I don't know whether it's because we've been watching a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation these days or because the first issue of the Scientific American subscription that Rosemary gave me for Christmas FINALLY arrived, but I am feeling a lot of warm, fuzzy vibes towards science lately. (Oh, and let's not forget that my two main Internet crushes are scientists: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Maggie Koerth-Baker. Oh, and my Internet boyfriend, Nate Silver, is an awesome statistician).
I often wish I had chosen "science" as a career … but I decided to be a "liberal arts" major. But these days, particularly with the advent of the Internet, I can be a Citizen Scientist. Back before "crowd-sourcing" meant "begging for money on Indiegogo", I participated in SETI@Home - a Citizen Science project where you could offer your computer's spare cycles for crunching radio telescope data and searching for patterns in the noise.
Though apparently projects like SETI@Home aren't considered TRUE Citizen Science anymore; they now bear the moniker Passive Citizen Science or simply "distributed computing". I don't know that I agree with that - so many of these projects (this is a list of some that use the BOINC software in addition to SETI@Home - projects ranging astronomy to biology to mathematics to humanitarian research) are an easy first step to getting excited about observing, collecting, recording and analyzing data about the world around us.
Citizen Science as a phenomenon didn't begin with the Internet. Starting in the Renaissance, independent scientists (aka gentleman scientists .. argh!!) appeared here and there .. often hanging about the Royal Society of London and making interesting discoveries outside of academic institutions. Charles Darwin and Ben Franklin are good examples of early citizen scientists; Craig Venter and Susan Blackmore are good modern-day examples.
One of the Citizen Science projects I participate in has its origins in an event that occurred over a century ago. Apparently, a cool thing to do back in the 19th century was go out and kill as many birds as you could on Christmas Day. Ahh .. those crazy kids. But then Frank Chapman, an officer in the newly formed Audubon Society thought "Hmm .. maybe there is a better way to celebrate the Baby Jesus than by killing a bunch of birds". So Chapman proposed that people just count and record the birds. And in 1900, the first Christmas Bird Count was held.
The Christmas Bird Count (Canadian link) continues to this day all across North America. The 113th count closed on January 5, 2013 - all the results have not been compiled yet but last year there were 2,248 counts (Canada: 410; US: 1739; Latin America & Caribbean: 99) with 63,227 citizen scientists participating. A related project that do is Project Feeder Watch: a winter long survey of birds that visit feeders in backyards and community areas across North America. It's operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. I used to participate it in when I lived in Toronto and had a back yard. Now that we're in a place with a yard in Vancouver, I set up a couple of feeders and have started to count again. The above picture is of one of my visitors last spring, a house finch.
But if bird watching isn't your gig, there's Citizen Science options for everyone. One I recently discovered: RinkWatch - where backyard skating meets environmental science. Following a report from scientists in Montreal that there will be fewer outdoor skating days in the future, a group of geographers from Wilfrid Laurier University created RinkWatch to track changes in the climate. From the website …
We want outdoor rink lovers across North America and anywhere else in the world to tell us about their rinks. We want you to pin the location of your rink on our map, and then each winter record every day that you are able to skate on it. Think of it as your rink diary. We will gather up all the information from all the backyard rinks and use it to track the changes in our climate.
You may not think of it as science, but that’s exactly what you will be doing – making regular, systematic observations about environmental change in your own back yard. You will be joining a growing league of citizen-scientists from across North America. Is the backyard skating rink an endangered species? The first step in finding out for sure is to gather the statistics. If we want skate outside in the future, we have to find what’s going on today. So please, join RinkWatch, and help prevent backyard rinklessness.
If you (and your kids!) want to participate in a Citizen Science project, Scientific American maintains a portal of projects - from identifying animals on the Serengeti snapped by dozens of field cameras to being a Bat Detective. And if you want to get out and about in your community and do Citizen Science on the move, mobile apps are a rapidly growing area of Citizen Science. OpenScientist.org has a list of mobile projects.
One of my favourite is ProjectNoah - actually not a citizen science project in and of itself, but a tool for citizen scientists to store information on any animals they spot and make that data available to researchers regardless of the project. On the ProjectNoah site there are several "missions" that are taking place based on the ongoing database of information that is coming in. I also like ProjectNoah because they award badges for completing missions. And I loves me some gamification :)
So, what do you think? Ready to don your lab coat?