Here in Wisconsin, we await with great anticipation, the March equinox and the days and months following, when the tilt of the earth as it orbits the sun brings more sunshine, longer days and warmer temperatures. We have been browsing seed catalogs, covertly starting seedlings in our basements for summer gardens, and even forcing a bulb or two in hopes that we can force spring. We look and listen for every phenological sign we can. When I heard and spotted my first red-winged blackbird of the year on my daily commute this week, my heart leapt with joy.
It seems as if everyone is a scientist, observing the world and commenting on this sign or that phenomenon: a minute longer between sunrise and sunset, the swelling of buds on tree limbs, or the appearance of a sandhill crane. And in the end, all of these “scientists” hypothesize that spring, must indeed, be around the corner.
Truthfully though, these very phenomena do allow everyone to be a scientist. Spring and the changes it brings: the appearance of amphibians, the migrations of birds, etc. provide the perfect opportunity for citizen science.
Citizen science is as old as the Audubon Christmas Day bird count that started in 1900. Citizen science projects often involve species surveys such as the Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey, which has provided an amazing amount of high-quality data about the populations of frogs and toads around the state and served as the model for several other similar programs. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has several citizen science projects available through their web site, from population surveys to nesting cams.
Nonscientists have contributed greatly to our understanding of science and our discovery of environmental issues. For instance, it was a student on a school field trip to a farm in Minnesota who first discovered the “deformed” frogs that made the news in the U.S. and put a renewed focus on water and environment quality. A caving hobbiest took the original photograph of bats suffering from white-nose syndrome in a cave in Albany, NY. So, clearly citizens can be important contributors to science.
More than merely being eyes and ears that alert scientists to environmental disasters, citizens can expand the power of scientific studies by collecting more data from more places than if scientists relied only on themselves for that collection. With the internet, GPS and mobile devices readily in the hands of citizens, citizen scientists can record data, take pictures and describe locations, temperature, and time with pin-point accuracy. Scientific research benefits directly from citizen science projects.
Indirectly scientific research also reaps benefits from citizen science. Every time a citizen engages with science, be it in a bird count or a native seed collection, a little bit of the wall of between professional scientists and society at large is worn down. Citizens become less science phobic and more science engaged. They start to really observe the world around them, ask questions and gain appreciation for the way data are collected and analyzed to answer those questions.
In terms of science education, getting children involved in citizen science projects is invaluable. Science is not memorizing a set of “facts”. Science is making observations, asking questions, formulating hypotheses, designing ways to test those hypotheses, collecting data, analyzing data and doing it all again and again. What better way to teach science than to have students actually do science?
So as winter turns to spring, think about the emerging citizen scientist—those citizens who will be standing by roadside wetlands listening for anuran calls or looking for the return of sandhill cranes to a nearby marsh. Join them if you will, or recruit a neighbor or two. Below are some links to citizen science projects that might interest you:
Audubon Christmas Bird Count: http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count (International; western hemisphere)
Cornell Lab Ornithology http://www.birds.cornell.edu/citsci/ (bird projects, mostly U.S.)
FoldIt http://fold.it/portal/ (international, protein folding “game”)
Zooinverse http://www.zooniverse.org/home (online projects to identify planets, classify galaxies and study other aspects of cosmic science)
Frog Watch Canada http://www.naturecanada.ca/cwn_naturewatch_fw.asp (frog and toad survey)
Wildlife Watch http://www.nwf.org/WildlifeWatch/TellMyStory.aspx (USA)
Note added in proof: I came across this article “Volunteers vital to science data collection” on the BBC website after writing this blog. It contains links for additional citizen science opportunities.