My new hobby: Citizen Science

Image: Solveig Böhme, 2017. Picture of flowers taken for iNaturalist where they were identified as ”heartsease”.

The train ride from Stockholm to Gothenburg normally takes about three hours. The last time I went an accident on the railway South of Stockholm made it last more than double that time. This was, of course, quite annoying, but observing opossums, chipmunks, coyotes and the surface of Mars made the trip fun for me anyway.

Now, I guess you are like: Whaaaat? Opossums, chipmunks and coyotes do not live in Sweden. And how does Mars fit in? Did the train take a detour there? The answer is easy. Only a few days before I had joined the webpage scistarter.com which promotes and offers projects in citizen science.

Citizen science offers people the opportunity to support scientists in their work and take part in scientific projects during their free time. It was born out of the need for scientists to collect and analyse ever larger amounts of data. Citizen scientists help with the collection and the analysis of data which does not need any special training. The beauty of citizen science is not only that people volunteer their free time to help advance scientific progress, but also that it brings science closer to normal people. Citizen science projects are not conducted far away from the public, but rather by the public and in its midst.

One more thing we can learn from citizen science is that science can be a hobby as Dr Caren Cooper explained in a TED talk. At school if you liked music or PE, people did not necessarily think you would become a musician or a professional athlete. But if you liked science, you were almost automatically expected to take up a related profession. It was a bit like you could either be inside or outside of it, but not in between. A view that I have personally shared for a long time. No one thought so about music or sports at school. Of course, you could just pursue them as a hobby. Now, finally, citizen science shows us that the same is true for science. You can be a professional pianist of football player and still enjoy doing citizen science in your free time.

I guess many of you will think that citizen science is a bit like voluntarily doing extra physics homework at school. But it is much more fun than that and I am sure many teenagers would prefer it to their real science homework. For instance, one of my favourite citizen science projects right now is Mars Mapper, where you get to find and mark craters on images of Mars. (Therefore, the train detour to the red planet.) When else do you get to help out NASA? Another really cool example is Zooniverse where you can look at photos from camera traps in North America or Africa and identify the visible animals. (Hence, the opossums, chipmunks and coyotes.)

There are also many projects you can do on a hike, in a park or garden, or even at home. You can send in a handful of soil from your garden or water from your shower head to be analysed for chemicals and bacteria. If you have a cat you can submit a sample of her hair and food to find out what Kitty is eating when spending time outside. Perhaps at another family’s home? You can even monitor the water quality of a lake or stream close to your home with the LakeObserver mobile phone app or observe how many bees frequent a certain flower with the Great Sunflower Project. The possibilities are almost endless.

Personally, I have fallen in love with the mobile phone app iNaturalist. You can take photos of plants or animals and upload them together with the time and place of the observation. If you can not identify the species, no problem, other users mostly can and will do it. Once uploaded and identified, the observation can be used by scientists for their work. The beauty of this app is not only the contribution of data, but also that the user gets to learn a lot about wildlife.

There are also other webpages where you can upload the pictures of your wildlife sightings (wildlifesightings.net) or of environmental change you see in your surroundings due to global warming (iseechange.org). These two, as well as the Great Sunflower Project, can be very fun science homework for schools. Pupils not only get to go outside, but will also be forced to think outside the box of regular science lessons. In addition, they can feel proud as their work will actually contribute scientific progress. Another nice project for schools is the Ant Picnic where students prepare a picnic for ants and record which ant species show up and what food they like best. These and similar projects could be very valuable to teach pupils how to work scientifically and, most importantly, to enjoy science lessons.

If you feel like you do not have time to take part in any citizen science project, that is no problem either. Initiatives like Folding@home offer the opportunity to donate some computing power of your private computer to the calculation of folding patterns for proteins which is important to fight diseases like Alzheimer’s or cancer. This is what my private computer is doing now during its idle time. All you have to do for this project is to download the software.

All in all, there is a large amount of projects in astronomy, archaeology, biology, chemistry, environmental science, etc. that are just waiting to be discovered by you on webpages like scistarter.com and citsci.org. Enjoy exploring!

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