Written by: on March 26, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

They’re scouring the sea floors, charting the cosmos, tackling genome research and more!

A 14-year-old boy in Donetsk, Ukraine, made a fascinating discovery halfway around the world and nearly 3,000 feet under the sea. Kirill Dudko was watching Neptune Canada’s live-stream footage of the ocean floor near Vancouver Island on his computer when he saw a creature with a “nose and mustache” eat a hagfish. It seemed unusual so he contacted Neptune scientists who checked the footage and identified an elephant seal. 

It was unusual. Predators normally spit out the eel-like hagfish or avoid them altogether because they excrete foul slime when threatened. Scientists had never before seen an elephant seal eat one and may not have noticed this evidence had it not been for Kirill. They believe the seal quickly slurped up the hagfish before it could release its slime.

Kirill doesn’t have a laboratory, or a degree — but nonetheless, he is a scientist. He’s part of a growing movement of citizens taking an active interest in science, and often doing it themselves. Given the right tools, one science maker starts making a difference, and soon, he may be joined by others: his fellow citizen scientists.  

The Changing Face of Science

citizen scientist is an individual who, more often than not, voluntarily contributes his or her time, effort, and/or resources to formal or informal scientific research without necessarily having a formal science background.

It’s a growing movement that brings together professional scientists and regular people from around the globe. Together, they use their eyes, ears, smartphones and the Internet expand scientific knowledge and give us all a better understanding of the world we live in. Birdwatchers, hockey players, gamers, astronomy lovers, and health enthusiasts all have the ability and knowledge to contribute to the scientific community.

Like many “citizen scientists,” Kirill played an important role in advancing our understanding of the world. It takes a lot of study and training to become a scientist, but with some knowledge of scientific method, anyone can practice science. 

It used to be that a citizen scientist referred to a bird watcher or an amateur astronomer, but today, citizen scientists come from all walks of life. This includes current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders who are tuning non-traditional audiences into citizen scientists; online gamers who lend their skills to specially designed programs to analyze folding protein structures; and students who want a more hands-on experience outside the classroom. Retirees, community organizations, and even prison inmates are getting in on the action.

Enlisting ordinary citizens aren’t new to science. As early as the 1700s European bird surveys included reports from backyard birders. Amateur astronomers, weather-watchers, and other hobbyists have also made contributions. What’s different today is the Internet, which has helped recruit hundreds of thousands of volunteers over the past decade.

Citizen science has exploded in the last few years thanks to smartphones that, with the right apps, become powerful scientific instruments. And, thanks to the Internet, citizen scientists and their data have connected to the scientists who collect, analyze and share the results — in scholarly journals and online.

Opportunities Abound

The opportunities to participate in citizen science are no longer limited by access to tools. Mobile technology makes it possible to help the USGS measure and record earthquake tremors, join NASA’s effort in counting passing meteors, or even help monitor noise and light pollution in our communities. Citizen scientists can help solve the mystery of ZomBees, help astronomers classify galaxies, and discover moon craters

Projects like SciSpy and iNaturalist provide a mobile app with which participants can share photos and observations of wildlife in their backyards, cities, and towns. The idea behind these diverse projects is that anyone, anywhere can participate in meaningful scientific research. For some projects, volunteers literally don’t have to go further than their own backyards to contribute!

On its website, Scientific American describes a range of citizen science projects designed to do everything from tracking animals in Africa’s Serengeti to analyzing historical patterns in human DNA to studying the ways people play with their dogs.

Beyond providing valuable research, citizen science is a fun way for people to engage with nature and learn about the world and their place in it. Some citizen scientists get involved simply for fun. Others have a general interest in science or a particular research area. Kirill Dudko plans to become a marine biologist. Regardless of their reasons or level of involvement, all citizen scientists help us gain a better understanding of the world and our place in it.

Studying the Stars

One of our favorite examples of citizen science is Galaxy Zoo. Users need only an internet connection & a mouse to participate in citizen-friendly astronomy research. Hanny Van Arkel never studied astronomy in school. But in 2007, the 25-year old teacher from the Netherlands spotted an astronomical object that had never been seen before. Driven by her natural curiosity, Hanny sent an email to the astronomers asking what it was. Their response was simply “We don’t know either.”

Now, the object known as Hanny’s Voorwerp is the subject of much research. Since her discovery, the natural-born astronomer has gotten more involved with science. Now she teaches others about the wonders of space – going into local schools & telling people of her groundbreaking discovery. Hanny credits her inexperience for helping her find something others might have missed. “I wasn’t the first person who saw the picture, but I was the first person to ask the question, ‘What is this?’ And there are other pictures out there — you could still discover something.”

Since the Galaxy Zoo website launched in 2007, discoveries have been made by people looking at images freshly captured by satellites. Volunteers judge these images based on the shape the galaxies form. In the first year alone, 50 million classifications were made by a group of users 150,000 strong.

Bridging The Gap

Citizen science is working to bridge the gaps by harnessing the power of people who are motivated by a desire to advance research, a connection with nature, and a goal to improve human health and communities.

 

From chemistry to biology to data science to astronomy to archiving sheet music, citizen science brings together a range of disciplines with a spectrum of projects that’s diverse and abundant. And the best part is that you don’t need a degree or any scientific background at all. It’s not expensive. You might just need a plastic bag or a pair of binoculars.

Depending on your interest, you can do anything from taking a video of someone playing with your dog,  collecting antsrecording severe weather in your own back yard, to swabbing for microbes in your home,  school or sports stadium. You can even keep track of when your neighborhood outdoor hockey rink freezes and thaws or look for Camel Crickets  in your basement.

This is just a drop in the bucket of cool projects that let the average Joe take part in important science. For more projects you can help out with, some app-based, some not, check out the resources on Cornell’s Citizen Science CentralSciStarter and Scientific American.

Who knows? You might discover a new ant species, learn something new, or even participate in a study that helps make the world a better place. Are you involved in a citizen science project? Tell us all about it.

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