Spring is the Season for Citizen Science

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Photo: NPS

Here are six projects in need of your help as you walk the dog, work in your garden, clean the gutters, or do spring cleaning.

And check out these  new citizen science projects just added to the Project Finder on SciStarter.

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Coop’s Scoop: Tweeting about Spring Citizen Science

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citscichat_logoWith the occurrence of the spring equinox, there are many cultural and religious celebrations of life, renewal, bounty, and freedom. Over 300 million people celebrate the Persian festival of Nowruz. In South Asia, there are festivals for Chaitra Sukladi, Ugadi, Gudi Padava, Chetti Chand, Navreh, Sajibu Cheiraoba, and more. Pagans celebrate Ostara. There will be Easter egg hunts and Passover Seders.

In Washington, DC, celebration of the National Cherry Blossom Festival began on March 20 and continues through April 12. Noting, and celebrating, the timing of cherry blossoms in DC is a tradition that originated in Japan. The DC Festival commemorates the friendship between the US and Japan that was symbolized by a gift of 3,000 cherry trees from Tokyo’s mayor in 1912 to our nation’s capital.


The cherry blossoms in Kyoto, Japan are perhaps the oldest example of a spring tradition that has proven useful to climate change research. For centuries, the exact timing of annual cherry blossom festivals varied depending on the peak flowering of Japanese mountain cherries, which in turn varied depending on the warmth of the weather. Because the festivals were timed to coincide with peak blooms, and the timing of blooms were tied directly to spring temperatures, scientists can now estimate past spring temperatures based on the timing of historic festivals. Good records of the festival dates go back to the 15th and 16th centuries, and some, though less complete, records go back as far as the 11th century.

In addition to old traditions of noting when flowers bloom, there are traditions of noting when birds and insects arrive on their migration, when insects emerge, and a host of other observations about the timing the spring. Instead of festivities and dancing around maypoles, in citizen science projects, the traditions involve following field protocols. Either way, it is time to notice the natural world during a change in season. As more cultural traditions that connect us with nature seem to lost over time, citizen science is filling those gap with scientific hobbies.

Spring citizen science is the theme for the March #CitSciChat, a monthly Twitter chat session co-sponsored by SciStarter and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Join us for the March #CitSciChat on Wednesday March 25, 7pm GMT, which is 3pm ET in the US.

Follow our March guest panelists who represent a variety of projects relevant to tracking spring, including the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership (@Dragonfly_MDP), Journal North (@journeynorthorg), Operation Rubythroat (@rubythroat1), the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (@MLMPCitSci), BudBurst (@PBudBurst), eBird (@Team_ebird), and Snapshot in Time (@OrianneSociety).

We’ll discuss springtime scientific discoveries, education lesson plans, best practices for project design, and what’s on the horizon for citizen science.

Photo credit: Washington DC Tidal Basin Cherry Blossoms by Andrew Bossi


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Journey North: Tracking the Stories of Survival with Citizen Science

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A group of Gray Whales Count volunteers count gray whales at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara.  (ianvorsterphotography.com)

A group of Gray Whales Count volunteers count gray whales at Coal Oil
Point in Santa Barbara. (ianvorsterphotography.com)

It was a crisp morning following a cold night in Goleta’s Coronado Monarch Butterfly Preserve. As Luke crossed a beam that had been dropped across a swampy area, he looked up at the Eucalyptus grove and sighed quietly. “Where are the butterflies Dad,” he asked me—with one part expectation and one part disappointment.

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Finding our origins: The Genographic Project uses genetics to map the past

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Ancient human migration patterns. Source: National Geographic.

Ancient human migration patterns. Source: National Geographic.

Have you ever tried tracing back your family tree only to get stuck at great great Grandpa Jim? Are you curious about who your ancestors were and where they might have come from? If so, you’ll definitely want to check out National Geographic’s The Genographic Project. Not only will you learn about your lineage but you’ll have the opportunity to contribute to our scientific understanding of the human story.

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The Next Big Drug Discovery Could Come From a Scoop of Soil in Your Backyard

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Scoop it up for Citizen Science! (Image Credit: Pat Dumas / Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Scoop it up for Citizen Science! (Image Credit: Pat Dumas / Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Dr Robert H. Cichewicz. Director of the University of Oklahoma, Institute for Natural Products Applications and Research Technologies (INPART). Dr Cichewicz leads the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program which is focused on translating natural products into therapeutic leads to combat cancer, infectious diseases, and other unmet medical needs. Visit the project page on SciStarter to start participating and join thousands of other citizen scientists! You can also find other projects in our database through the project finder!

Do you remember what is was like to be five years old? I don’t, but I get a pretty good idea from watching my children.

There are two things that strike me when watching them. First, we all start off as a scientist at heart. There are innumerable questions to be asked and answered. Each day is filled with question marks, big and small, about how and why the world works that way that it does. Second, at some level, we all love dirt. More than just the opportunistic digging and poking of fingers into the dirtiest possible places, children embrace dirt and regularly don it like an essential fashion accessory. At some level, I believe that we have all retained some aspect of those characteristics in our grownup selves. And although adult society (and our mothers) might chide us for being too nosey with endless questions and too messy based on the dirt under our fingernails, there are simple ways that we can still embrace our inner child.
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Are Food Deserts also Food Monocultures? Proposing a Citizen Science Project in Urban Ecology

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Corn – King of Crops. But is it good for a healthy food distribution ecosystem? Image: Pixabay (Public Domain CC0)

Editor’s Note: This is a two-part post, a version of which first appeared on the author’s blog.

Drive through the United States, and one thing you will notice is a high degree of repetition in the scenery. Highways cross through large fields of near-identical corn and soy crops, punctuated by towns containing a similarly small set of franchises. This is not an easy knock on the cultural blandness of contented societies but rather, I suspect, two factors deeply connected with our path to near-limitless calories.

For the first time in history our species has achieved the feat of having more overweight people than those who go hungry. How we got here is an interesting story combining the rise of the technology needed to run large-scale farms with agricultural policies geared towards the production of cheap staple crops (For a good introduction to the topic my favorite is the documentary King Corn.). What sounds strange, at least at first, is that the issue of malnourishment has not declined in a similar fashion. This is an immediate result of improvements made in the availability of cheap, though not necessarily nutritious, calories.
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Playing It Safe Online: NOVA Cybersecurity Lab Trains You to Carefully Navigate the Web

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cyberpromo-facebook headerWith our ever-increasing connectivity and reliance on the internet, cybersecurity is a growing concern. Despite all the cautionary warnings about cyber safety, individuals, companies and government agencies still fall victim to attack.

So what does it take to stay safe? NOVA, in partnership with computer scientists and cybersecurity experts, created the Cybersecurity Lab, a digital platform designed to teach people about cyber threats and how to improve their own cybersecurity.
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Coop’s Scoop: Mind over Mainframe – next #CitSciChat discusses citizen science games

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The next time you get into an argument with your laptop or shake a fist at your computer, try to refrain from calling it “a stupid machine.” That would be gloating. We really are more intelligent than our computers. Case in point, the human mind can solve some puzzles better than computers. On this principle, using game elements in citizen science, called gamification, is a popular approach in biology. That’s the topic of the next #CitSciChat on Twitter.

The next time you want to argue against a group, think twice. Groups can be more intelligent than individuals. On this principle, some game elements often involve creating teams that compete against each other. Within group cooperation, in the context of competition across teams, is a powerful motivator.

The fields most gamified in citizen science – molecular, cell, and synthetic biology – are key to understanding, treating, and curing diseases. Studies of proteins, amino acids, RNA, and DNA can happen in silico (in computer models) and in vitro (in laboratory experiments), but are often too difficult in vivo (in a living cell). Now these serious topics of research are being carried out in gamo. (have I coined a term, in Latin no less?)

For example, figuring out DNA configurations presented researchers with problems that were computationally too intensive for a single computer. At first, molecular biologists looked for a solution with a type of citizen science called distributed computing. Volunteers help research by donating their unused CPU (Central Processing Unit) and GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) cycles on their personal computers to causes like Rosetta@Home and Folding@Home.


Unexpectedly, when distributed computing volunteers saw the screensaver of Rosetta@Home, as it illustrated the computer stepping closer and closer to a solution of each protein-folding puzzle, they wanted to guide the computer. Volunteers came to the conclusion that they could solve these 3-D puzzles better than their computers. Researchers and game designers believed in the abilities of their volunteers and declared, “Game on.”

At the cellular level, human minds are important again. One doesn’t have to be a trained pathologist to identify cancer cells and help find biomarkers in these cells. Cancer Research UK takes games very seriously. In their newest game, Reverse the Odds, players identify bladder cancer cells before and after different treatments, which will help future patients know whether their best odds are with surgery or chemotherapy.

Why are people better than computers at protein-folding puzzles? Why is the human mind better than computer algorithms at figuring out how DNA regions align? Why is the trial and error approach of people better than formal techniques and alogrithms of bioengineering RNA? Why are teams smarter than individuals? Why is gamification so popular that, when the online game Phylo launched in 2010, the computer servers crashed, unable to handle the volume of thousands of simultaneous players? Why are there over 37,000 people working (meaning playing) at RNA design puzzle in an open, online laboratory called EteRNA?

For answers to these questions and more, join us for the next citizen science Twitter chat by following the hashtag #CitSciChat. The #CitSciChat are co-sponsored by SciStarter and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Anyone is welcome to join with questions, answers, comments, and ideas. Don’t be shy and don’t forget to include the hashtag #CitSciChat so that others in the conversation don’t miss your Tweets. I will Storify each session and post the recap on this blog.

The #CitSciChat guest panelists this Wednesday, February 25 at 7pm GMT (26th in Australia) include:

Phylo, nanocrafter and FoldIt were featured in a recent SciStarter newsletter, check out the rest of the projects here and sign up for the newsletter on the SciStarter homepage to get to know about more.

Citizen science chats take place on Twitter at #CitSciChat the last Wednesday (Thursday in Australia) of every month, unless otherwise noted. To involve people across the globe, chats take place 7-8pm GMT, which is 2-3pm ET in USA and Thursday 6-7am ET in Australia. Each session will focus on a different theme. To suggest a project or theme for an upcoming chat, send me a tweet @CoopSciScoop!

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Nanocrafter: Playing a Game of Synthetic Biology

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Nanocrafter image

Image Credit: Nanocrafter

On its surface, it looks like just another science puzzle game. In reality, the game is part of a broader goal to enable non-scientists to contribute to synthetic biology research.

‘It’ is Nanocrafter, a project created by researchers and game developers at the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington. They are the same team behind the citizen science project FoldIt.

“Most citizen science games are designed to gather data for a specific research question. Players may need to be good at pattern recognition, abstract reasoning, or other cognitive skills. Our focus at Nanocrafter is different,” says Nanocrafter Project Lead Jonathan Barone. “The project isn’t intended to address any existing research. Rather, we are interested in developing a user community that is familiar enough with the principles and parameters of synthetic biology to generate new ideas, identify new questions and create their own solutions.”

Synthetic biology is an engineering discipline within a biological context. The field uses techniques and principles from a number of different disciplines to create biological devices and understand biological systems. Synthetic biologists use biological components like DNA, RNA or proteins as their building materials. For example, scientists can insert DNA or proteins composites into a bacterial host to increase or refine a biological pathways involved in drug synthesis. In other cases, the molecules are used in ways that are unrelated to their normal biological function. A DNA fragment can be constructed as a biosensor, fluorescing in the presence of a pathogen.  Or in a particularly wild example, DNA can be used to store data like a computer hard drive.

But these are complex tasks. Before users start working on these kind of problems, they must master the basics.

The Nanocrafter game teaches users about basic DNA biochemistry and how to manipulate DNA reactions, eventually enabling the player to create logic circuits or mechanized structures. Their video provides examples. In the game, players organize colored puzzle pieces to react in specific ways. The behavior of the puzzle pieces mimics the principles of DNA nucleotide-nucleotide pairing, nucleotide chaining and double helix formation. In the game, only certain puzzle pieces can pair up and pieces only form chains and double strands in a precise hierarchy of reactions.  This might seem overwhelming but the game eases player into the rules, step by step.

“Once users master the principles, they can try our biweekly challenges. Challenges might replicate existing research or be a problem the Nanocrafter team thought up,” explains Barone. “While replicating published data is always useful, it is when users create their own solutions that we start to see really interesting and exciting stuff.  If we can demonstrate that player submissions are theoretically sound, we can present them to scientists to try in their labs.”

Of course if that is too much structure, users can always play in the ‘sandbox’. The sandbox is a completely open ended format with no rules or defined goals. One player created a ‘flagellum’ from DNA, which ‘though not scientifically interesting (or even possible)’ says Barone, speaks to the creativity and fun people seem to have with Nanocrafter.   User designed solutions to past challenges include strands that assemble into a three-way junction or strands that form long repeating polymers.

Though they have a community of over one thousand individual users, posted challenges only get half dozen responses. Moving forward, the Nanocrafter team wants to increase their user base and are hoping to increase the computational and modeling capabilities of their online interface.

If logic, creativity and a little DNA pique your interest, be sure to check out Nanocrafter.


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Coop’s Scoop: the STEAM of citizen science

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Last week the Citizen Science Association held its first conference ever, with 600 people attending from 25 countries. Topics covered in talks, posters, panels, and stories, ranged from do-it-yourself projects to the technical aspects of managing data crowd-sourced in large-scale projects.

When I look at the diverse spectrum of citizen science and admire the new knowledge that crowds have produced, the social outcomes generated, and its policy influence, sometimes I see a radical science movement driven by social forces, and other times I see a radical social movement driven by scientific activity. Either way, I’ve seen citizen science used to support social and environmental justice.

At the CSA conference, there was an open session for discussions about justice in the context of citizen science. I missed the session and was glad that Melissa Eitzel took notes and shared them via email. In the session, when Rick Hall brought up the issue of young people and the arts, Melissa recorded the gist of his statements as, “cultural entitlement – everyone has the right to freely participate in the arts and the sciences.  a freedom and a right to participate and to express culture through activities, and why [can’t] science be one of those expressions?  that’s truly participatory.”

There is a movement to expand STEM to STEAM (and here), that is, support innovation from Art/design as well as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The arts already play a role in some citizen science programs, like Celebrate Urban Birds. For example, Katie Yamasaki created a lesson plan for creating wildlife art in natural habitat. The personal character of the arts make it accessible to all, and Celebrate Urban Birds uses interest and comfort with the arts as a stepping stone to garner participation in the science.

The step from feeling comfortable with art to feeling comfortable with science is a small one. Art and science have a lot in common. Art involves imagination and skill to construct windows through which to view reality. Art is an umbrella term for creative expression through painting, music, dance, poetry, and crafts. The word art can describe the process of creative skill or its products. Similarly, science is an umbrella term for the creative process of discovery in any number of fields of specialty, and science can describe the process of inquiry or its products.

Art can be therapeutic and so can citizen science (given health benefits of volunteering combined with mental health benefits of time in nature).

Even Albert Einstein noted a similarity, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Art and science both allow us to experience the mysterious, and both serve as an outlet for our imagination.

Art can be used to motivate political change. Citizen science also provokes social inquiry, builds human capital, and organizes an undercurrent of human energy that can change the status quo.

The main difference between art and science was succinctly put (albeit without proper attribution) by Claude Bernard, “A modern poet has characterized the personality of art and the impersonality of science as follows: Art is I: Science is We.”  Now let’s add “Citizen science is Us” because it is both personal and collective. Art is an expression of a personal perspective that others can share and relate. Science, in contrast, is an agreed-upon process and structure that expresses a universal perspective, not unique to you or me but common to both. Citizen science is created by all of us. All are ways that change the way we experience the world.

Rick Hall raised two ideas at the CSA conference that could help how we envision citizen science.

First, Rick mentioned the need to move science to the center of culture (an idea I explored from a different angle). In a follow-up email, Rick wrote, “The arts do that quite naturally…we don’t talk about Citizen Readers (in book clubs for example) or Citizen Singers in community Choirs.” The way the arts are situated in culture is something for citizen science to emulate. As citizen science gains more acceptance, making new knowledge will becomes another way that people creatively engage with one another.

Second, one way to move science into culture is to promote science as a form of free expression. And when science is expression, then it is a voice that homes in on a sharable view of the truth. Hell yes, everyone should have the right to freedom of expression through scientific activity. Citizen science provides that freedom.

photo credit: Karen Purcell


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