Archive for the ‘Computers & Technology’ Category

When disaster strikes, strike back with citizen science!

By June 28th, 2015 at 3:41 am | Comment

Photo: USGS

Photo: USGS

Natural disasters can be devastating and terrifying but in some cases, there are things we can do to take control.

Here are a selection of citizen science projects designed to inform rescue efforts and related research.

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Citizen Scientists Like You Could Change How We Handle Iraq’s Humanitarian Crisis

By June 24th, 2015 at 9:26 am | Comment

A refugee camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq (Photo Credit: Flickr EU/ECHO/Caroline Gluck/CC BY-ND 2.0)

A refugee camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq (Photo Credit: Flickr EU/ECHO/Caroline Gluck/CC BY-ND 2.0)

By analyzing images taken during times of humanitarian crises, citizen scientists can help refine a tool for data analysis improve relief efforts.

A guest post by Megan Passey and Jeremy Othenio. Edited by Arvind Suresh

In August 2014, following the fall of Mosul in Iraq, the UN declared the situation a level 3 crisis, the most severe type of humanitarian emergency. Iraq was already home to an estimated 1 million internally displaced persons prior to the current crisis, as well as over 200,000 refugees from Syria.

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Playing It Safe Online: NOVA Cybersecurity Lab Trains You to Carefully Navigate the Web

By March 2nd, 2015 at 10:10 pm | Comment

cyberpromo-facebook header

With our ever-increasing connectivity and reliance on the internet, cybersecurity is a growing concern. Despite all the cautionary warnings about cyber safety, individuals, companies and government agencies still fall victim to attack.

So what does it take to stay safe? NOVA, in partnership with computer scientists and cybersecurity experts, created the Cybersecurity Lab, a digital platform designed to teach people about cyber threats and how to improve their own cybersecurity. Read the rest of this entry »

Using the Quake-Catcher Network Citizen Science Project to Meet Common Core and Next Generation Teaching Standards

By February 24th, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Comment

Citizen Science in the Classroom: Quake-Catcher Network

Quake-Catcher Network Citizen Science Project Meeting Common Core and Next Generation Teaching Standards

QCN screen shot 1

Quake-Catcher Network Imaging Map




Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) is a citizen science project that uses internet and sensors (subsidized or free for K-12 classrooms) to connect schools and other entities to an earthquake monitoring network. It is hosted through Stanford University (along with UC Berkeley) and is supported by the National Science Foundation, US Geological Survey, the Incorporated Research, UPS, and O Navi (a low cost sensor development company).  The idea of this project is to create earthquake and seismology awareness, as well as recording data though a “distributed computing network.” This means that your classroom’s computer will be linked to a network of other computers relaying information back to the central hub monitoring for earthquakes.

For this project you need to be at least fairly tech savvy and able to understand how to download drivers and software, and able to install programs on your computer. The initial investment of time will be setting up everything so that it syncs with the BOINC seismology network. I would suggest at least a good solid hour or possibly two. You may also have to go through your IT department to be sure that there are no firewall issues and that you have permission to add the software required.  However, the investment is well worth the hand-on science aspect of this project and the feeling of connection that students may gain by participating in a global program.

The nice thing about this project is that it provides teacher support, lesson plans, and multimedia materials to help get you started. This type of citizen science, and the lesson plans provided, tends to run towards middle to high school content but it can be used by elementary schools as well.

Materials You’ll Need:

I’m going to spend a bit more time on the materials section, because this project is more tech centered than others. The QCN has different way that your classroom can participate in this project, either through seismic software sensors that are already in your mobile device or laptop (many Macs have this) or by sending you a $5 subsidized sensor. There is an option for a free sensor, but you must be in what they deem a “high risk” area, which I take to mean on a fault line or high activity area. Otherwise, you can mail in a request form for up to 3 sensors for $5 each. The nice thing is that for low income schools you can get a “loan” sensor and there is a free sensor program for schools that are Title1.

qcn sensor

QCN Sensor.

Sensors require that you have a USB capable device and you can dedicate one USB port to the project. The software that you download comes in a variety of formats for Windows and Mac. You will also need a location on the floor that will not be disturbed by students.  Your sensor will be connecting to the network using a software program called BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure Networking Computing). It was originally used for the SETI program, but now it’s used for computer sourcing projects world-wide.

Some of the lesson plans on the QCN site also require that you have a mobile device or computer with an accelerometer. This is built into most smart phones though you may need to download an app. You may also borrow one from QCN. This is not required to participate in the program.

  • Computer with internet access.
  • QCN network sensor.
  • USB Drive that can be dedicated to this project.
  • Permission to download drivers and BOINC software to the computer.
  • Duct Tape and glue
  • Printer

Why This Citizen Science Project is a Strong Candidate for the Classroom:

  • Even though the program has some tech to it, it can be set up fairly easily.
  • There are many strong lesson plans free online.
  • Technology from this project supports STEM curriculum.
  • Teachers can run simulations and scenarios for students in the classroom.
  • This project incorporates maps, graphs, and technology.

Teaching Materials:

The lessons and activities provided by QCN can be found on their website. These tell you exactly what grade they are for and there are variations of some activities for different grade levels, K-12.

Online Safety for Children

The set up for QCN is done by an adult, and students do not need to enter information or data. Teachers will need to create a BOINC account with an e-mail and password. There are options to provide data about where you sensor is located. The more specific (long/lat) the better because this helps with their data collection. However, the BOINC software allows you choose to provide very specific or very general location information if you’re worried about privacy.

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Spec-tacular Science: Use Public Lab’s DIY Spectrometer to find out what stuff is made of!

By February 19th, 2014 at 12:01 pm | Comment

PublicLab Spectrometer Project. Images:

Public Lab’s DIY spectrometry kit makes it possible for citizen scientists to do their own spectrometric analysis at home.

Come to your senses! SciStarter has curated a list of citizen science projects for all five senses.


Spectrometry. Listen to yourself say it out loud. Admit it. It sounds cool just to say “spectrometry.”(Whoa you just did it again!) As fans of Star Trek or Star Wars will attest to, spectrometers are must-have instruments in the scientific arsenal. I’m happy to let you know, however, that the use of a spectrometer (a.k.a ‘spec’) is not limited to fictional, futuristic worlds. In fact, from discovering new chemical elements to measuring DNA, spectrometry is a technique that’s dipped its toes in almost every field of research.

What’s all the fuss about a spectrometer? 

Before I talk to you about a spectrometer, let me get into a little bit about the properties of light. You might know that objects appear a certain color because they absorb certain wavelengths of light while reflecting others. For example, leaves appear green because they absorb other colors except green. So if you took some leaf extract in a glass tube and passed light through it on one side, the light that comes out of the other side will have lots of green and little of the other colors (because they were absorbed by the leaf extract).

Put on your scientist hat (or a lab coat) and think about that for a moment. You’ll probably say, “Hey! If I can figure out what specific mix of colors a known substance is made of then I can use that to find out what an unknown substance is made of!” And put simply, that’s what a spec does. It’s an instrument that uses light to determine what a substance is made of.


Spectrum produced by iron

A spec identifies the specific mix of colors that is absorbed by a sample producing what is known as an ‘absorption spectra‘ which is characteristic of that sample. Think of it like a fingerprint for every material. To do this accurately, the spec needs something that can effectively split light into its constituent colors. One option is to use a prism, which you’ve probably seen at some point. Another way is to use a ‘diffraction grating’ which is a surface with many small parallel lines that can also do the same job of splitting light.

DVD as a diffraction grating

DVD as a diffraction grating for a spectrometer

One cool everyday object that acts as a diffraction grating is a CD or DVD. The tiny grooves on the disc act like a grating and split white light giving off the rainbow of colors that you see on its back side. The Public Lab DIY spec uses a DVD as a diffraction grating. The image below describes how a simple DIY spec works. And that’s the Cliffs Notes version. Public Lab’s spectrometer curriculum has lots more detail!

The Public Lab DIY Spectrometer

Our friends over at Public Lab have made it possible for you to do your own spectrometric analysis at home! When it started, the goal of the project was to create a cheap, do-it-yourself spectrometer that anybody could use to analyze materials and contaminants like oil spills and tar residues in urban waterways. In 2012, the team came up with an idea for a spec and crowd-funded it on Kickstarter.  The Kickstarter project was a massive success and now Public Lab is selling the DIY desktop kit for $40 in its online store. However, if you prefer to build it from the materials you have at home, they have a great instruction manual for how to make it yourself.

They have also made a smartphone compatible Foldable Mini Spectrometer ($10 in the store) that you can carry around (and show off!). To be able to actually use the spec, the team at PublicLab built an open source software called Spectral Workbench that runs within your browser to help you record and analyze the data you collect. Whether you buy the kit or build it yourself, the Public Lab community has a wiki style page that is a great information resource.

To make it easier to get started, I’ve put together a plan to get you started with making and using your shiny new instrument:

Getting Started

1. What would you like to do with your spec? Check out this page of spectrometry activities. You can also look up this really cool (and really big!) Kickstarter backers-suggested list of ideas. For fun experiments you can test things like coffee, wine or beer! On a more serious note, you can read about detecting pesticides in fruits. At the end I would suggest you make a list of 2-3 experiments you want to try (if it’s your first time experimenting with a spec, start with an easy one!)

2. Buy the kit or make one yourself. Here’s the list of materials you will need (from the Public Lab website) and here are the instructions.

  • stiff black card paper
  • a clean DVD-R
  • a USB webcam (preferably HD)
  • a Type LB conduit body (basically a light-proof box with a couple holes)
  • double-sided foam tape and a box cutter/x-acto knife

3. Ready with your spec? Now read up about how to use Spectral Workbench, the software that PublicLab has built to help you capture and analyze your data. You can also watch the introductory video. Spectral workbench also has an open source database of spectra for different materials that you can compare yours to.

4. Connect your spec and fire up Spectral Workbench. Make sure to calibrate your spec using a fluorescent light bulb. This will ensure that your readings are accurate and can be compared between samples.

5. Based on your project, find out how you can prepare your samples for testing.

6. Get some science done! Document your research and share it with the PublicLab community (you will need to sign up to post your research notes). Get input from your fellow citizen scientists to answer questions you might have or improve your experiment.

7. (Optional but definitely recommended!) If Scistarter helped you get started, tell us how it worked out. Give us a shout out on Twitter or Facebook! If you haven’t already, sign up to learn about cool projects in the future.


Images:, Wikipedia

Arvind Sureh graduated with his MS in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology from the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from PSG College of Technology, India. He is also an information addict, gobbling up everything he can find on and off the internet. He enjoys reading, teaching, talking and writing science, and following that interest led him to SciStarter. Outside the lab and the classroom, he can be found behind the viewfinder of his camera. Connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn or at his Website.