Making Citizen Science Tools Discoverable and Accessible

By Erica Prange December 4th, 2016 at 9:08 am | Comment

Erica Prange is the Outreach Education Coordinator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and is studying the impacts and accessibility of Citizen Science as she completes her MA at Miami University. Erica coordinates the SciStarter/Arizona State University Tools project.

At SciStarter, we aim to make it easy to find and join meaningful citizen science projects. Choose a location, activity, or topic to find appropriate adventures and learn more about the project and what tools (sensors, digital scales, rain gauges, etc) are needed to participate. But, for many projects and would-be participants, there are challenges to accessing the right tools for the job. (We define “tools” as equipment not usually found at home.) So, we took the follow steps to find a solution and are ready for your help to populate a new database of citizen science tools.

Step One: We interviewed 110 people about their citizen science tool needs.

Through participation in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps for Learning program, a collaboration of researchers between SciStarter and Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society and ASU’s School of Engineering adapted lean launch methods to explore and develop a better understanding of the ecosystem of stakeholders around citizen science tools.

Members of the iCORPS team

Members of the iCORPS team

This team included SciStarter founder Darlene Cavalier, ASU Assistant Professor of Engineering Dr. Micah Lande, graduate student Brianne Fisher, PhD student David Sittenfeld and me. We used “customer discovery” practices to interview more than 110 people, focusing on identifying key “pain points” for the “customer segments” of citizen science volunteers and project organizers. This approach delivered significant insights applicable to the larger citizen science community. We discovered our “value propositions:” 1) to save time and effort by connecting people, projects and vetted turnkey project-tool bundles to collect a lot more quality data, and 2) to increase confidence when making decisions on quality instruments, protocols, instructions and additional citizen science resources from a trusted source.

As we explored this problem space, lack of awareness and access of appropriate tools became more clear. Project owners and researchers may not be aware of accessibility concerns and/or they struggle to find the right tools for their projects.. Manufacturers and Makers need to make their instruments more discoverable to those who need them. Many universities and government-supported projects cannot recommend, promote, or sell instruments. And project volunteers frequently spend too much time and money in search of the tools.

NASA Soil Moisture Probe. Credit; Lea Shanley

NASA Soil Moisture Probe. Credit; Lea Shanley

These guiding principles are shaping the development and deployment of new approaches starting with one for the NASA’s GLOBE Program’s El Nino protocols, thanks to generous support from Dixon Butler and the Youth Learning as Citizen Environmental Scientists Foundation (YLACES). YLACES and NASA contracted SciStarter to recruit, train and equip volunteers to ground-truth satellite data by monitoring soil moisture levels, surface temperature, precipitation and more. We provide instruments including a digital scale, infrared thermometer, rain gauge and heat lamps. We created prototype kits and we started testing a Build, Borrow, Buy vision of the SciStarter tools database. We quickly sold these kits and learned a good deal about acceptable price points, cost of goods sold, etc. We will continue exploring the Buy and Borrow functions through additional research.

We also partnered with a handful of libraries and museums located near El Nino volunteers. A handful of university and public libraries and museums are cataloging the kits and making them available for loan so we can explore how lending kits may be improved. We will explore what characteristics of projects and tools align with the capacities and interests of libraries and museums in order to scale this up!

We summarized our iCORPS insights ( and lessons learned (

Step Two: We asked project owners about their tools.

We surveyed project owners to help inform the types of tools required for their citizen science projects. What we learned from this survey shaped the Beta SciStarter Tools Database. More than 50 responses provided key information used to inform an early taxonomy (a standardized language) to help us organize the emerging database.

Step Three: We organized a central repository of Citizen Science Tools linked to SciStarter’s Citizen Science Projects.

The partnership between SciStarter and Arizona State University lead to an NSF EAGER grant to ASU’s School of Engineering, to fast-track a taxonomy to describe citizen science tools and to further develop features of the SciStarter Tools Database including a Consumer Reports-style review feature. Our goal is to help project owners discover the right tools for their projects and for all tool users to share their experiences via a rating/review system. This social proofing will help people understand the pros and cons of the tools for different scenarios.
We will assemble an expert advisory panel to test and review the tools. Communicating important requirements to the users is critical for many the reasons, some of which are articulated in this recent article: “Sensor manufacturers sometimes provide limited information on these low-cost sensors, and it is very easy to use the devices improperly. This is because they are designed to work under very controlled conditions – for example, at fixed temperatures or with limited wind movement – and these requirements often are not communicated to consumers. “ Professional organizations (including the American Geological Union and IEEE) and engineering schools are well-positioned to test and review these tools. We’re excited about the possibilities here! If you are interested in providing support for this feature and/or joining the expert advisory committee, please email me at .


Credit: Lea Shanley

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is also helping us build the taxonomy. This fall, we joined forces to leverage the Wilson Center’s success in convening experts to inform and document standardized, scalable approaches. The Wilson Center is also interested in understanding how the data collected through these tools can be linked to emerging, global data repositories. In turn, by partnering with SciStarter and ASU, the Wilson Center is able to apply scholarly research to real-world solutions through the SciStarter platform.

On October 26, 20 citizen science researchers and practitioners, makers, and metadata experts participated in a workshop hosted by the Wilson Center, SciStarter, and ASU as a preamble to the first Citizen Science Maker Summit at ASU. The alpha database infrastructure I worked on was one key resource used at the workshop. The other was a report and survey of more than 100 low cost citizen science tools (commissioned by the EPA and authored by Margaret MacDonnell/Argonne National Laboratory). This workshop tested the use cases of key database fields through personas and it helped validate several key hypotheses. Armed with a draft of database fields, case studies of database use, and examples of tools that could populate the database, the participants went to work refining which fields would be most important to database users.

Credit: ASU

Credit: ASU

At the ASU Citizen Science Maker Summit 2016, an initial draft of the Tools database was shared for peer feedback during a session titled, ”Making Tools Discoverable.” During this larger session, more than 80 Summit attendees assumed one of four personas (librarian, citizen scientist, maker/manufacturer, and project owner) and provided feedback on the most important database fields and provided additional suggestions for improvement.

We compiled feedback and developed a Beta version of the SciStarter Tools Database that’s ready for “trial by fire” and refinement by tool makers, lenders, and manufacturers who are invited to add their tools to the database.

Step Four: We’re inviting people to add Citizen Science Tools to the beta database!

We are ready to test the beta version of the SciStarter Tools Database! Do you use a particular tool for your citizen science project? Have you designed a tool that you think could be of use to citizen science? Do you offer tools for loan or for sale? Please add it to the beta version of the SciStarter Tools Database. (Note: You will need a SciStarter account to add a tool to the database.)
Thank you for interest and we look forward to keeping you posted on this collaboration!

Citizen Scientists, Citizen Educators

By Eva Lewandowski December 3rd, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Comment

When most people think about citizen scientists, they tend to think of them as data collectors, volunteering their time to report wildlife sightings, gather microbe samples, or transcribe old weather reports. It’s true that data collection is the primary task of most citizen scientists, but many volunteers take their participation a step further by designing experiments, analyzing data, and conducting education and outreach. The last task is the one that I think is the most interesting and accessible to citizen scientists.

Citizen science volunteers have the potential to play a significant role in outreach and education. Many citizen scientists are truly passionate about the projects with which they volunteer, and that passion leads them to share their project’s mission, key questions, and recent findings with others. Even participants who only dabble with a project can describe their experiences to friends and family. Read the rest of this entry »

Thankful for the Holidays and Citizen Science

By Alycia Crall December 1st, 2016 at 4:17 pm | Comment

Last week was Thanksgiving, and all of us at SciStarter contributed to a list of which citizen science projects we are most thankful for. Although a number of projects came to mind, one stood out for me because it actually pulled me into the field of citizen science. This was ten years ago, and at that time, if someone had asked me what citizen science was, I would not have had an answer. So, what happened to bring about this shift in my career interests?

I was working at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University, conducting research on invasive species, or species not native to an area and that harm ecosystems, the economy, or human health. At the time, our lab was trying to predict the potential spread of these species under present and future environmental conditions.

Read the rest of this entry »

SciStarter’s Citizen Science Gift Guide

By Catherine Hoffman November 28th, 2016 at 5:28 pm | Comment

Are you in the gift-giving mood? We have the best gift ideas for the citizen scientist in your life.


citscielninoSciStarter El Nino Kit: This all-in-one kit is everything you need to get started in NASA’s SMAP project with SciStarter. The kit can be a great gift for an outdoorsy family who is ready to get involved in science.

Buy: Purchase through the SciStarter Store

Borrow: Select kits are available to borrow at Arizona libraries. (Interested in starting your own lending library? Email us:




Imagine having an accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, barometer, and thermometer in your pocket. That’s what you get with PocketLab! Start making and experimenting with this all-in-one kit.

Buy: Purchase through the SciStarter Store





AirCasting is an open-source, end-to-end solution for collecting, displaying, and sharing health and environmental data using your smartphone. The platform consists of wearable sensors that detect changes in your environment and physiology, including a palm-sized air quality monitor called the AirBeam, the AirCasting Android app, the AirCasting website, and optional wearable LED accessories.

Buy:Purchase through the SciStarter Store


Rain Gauge For CoCoRaHS


Give the gift that keeps on giving with a CoCoRaHS approved rain gauge. Help your friends and family track the precipitation in their neighborhood by kickstarting their CoCoRaHS experience.

Buy: Purchase through WeatherYourWay.




DIY Secchi DiskDIY Secchi Disk

We all love handmade gifts. Give your friends and family their very own way to measure phytoplankton with a Secchi Disk. Perfect for getting started with the Secchi Dip-in


Build: Make your own with ~$10 of materials.




A classic yet critical piece of equipment for any citizen scientist. Binoculars can be used to track birds for the Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count in February.

Buy: Find binoculars at your local outdoors and recreation shops.



node_img_largeAirvisual Node

You breath in and out almost 25,000 times a day. It’s important to know what’s in that air. Track your air quality and contribute to global air quality maps with an AirVisual Node.

Buy: Purchase through AirVisual



trail-cameraTrail Camera

Get ready to observe and record what lives in your backyard with a trail camera. There are several projects looking for data and you can find them through eMammal. (Check with individual projects for the brand of trail camera required.)

Buy: Find a project and get your equipment.



magnifyingglassMagnifying Glass

Not sure what project is best for your budding citizen scientist? Give the gift of discovery with a backyard magnifying glass. Let your children explore and learn.

Buy: Look for magnifying glasses at your local toy, gift, and book stores.




CarenCooperBookCitizen Science: How Ordinary People Are Changing the Face of Discovery


By: Caren Cooper

Think you need a degree in science to contribute to important scientific discoveries? Think again. All around the world, in fields ranging from astronomy to zoology, millions of everyday people are choosing to participate in the scientific process. Working in cooperation with scientists in pursuit of information, innovation, and discovery, these volunteers are following protocols, collecting and reviewing data, and sharing their observations. They are our neighbors, our in-laws, and people in the office down the hall. Their story, along with the story of the social good that can result from citizen science, has largely been untold, until now.

Citizen scientists are challenging old notions about who can conduct research, where knowledge can be acquired, and even how solutions to some of our biggest societal problems might emerge. In telling their story, Cooper will inspire readers to rethink their own assumptions about the role that individuals can play in gaining scientific understanding and putting that understanding to use as stewards of our world. Citizen Science will be a rallying call-to-arms, and will also function as an authoritative resource for those inspired by the featured stories and message.

Buy: Available December 20th through Amazon pre-order or check your local bookstore

Borrow: Ask your local librarian.


rightfulplaceofscienceThe Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science

By: Darlene Cavalier and Eric Kennedy

This volume in The Rightful Place of Science series explores citizen science, the movement to reshape the relationship between science and the public. By not only participating in scientific projects but actively helping to decide what research questions are asked and how that research is conducted, ordinary citizens are transforming how science benefits society.

Through vivid chapters that describe the history and theory of citizen science, detailed examples of brilliant citizen science projects, and a look at the movement’s future, The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science is the ideal guide for anyone interested in one of the most important trends in scientific practice.

Buy: Purchase online

Borrow: Ask your local librarian.



maryellenhannibalCitizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hopes in an Age of Extinction

By: Mary Ellen Hannibal

Here is a wide-ranging adventure in becoming a citizen scientist by an award-winning writer and environmental thought leader. As Mary Ellen Hannibal wades into tide pools, follows hawks, and scours mountains to collect data on threatened species, she discovers the power of a heroic cast of volunteers—and the makings of what may be our last, best hope in slowing an unprecedented mass extinction.

Digging deeply, Hannibal traces today’s tech-enabled citizen science movement to its roots: the centuries-long tradition of amateur observation by writers and naturalists. Prompted by her novelist father’s sudden death, she also examines her own past—and discovers a family legacy of looking closely at the world. With unbending zeal for protecting the planet, she then turns her gaze to the wealth of species left to fight for.

Combining original reporting, meticulous research, and memoir in impassioned prose, Citizen Scientist is a literary event, a blueprint for action, and the story of how one woman rescued herself from an odyssey of loss—with a new kind of science.

Buy: Check your local bookstore. Purchase online.

Borrow: Ask your local librarian.


tshirtSciStarter Tee-Shirt

Represent your love of citizen science at all times with the official SciStarter tee-shirt!

Buy: Purchase through the SciStarter Store






Note: Some links on the SciStarter store are affiliate links. 

Projects We Are Thankful For

By Eva Lewandowski November 22nd, 2016 at 2:29 pm | Comment

unnamedAs Thanksgiving approaches, the SciStarter team would like to take this opportunity to thank you for advancing so many fields of research this year.
Below, the newsletter team shares projects we’re especially grateful for this year.
And from SciStarter’s developers:

Happy Thanksgiving!

The SciStarter Team

Read the rest of this entry »