Author Archive

Citizen Science on the Radio: WHYY Features Dan Duran’s Drexel Elaphrus Beetle Hunt

By June 27th, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Comment

Image credit: CC-BY Charles Lindsey via Wikimedia

Image credit: CC-BY Charles Lindsey via Wikimedia

This week on The Pulse and SciStarter’s segment about citizen science, producer Kimberly Haas speaks with Dan Duran, who is running a project that monitors the elusive Elaphrus beetle to monitor stream health.

Read WHYY’s related blog post to learn more. Here’s an excerpt:

Dan Duran, assistant professor in Drexel University’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science, has just embarked on a search for one of those indicator species. The marsh ground beetle, which also goes by the Latin name for its genus, Elaphrus, is found along muddy stream banks in temperate regions like ours. Duran says it’s an effective indicator species because it’s adversely affected by run-off, like road salts and agricultural chemicals–that make it into a stream without being visible.

Duran’s goals are to chart where Elaphrus is found in the waterways of the Philadelphia region, and to track changes to their range over time. But ours is a watery habitat, so how will it play out – one researcher vs. how many hundreds of streams? The answer, of course, is citizen scientists.

Here’s where you can help. If you’re a citizen science researcher, project manager, or participant in the PA, NJ, or DE areas, we want to hear from you! If you have an interesting story to share about a citizen science project or experience, let us know. Send your stories for consideration to Lily@SciStarter.com.

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WHYY (90.9 FM in Philly) Friday on-air schedule:
6-9 a.m. – Morning Edition
9-10 a.m. – The Pulse
10 a.m. to 12 p.m. – Radio Times
10 a.m. following Sunday – The Pulse (rebroadcast)

A Citizen Scientist’s Guide (and Pronunciation Guide) to the Camelopardalids Meteor Shower

By May 22nd, 2014 at 11:22 am | Comment

209P/LINEAR comet

How to use the American Meteor Society’s smartphone app (iOS and Android) to create observer reports of fireballs and meteors during the Camelopardalids this weekend.

Coming soon to a sky near you: a brand new meteor shower!

Barring all cloudy conditions and light-polluted landscapes, you should be able to bear witness to the Camelopardalids this Friday, May 23, 2014 (going into the morning of Saturday, May 24, 2014).

As Earth orbits the sun, sometimes it passes through the stream of debris left by a comet. If the timing is just right, the debris enters the atmosphere and create trails of light in the sky, more colloquially referred to as “shooting stars.” Alas, they aren’t stars at all but tiny pieces of pebble, rock, and grains as fine as sand.

The comet responsible for this shower is 209P/LINEAR, which was discovered in 2004 by Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research, for which it’s nicknamed. It came to closest to our sun (perihelion) on May 6, 2014, but it’ll miss Earth by about 8.3 million kilometers (about 5 million miles) at its closest on May 29, 2014. Don’t worry — we’re not in any danger from it…this time around.

What you can do while you watch the Camelopardalids

The American Meteor Society invites you to report fireball and meteor sightings with their smartphone app and browser-based field logger. The smartphone app allows witnesses to log details about their observations using a mobile device, meaning you can take it with you to your preferred viewing locations — your backyard, a hiking trail, the beach, etc. Sensors in the phone provide a means of triangulating your GPS location, the azimuth and elevation levels, and start/end points of the meteor. Using this data, the AMS can not only accurately determine where meteors occur, but they can also use the data to trace their orbits to their origins.

Simply start your observing session and then each time you see a meteor point to that place in the sky and swipe your finger on the screen in the direction the meteor traveled. Observation data is uploaded to the AMS website, available under your profile there and shared with the scientific community. You can also use the AMS app to look up a meteor shower calendar with star charts and moon conditions for all major and minor showers throughout the year.

[You can also read about contributor Angus Chen's conversation with Mike Hankey from the American Meteor Society on SciStarter's Citizen Science Salon at DiscoverMagazine.com.]

Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 10.40.28 AM

No matter where you’re watching it from, this cosmic event should be exciting and accessible to astronomers and amateur citizen scientists alike.

Oh, and in case you’re curious about how to pronounce “Camelopardalids,” don’t worry — Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, has got you covered:

References:

Plait, Phil. “We May Get a Major Meteor Shower on Friday May 23-24.” Bad Astronomy. MAY 20 2014 7:00 AM.

209P/LINEAR. (2014, May 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:54, May 22, 2014.

“Fireballs.” American Meteor Society (2014, May 21).

Image: Wikimedia


Lily Bui is the Executive Editor of SciStarter and holds dual degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine. She is also the STEM Story Project Associate for Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in Cambridge, MA. This fall, she’ll be a masters candidate in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. Previously, she helped produce the radio show Re:sound for the Third Coast International Audio Festival, out of WBEZ Chicago. In past lives, she has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns. Follow @dangerbui.

The Great Indoors: Sensing Carbon Monoxide Levels and Indoor Air Quality [GUEST POST]

By May 4th, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Comment

carbon-monoxide

SensorDrone tool measuring carbon monoxide in ppm (parts per million) Image credit: Kevin Webster

Per the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 90% of their time indoors.

At the same time, when we think of citizen science, our mind’s eye often pictures the great outdoors: wide expanses of open space, jutting mountains, birds in trees, and frogs sitting near meandering streams. In part, that’s due to a perception that science takes place outdoors. Also, many of us want to spend more time there, so when we get excited about a project, we tend to migrate towards counting birds, or reporting when the first flowers bud and open in our back yards.

In the end, it’s important for us to understand our normal environment. That would seem to put a significant importance in understanding our indoor air quality where we live, work, and play.

In most places in America, outdoor air quality is actually very good. Certainly, in the densest of urban areas with tall buildings, lots of tunnels, and larger than normal vehicle traffic, we may see a degradation of outdoor air quality. Sometimes this is visible, and sometimes its only measurable with sensors and instruments.

Outside of those urban areas though, we tend to see very good air. It’s breathable, and primarily healthy. That’s not to say there’s nothing to be concerned about in our outdoor environments. In fact, there are a few Citizen Science projects out there already looking into outdoor air quality. Take as an example the work being done by citizen scientists with AirCasting.

What the emphasis on outdoor air quality sampling does is simply imply that most of us think about air quality in perhaps a backwards sense We should really be looking indoors for the first signs of trouble. After all, the air in our homes, offices, and factories all originates outdoors.

The systems we have for circulation, climate control, and ventilation in buildings all rely upon fresh sources of air being pulled into our spaces from outside. The processes affecting that air once it’s inside can create some of our most problematic air quality issues. These days, new sensors and instruments exist that can help us understand those processes and their effects on our health and well being.

Carbon Monoxide

Let’s look initially at carbon monoxide in particular.

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Carbon monoxide molecule Image: Wikimedia

Carbon monoxide is produced by the incomplete burning of materials. It’s colorless, odorless, and it exists just about everywhere. Many states now have laws about carbon monoxide detectors, and their placement in homes, hotels, and other places of business. In part though, those regulations aren’t set up in such a way that tell the whole story of the carbon monoxide problem.

For example, a carbon monoxide detector that you would buy in a home improvement store and install in your home will alert you to a problem in one of two ways, most likely:

1.) At somewhere between 70 to 150 parts per million, the average household detector will alarm after 60 to 240 minutes of exposure.

2.) At 150 to 400 parts per million, the alarm is prescribed to alarm at 10 to 50 minutes of exposure.

For most healthy people, this is enough of an alert to prevent unconsciousness, and potentially death. That’s specifically the purpose of these alarms. To that end, they are very valuable, and prevent disastrous situations.

At the same time, many global environmental agencies would indicate that long term exposure to much, much lower levels of carbon monoxide has negative health effects. In particular, asthmatics, those with heart conditions, and potentially pregnant women shouldn’t be exposed to more than 10 parts per million for any length of time.

So standard alarms won’t help us understand those damaging situations. So here’s an opportunity for concerned Citizen Scientists to use modern sensors to have a positive impact. It’s simple and relatively affordable for anyone to purchase a sensor that will tell them exact amounts of carbon monoxide in their indoor air at all times, not simply when potentially critical amounts are present.

There are many devices on the market that display carbon monoxide levels on a digital readout, in real time. To be sure, even 10 parts per million isn’t common place, and would generally warn us that a larger problem is present. At the same time, creating a larger understanding of what carbon monoxide levels exist in certain types of places would benefit indoor air quality scientists. It would be great to see these kinds of studies being done, so we can develop a sounder policy and strategy on how it should be measured, and where.

For example:

1. Are CO levels different in certain types of businesses?
2. What are CO levels like in hotel rooms near heated indoor pools, as opposed to those without such amenities?
3. What time of year do we see the biggest spikes in indoor carbon monoxide levels?
4. In general, are standard CO alarms doing enough to maintain good indoor air quality?

Many of us have theories about all of the above, but collecting data from people on a daily basis, all over the world, from different walks of life, would go a long way towards a deeper understanding.

Indoor air quality doesn’t begin and end with carbon monoxide. While it’s a “high profile” measurement, other kinds of sensors are now readily available that measure other pollutants. More and more types of sensors are entering the marketplace each year that will assist citizen scientists and their research partners in understanding other things, such as radon, radiation, Volatile Organic Compounds and particulates, molds, and more. In the end, it will benefit everyone to spend some time understanding all kinds of air quality: indoor and out.

So what can you do? Lots of things!

First step would be to acquire a carbon monoxide detector that has a real time digital readout. (You can try out tools like SensorDrone that detect multiple variables like gas, light, humidity, etc.) You’ll want to know what carbon monoxide levels are in places you spend the most time. Then, start recording levels at different places you go. Make a journal that describes both the levels of CO in various areas, and why you think CO might be present.

Some of the places you will want to check:

Any place using a heater of some sort.
Anywhere where engines are running in enclosed spaces.
Greenhouses.
Hockey Rinks.
Hotel rooms.
Restaurants.
Indoor swimming pools.

All of these types of places have the possibility of having higher than normal carbon monoxide concentrations.

If we find a place with abnormally high readings, such as anything over 5 PPM on a regular basis, let them know. Never assume a business understands what their day to day operations are doing to indoor air quality.

It’s one of the reasons citizen science can help with this kind of study. There is a real lack of awareness when it comes to carbon monoxide, essentially since everyone tends to feel they are safe in areas that have alarms.

By knowing more about carbon monoxide, you can help educate everyone around you. And you can help air quality scientists do real studies that promote good standards.

90% of your life is spent indoors. We need to spend more time thinking about it. With modern sensor technology, you can play a huge role in getting more people thinking about it.

 


Kevin Websteris an outdoors-man, writer, and marketer. He currently is the Sales and Marketing Manager at Sensorcon in Buffalo, NY. His interests are science, logic, grammar, and music. The order of those importances varies.

3, 2, 1…Project MERCCURI Blasts Off to the ISS Today!!

By April 14th, 2014 at 11:40 am | Comment

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What happens when you combine professional cheerleaders, microbiologists, and astronauts? The answer is Project MERCCURI and the Microbial Playoffs… in SPAAACE!

SPACE FLORIDA, FL — Today, something  amazing is headed toward the ISS—microbial life from earth!This moment is the culmination of a citizen science experiment called Project MERCCURI (Microbial Ecology Research Combining Citizen and University Researchers on the ISS), a collaboration between NASA, UC Davis, SciStarter, and Science Cheerleaders.

Watch the launch LIVE today at 4:58pm ET / 1:58 PT on NASA TV!!

There were two main goals for the project. The first involves a huge competition that will take place on the ISS between 47 different microbes that have been collected by thousands of public participants from the surfaces of various public spaces (mostly sporting venues). The microbial competitors will face off against each other to see who will grow the fastest, and the race will be monitored by astronauts on the ISS, using standard laboratory equipment. Researchers at UC Davis will host an identical race using the same kind of equipment on Earth.

The second  goal involves sending 4,000 cell samples to Argonne National Lab to be sequenced by Jack Gilbert. The lab will identify which microbes are present on the surfaces of cell phones and shoes and compare them to other cell phone and shoe samples from around the country. While astronauts do not carry cell phones or wear shoes, they will be swabbing similar surfaces onboard the ISS, like foot holds that they strap their feet into while they are operating the external robotic arms and their wall-mounted communication devices.

You can get to know all of the microbial competitors, who they are, where they’re from, and why they are so cool on the official website. If you want, you can even print your own Microbial Trading Cards. Cell phone and shoe collections will continue through April!

The microbes are sailing into space today aboard Space X’s Dragon spacecraft. SciStarter’s founder, Darlene Cavalier, is on site today at the launch. She notes, “We’re here, in part, as representatives of the thousands of citizen scientists who participated in this important research project to study microbes on Earth and in space!”

 

Thank you to all who made this project possible. It’s pure proof that the sky is the limit for what we can do in science, together.

For more, follow #SpaceMicrobes on Twitter.

Image: Darlene Cavalier

UK Flooding – And What You Can Do About It [GUEST POST]

By April 8th, 2014 at 4:13 pm | Comment

Thames_flood_level_markers_at_Trinity_Hospital_Greenwich

Thames Valley Sewer System overwhelmed and instrumentation destroyed, how you can contribute to water monitoring with citizen science.

Flooding is not just a problem for residents and local businesses; it is also a major issue for the UK’s water companies. Throughout the closing months of 2013 and the start of the current year, England was hit with torrential rain and areas of serious flooding; especially in the southern regions. The amount of flood water entering the sewage pipe network caused companies like Thames Water to lose all of their instrumentation and monitoring equipment. Floodwater effectively drowned the devices put in place by the company, meaning they had to replace them all.

This procedure involved turning water supplies off as engineers installed new monitoring equipment, costing millions of pounds to implement. The exact amount of money this cost Thames Water is uncertain and is hard to specify; it all very much depends on the type of monitoring equipment and the scale of repair. Whatever the cost, it is an expense Thames Water could have done without! So why didn’t the instrumentation in place warn Thames Water of the flood risk before it actually happened? What can the company do to avoid this problem in the future? This article aims to answer these questions.

Flood Management – Who is Responsible?

Nationally, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is responsible for flood policies and coastal erosion risk management. This organisation also provides funding for flood risk management authorities via grants from the Environmental Agency and other local authorities. There are other societies and authorities that share responsibility of flood management including:

  • The Environment Agency – Operational responsibility for overseeing the risk of flooding from main reservoirs, rivers, estuaries and the sea. This association is also a coastal erosion rick management authority.
  • Lead Local Flood Authorities – Responsible for creating, maintaining and applying strategies for local flood risk management and also keeping a register of flood risk assets. These authorities analyse the risk of flooding from surface water and groundwater.
  • District Councils – Working alongside Lead Local Flood Authorities and other organisations, these are important partners in planning local flood risk management schemes and carrying out operations on minor watercourses.
  • Highway Authorities – Responsible for supplying and maintaining highway drainage and roadside ditches. These must ensure road projects to not interfere with or increase the risk of flooding.
  • Water and Sewerage Companies – These companies are also responsible for managing flood risks, from both water and foul or combined sewer systems.

All of these mentioned authorities have a duty to co-operate with each other and to share information, under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. This act ensures all flood risk management authorities work together to provide the best possible flood risk management for the benefit of the relevant communities.

What Causes Flooding?

Aside from the obvious, there are quite a few possible causes of flooding. Terrible weather with relentless rainfall is of course the main cause of most floods, but there are other contributory factors too.  Climate change, deforestation, population growth and paving over natural drainage areas are all putting increasing pressure on the UK’s sewerage network. This can be made even worse by individuals putting inappropriate substances and products into the drains, such as wet-wipes and food products.

But what caused such major flooding in the Thames Valley area? How did the company lose all of its instrumentation and why was this area affected so badly by the weather? Well, the majority of areas within England have divided sewers to take rainwater and foul waste separately; but in many areas of London the sewer system is combined. This means foul waste and rainwater is combined in one sewer system. During a heavy storm this can cause the sewer flow to be much greater than usual and can often reach maximum capacity; causing the system to overflow and destroy the monitoring equipment installed.

Citizen Science – Weather@home 2014

As UK water companies identify and implement a definitive sustainable solution to flooding, what can normal citizens do to help in the meantime? Well first and foremost, information on recent flooding events in your area will help experts further understand the processes and how best to avoid the risk. So photographs, measurements and any other kind of recorded information you can obtain will help towards this.

The University of Oxford currently have a team of scientists who are working on a new citizen science project, Weather@home 2014, designed to help better understand the 2013-14 floods within the UK. There are many arguments as to what causes flooding; including inundated drainage systems, inadequate flood defences and increased urbanisation of land. But perhaps the most consistent debate lies with the connection between climate change and extreme weather changes. Weather@home 2014 investigates how much effect climate change had on the UK winter storms and aims to answer this question via the use of climate models.

Running climate models can be extremely time-consuming, but more runs mean more comparisons and ultimately stronger trends.  With this in mind, scientists are asking anybody who is interested in helping out to sign up and help complete up to 30,000 climate model reruns of winter 2013-14. Each rerun will have different assumptions about the influences of climate change on weather patterns. This is an innovative approach as it uses citizens as contributors to scientific analysis, rather than simple data collectors. Results are still pouring in and live outcomes are being posted on the project website almost every single day.

Citizen Science – Doing Flood Risk Science Differently

Flood scientist Stuart Lane and a group of researchers have been participating in another citizen science project; taking a completely different approach. The published paper, Doing flood risk science differently: an experiment in radical scientific method, details the work of an interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists attempting an experiment in flood management within the Pickering area. The project involves scientific experts and citizens with experience in flooding, without providing them with pre-defined roles.

Each group worked in unison to generate new knowledge about a particular flooding event and to negotiate the different assumptions and commitments of each group. Participants in each group were seen to have relevant knowledge and understandings and efforts were made to expand collective perceptions, which were not set apart between academics and non-academics.

This particular project supported scientific understandings of flood hydrology via the creation of fresh models and the compilation of qualitative insights and experiences of flooding. In addition to this, the project also helped to overcome an impasse in the management of floods in Pickering by reconfiguring the relationship between scientific experts and local residents. Previously, no decision had been made to combat the appropriate use of resources for flood risk management. Both of these opposing citizen science projects help to showcase the wide variety of methods in which non-scientists can involve themselves in important research projects.

[Find more weather-related citizen science projects using SciStarter's Project Finder.]

Thames Water Solution

In order to reduce the risk of sewer flooding in the future, water companies need to reduce the amount of rainwater entering the sewer network. Additional capacity and some new sewer systems would also largely help the situation too. Thames Water has already put some processes in place in many areas, such as installing new sensing devices to record water flow. This equipment has already proved helpful and allows the company to respond quickly to changes in weather and ground conditions. Thames Water also aims to spend up to £350million on a major programme of improvements before the year 2015, which includes:

  • A new storm relief sewer to be installed across the catchment area;
  • Enhancements to be made to the existing network;
  • A sustainable drainage system (SuDS) scheme;
  • Targeted installation of more anti-flood (FLIP) devices.

These plans were submitted to their regulator, Ofwat, with the aim of enhancing the sewerage network in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. All decisions and improvements made must be based on accurate data and balanced against the need for new investment, careful management and community education. Accurate instrumentation and monitoring can help to achieve this data; so I suppose the saying should go: if you look after your monitors, they will look after you!

Image: Wikimedia (Thames flood level markers at Trinity Hospital, Greenwich. The marker on the right is for 1928)


Hayden Hill is an environmental expert and an editorial coordinator for ATi-UK. He believes that before the torrential flooding in 2012, monitoring devices were not being instrumented or managed properly. With the introduction of newer, more efficient systems, Ian believes that UK water companies will have a clearer indication of potential flood risks before they actually materialise.