for science communicators in representing synthetic biology to the public, and it puts the impetus on policymakers and funders to justify research agendas for it as well.

In a recent Wilson Center report called “Beyond the Laboratory and Far Away: Immediate and Future Challenges in Governing the Bio-Economy,” Todd Kuiken and Eleanore Pauwels point out how science communicators influence public perception of synthetic biology (2):

“The press may not tell the public what to think, but by covering topics it often tells them what to think about. A recent analysis of coverage of synthetic biology by the popular press over the past five years shows a significant increase in coverage in both the United States and the European Union.”

Looking at the bigger picture, Todd Kuiken adds, “This is not just a synthetic biology problem. It’s a larger science communication problem amongst the media. The sort of reduction in science depth…popular press and newspapers or even mainstream media outlets have hurt the overall ability to communicate science properly.”

In communicating synthetic biology research in media, one must keep in mind matters of audience, framing, balance, and definitions/applications in the message, among many other factors listed in the policy brief. This carries over to how we talk about citizen science efforts in biology and synthetic biology as well.

DIY SynBio

When it comes to DIYBio, the issue gets a little more complicated. Citizen science initiatives within the DIYBio and DIYSynBio space are emerging, but they have come against some public pushback due to the same issues noted above: “At the crux of these fears is a miscomprehension about the community’s ability to wield DNA and manipulate life” (Grushkin, Kuiken, Millet 2013). There is also public anxiety that opening up synthetic biology to the public in general, for example: that bioterrorists could exploit technology to threaten public safety (Grushkin, Kuiken, Millet 19).

However, community laboratories provide a space for exploring these research topics with safety protocol. Community labs like Genspace in Brooklyn, NY, and BioCurious in Sunnyvale, CA, provide courses and hands-on experience in the fields of biotechnology and synthetic biology. There, communities of students, parents, educators, artists, and many others engage in projects that look at biotechnology, robotics, neuroscience, barcoding, bioprinting, bioluminescence, and constantly more new initiatives.

“Discomfort comes from not understanding how community labs operate,” Kuiken says. “If you visit one and talk with them about how they go through their protocols, you’ll see something that’s like a typical undergraduate laboratory at a university.” Community labs often have their own safety protocol as internal review process for projects, which often includes peer feedback and critique. Kuiken believes that community labs are acting in a model way in terms of the protocol they put in place to monitor the projects being conducted inside the laboratories.

As the public discourse on synthetic biology and DIYbio initiatives like community labs co-evolve, more synbio projects without backing by formal, traditional institutions will also emerge. While this comes with its own legal and ethical implications that have yet to crystallize fully, it could also mean that there might be even more opportunities for citizen scientists to interact directly with these projects as well as pedagogical materials generated from them to open up the field of synthetic biology to newer audiences.




Read about another synbio citizen science project SynBio4All on Discover Magazine Citizen Science Salon.


Kahan, D. M., Slovic, P., Braman, D., Gastil, J., Cohen, G., & Kysar, D. (2008). Biased Assimilation, Polarization, and
Cultural Credibility: An Experimental Study of Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions. : Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law
School and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Program on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

Kuiken, Todd & Eleonore Pauwels. Beyond the Laboratory and Far Away: Immediate and Future Challenges in Governing the Bio-Economy. Wilson Center. Policy Brief. December 2012.

Mazerik, Jessica & David Rejeski. A Guide to Communicating Synthetic Biology. Wilson Center. Policy Brief. September 2014.

Grushkin, Daniel & Todd Kuiken & Piers Millet. Seven Myths & Realities about Do-It-Yourself Biology. Wilson Center. Policy Brief. November 2013.


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SciStarter Hackfest Coming to CitSci2015!

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A hackfest to make citizen science easier for project managers and participants. Join us in San Jose!

A hackfest to make citizen science easier for project managers and participants. Join us in San Jose!

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the CitSci2015 blog at the Citizen Science Association

What: A hands-on meet-up where everyone participates in dreaming up AND building creative tools to improve the field of citizen science!
Where: Citizen Science 2015 Conference, San Jose, CA
Who: The SciStarter team and YOU!
Why: To capitalize on the collective wisdom (and desire to act!) at the Citizen Science Association Conference

The inaugural conference of the Citizen Science Association will take place February 11-12 in San Jose, California and the SciStarter team is looking forward to soaking up new information during the scheduled sessions and talks!

We’ll also contribute to these conversations through a few presentations and a VERY interactive, “roll-up-your-sleeves!” hackfest designed for anyone interested in building connections and interoperability between projects and communities!

Will you join us?

Citizen Science participants and project owners face barriers – multiple types of logins for projects, coupled with an inability to track contributions and understand  motivations, retention, and learning outcomes across silo-ed projects/platforms, are some examples. We know that people do-and want to-participate in more than one project. Let’s make it easier!

In the process, we may help improve efforts to recruit and retain volunteers. At the very least, we believe a single login, smarter GIS tools, consistent project taxonomies, and a personal “dashboard” will most certainly provide much-needed support for those awesome citizen scientists.

With the incredible growth in the number and types of projects, we believe these barriers need to be addressed now…and in collaboration with you! Consider this your formal invitation to join our hackfest as a citizen scientist, practitioner, researcher, designer, programmer, student, educator, cheerleader, concerned citizen…you name it. You are invited!

During this hackfest, we will build upon what we learned at our workshop in February 2014 at the Citizen Cyber Science conference in London (organized by SciStarter, and NYU with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) and a follow-up workshop in April 2014 at Drexel University (also funded by Sloan). We’ll also share preliminary plans for a new match-making prototype we are sketching out to help connect the people who have data/information to the researchers and reporters looking for that data/information (this work is supported by the Knight Foundation Prototype Fund).
At CitSci2015, we want to work with you to bring these things together.

The hackfest also provides space for new ideas to emerge. Perhaps you’d like to explore ways projects can share data, volunteers, tools and other resources to rise the tide of citizen science and enable better cross-platform analytics for project leaders while improving the experience for participants. This is your chance to bring your ideas to the table and connect with people who can help you advance your idea, too!

Where do I sign up?

First, make sure you have registered for the Citizen Science 2015 Conference

Then, fill out this form to let us know you’re coming so we know how many people to expect.

Bring your creativity, enthusiasm and talents and we’ll make sure you’ll have fun!

–Arvind Suresh is a science communicator and the Social Media Editor at SciStarter. He has an MS in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology from the University of Pittsburgh. Before that, he received his and a BS in Biotechnology from PSG College of Technology, India. Follow Arvind on Twitter @suresh_arvind

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Groundbreaking Air Quality Study Demonstrates the Power of Citizen Science

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Air Sampling in Progress (Courtesy: Global Community Monitor)

Air Sampling in Progress (Courtesy: Global Community Monitor)

Editors Note: This is a guest post by Gwen Ottinger, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Drexel University.  She has done extensive research on community-based air monitoring and community-industry relations around oil refineries.  She is author of Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges (NYU Press 2013).


A study released last week in the journal Environmental Health breaks new ground in our understanding of the environmental effects of fracking—and shows the power that citizen science can have in advancing scientific research and promoting political action.

Unconventional oil and gas (UOG) production, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking), can affect water and air quality.  Researchers, including citizen scientists, have studied its impacts on water extensively.  But we don’t know a lot about how air quality is affected, especially in nearby residential areas, according to the study, “Air concentrations of volatile compounds near oil and gas production.” Part of the problem is where most academic researchers take samples.  Too often, they choose monitoring locations based on the requirements of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which look for regional, not local, effects of pollution.  When looking at air quality around UOG production operations, they may select sites opportunistically, based on where they can gain access or where they can find electricity for their monitoring equipment. This approach, however, may not produce data that is representative of the actual impact of fracking on air quality.

The recently released study pioneers a new approach to choosing sites for air quality monitoring: it mobilizes citizens to identify the areas where sampling was most likely to show the continuous impact of fracking emissions. Citizens chose places in their communities where they noticed a high degree of industrial activity, visible emissions, or health symptoms that could be caused by breathing toxic chemicals.  They took samples themselves, following rigorous protocols developed by non-profit groups working in conjunction with regulatory agencies and academic researchers.

The result – we now have a lot more evidence to show that UOG production can have a big impact on local air quality.  And, as a result of citizens’ involvement in selecting sampling sites, scientists and regulators now have a better idea of where to look to start studying those impacts systematically.

The study demonstrates once again the power of citizen science to improve scientific research. But it also shows the political power of citizen science.  In a companion report released by the non-profit Coming Clean, the study’s citizen-authors use their finding that air quality is significantly affected by UOG to argue that governments need to be cautious when issuing permits, and to call for more extensive monitoring that includes citizen scientists.

Next week, several of the study’s authors—and many other citizen scientists—will convene in New Orleans to cultivate the scientific and political power of citizen science.  At the Community-based Science for Action Conference, November 15-17, citizens dedicated to protecting their community’s environment and health will have the chance to try out new technologies for environmental monitoring, share best practices for successful collaboration between scientists and citizens, and learn about the legal and political issues where their science can make a difference.

Want to get involved?  Registration is still open at the conference’s website. Can’t attend but want to support your fellow citizen scientists? Consider making a donation to help send someone else to New Orleans.

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Halloween Citizen Science in the Classroom: Answer the Bat Call!

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Citizen Science in the Classroom Series where we explore the use of citizen science projects to teach science in the classroom by aligning them with Common Core and Next Generation STEM standards . For more such projects check out the resources page for educators on SciStarter!

Mexican Free Tailed Bats in Texas exit their ‘bat cave’ to hunt for flying insects (Photo Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service CC BY 2.0)

Mexican Free Tailed Bats in Texas exit their ‘bat cave’ to hunt for flying insects (Photo Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service CC BY 2.0)


Did you know? This week is Bat Week! There are many exciting online resources and activities for Bat Week. Visit Bat Week’s virtual host, BatsLive Project Edubat for additional Bat Week information and resources on how you can help bats!

Bat Detective

Grades: 4th-12th


Have you ever wondered about the secret lives of bats? Their adaptations, what and when they eat, where they sleep, how they communicate, their migration and hibernation patterns, and more? As a mostly nocturnal mammal species, we don’t often see them.
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Category: Citizen science, Common Core Standards, NGSS, Science Education Standards | Tagged | Leave a comment

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 Zombees and spiders and bats,
Oh MY!
Drag your bones over,

give these projects a TRY!

Happy Halloween!

From the SciStarter team.

Here are  five projects to put a smile on your skull. 


Loss of the Night
Bring Citizen Science with you to Trick or Treat this year! This App helps you learn constellations as you  contribute to a global real-time map of light pollution. Get started!

zombee watch scistarter

There’s a Zombie Fly threatening our honeybees! Learn how to set a trap, catch a bee, and see if it’s been infected by the Zombie Fly.  Get started!


Bat Detective
By sorting the sounds in recordings into insect and bat calls, you will help biologists learn how to reliably distinguish bat ‘tweets’ to develop new automatic identification tools.  Get started!

istock spider

Colorado Spider Survey
Little is known about the biodiversity of spiders in Colorado and the impact urbanization is having on species distribution. Learn how to collect and identify spiders, which will be sent to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Get started! BONUS! The L.A. Spider Survey needs your help investigating these issues in the L.A. area!

istock earthworm

Great Lakes Worm Watch
Not fazed by creepy crawlies? Then this wormy project is for you! Help monitor earthworm distribution and habitat from ANYWHERE! Collect earthworms and habitat data, and learn how to do soil surveys. Get started!


Image Credits

Loss of the Night – NASA

ZomBeeWatch – US Geological Survey

Bat Detective – National Park Service

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Citizen Scientists, Help SciStarter Empower You!

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Help us empower you! (Image Credits: Pixabay / Open Clips CC0)

SciStarter wants to make it easier for you to learn about and get involved in way more opportunities to make the world a better place. We have some big ideas, (and we know you have the potential to do BIG things!) but we want to hear from you first.

And keeping true to our citizen science roots, we’re seeking your thoughts to help us empower you! Consider completing this brief survey by Wednesday 10/22.


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SciStarter among 18 winners of Knight Prototype Fund!

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The Knight Foundation today announced the latest winners of its Knight Prototype Fund. Eighteen projects will receive $35,000 to help them bring their concepts closer to fruition and one of the 18 projects is ours:

SciStarter ’s project will connect data journalists and researchers with citizen scientists who are interested in helping them collect data about specific issues (i.e. water quality in a particular neighborhood).

The fund, launched in 2012, also gives winners a support network and the opportunity to receive human-centered design training in an effort bring early stage media ideas to a formal launch.

We are very honored to be in such great company and will post developments here.

Learn more about the other winners and the Knight Prototype Fund.


Image Credit: Knight Foundation


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Citizen Science on the Radio

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Listen to the sounds of citizen science!

Listen to the sounds of citizen science!

Editor’s Note: This guest post by former SciStarter editor Lily Bui originally appeared on the SciStarter blog

Listen. Let’s get one thing straight: I am an unabashed public radio nerd.

So, when citizen science and public radio come together, I am nothing short of ecstatic. But it’s not just my public radio nerdiness for its own sake. Rather, this convergence speaks to a larger narrative (for me, at least) — that of citizen science being a form of public participation in science and public radio playing the role of representing public discourse.

In conjunction with SciStarter’s current audio/radio citizen science theme, I’ve put together a “playlist” of some examples of how public radio can engage citizen scientists and vice versa.

Continue reading »

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