Archive for the ‘Ecology & Environment’ Category

Citizen Science on the Radio: WHYY Features Spring Projects!

By March 20th, 2014 at 9:54 pm | Comment

l_science

Illustration by Tony Auth

This week on The Pulse and SciStarter’s segment about citizen science, producer Kimberly Haas highlights some spring projects that you can get involved in this season.

Spring is in the air, and so it citizen science! As SciStarter founder Darlene Cavalier told WHYY, ”Springtime is the time for citizen science [...] So you can find, in our project finder, everything from collecting information about precipitation to checking out bird nests and looking for incubating eggs.”

Listen to a teaser of the piece below, then read WHYY’s related blog post to learn more about the variety of projects you can get involved in. You’ll find the full audio there.

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)

Spring is Here!

By March 20th, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Comment

The equinox is upon us. Budding trees and baby birds will soon greet us. As the weather gets warmer, be ready to Spring into action with these five springtime citizen science projects!

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Project BudBurst

Help scientists understand the impacts of global climate change! Report data on the timing of leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants in your area. To participate, you simply need access to a plant. Get started!

 

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Camel Cricket Census

The Your Wild Life team needs citizen scientists to share observations and photos of camel crickets in your home! Many keen citizen observers have reported a preponderance of camel crickets, and interesting patterns in cricket distribution have emerged! Get started!

 

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Where’s the Elderberry Longhorn Beetle?

This beautiful beetle species lived throughout eastern North America but in recent decades it’s all but disappeared. To help solve this mystery, a Drexel University researcher wants you to be on the lookout for this beauty of a beetle now through June. Get started!

 

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CoCoRaHS:Rain, Hail, Snow Network

When a rain, hail, or snow storm occurs, take measurements of precipitation from your location.Your data will be used by the National Weather Service, meteorologists, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, mosquito control, ranchers and farmers, and more! Get started!

 

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NestWatch

Help scientists understand how environmental change and habitat destruction affect breeding birds. Visit nests once or twice each week and monitor their progression from incubating eggs to fuzzy chicks to fully feathered adults. Get started!

 


See how WCVE’s Science Matter’s is also jumping for  citizen science this spring with FrogWatchUSA!

Want to bring citizen science into the classroom? Check out our Educators Page to learn more about how to integrate projects into your curriculum.

SciStarter and Azavea (with support from Sloan Foundation) spent the last year investigating developments in software, hardware, and data processing capability for citizen science. Here’s what we found.

Calling hackers and developers! SciStarter is organizing pop-up hackathons to develop open APIs and other tools to help citizen scientists. Contact the SciStarter Team if you’d like to join us in Boston, Philly, NYC, or Washington, DC in April! Email info@scistarter.com.

Want your project featured in our newsletter? Contact jenna@scistarter.com

Feeling Clumpy?

By March 20th, 2014 at 9:07 am | Comment

Citizen scientists can help ID the progression of bacterial infection in plant cells by determining how “clumpy” plant cell images are.

Explore the microbiome around and inside you with these citizen science projects!

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The language on the Clumpy homepage might be considered a challenge for the average citizen scientist: “The model plant-pathogen system comprising the plant Arabidopsis thaliana and the pathogenic bacterium Pseudomonas syringae has been used very effectively to elucidate the nature of the pathogenic interaction.” However, once you get started on this citizen science project, you will soon get a feel for it, and perhaps even enjoy it as I did.

Clumpy is a citizen science project that tests for a bacterial infection in plants. When microbiologists found that organelles in the plant’s photosynthetic cells (i.e. chloroplasts) tended to “clump” together when subjected to bacterial infection, they saw opportunity for a citizen science experiment whereby the public could assist with help in classifying images for ‘clumpiness.’

The Clumpy project came out of observations made by Dr. Littlejohn, a postdoctoral researcher in the Bioscience Department at the University of Exeter; Dr. Murray Grant, a Professor of Plant Molecular Biology; and Dr. John Love, Associate Professor in Plant and Industrial Biotechnology at the University of Exeter. They noticed this unusual phenomenon, which might have important implications for how they understand plant-pathogen interactions. “It was through a conversation with Professor Richard Everson at an Exeter Imaging Network meeting, that the multidisciplinary team got together to set up the online experiment,” said Littlejohn.

The idea to use citizen science to annotate bacterial infections in plants came about in part due to the difficulty in using computational methods alone. Trying to characterize images using abstract notions such as ‘clumpiness’ is an area where humans can easily outperform current computational approaches. In addition, annotation of the images doesn’t require any special expertise, so the problem seemed like an ideal match for citizen science. “We also thought the images themselves were intrinsically interesting, which would help motivate people to provide a wide range of annotations,” said Hugo Hutt, a PhD student in the Department of Physics at the University of Exeter.

Dr. Littlejohn commented, “It would be great to know if it were the plant or the bacterium that initiates the ‘clumping’ of chloroplasts in the leaves. This might help us understand why the chloroplasts clump and which partner in the pathosystem is benefiting from it.” What does this do for society, you might ask? The benefit of a study like this might include fighting diseases in food crops for one.

Verifying the Data

When I first started to use the Clumpy website to classify whether an image was clumpy or not clumpy, I kept second guessing myself, and moved through the selections very deliberately, mulling each one over carefully. They all looked too similar, which got me to thinking about verification of the data. Since all science depends on accurate data, how do they know whether or not answers provided by the average Joe are accurate or not?

Hutt was involved with this aspect of Clumpy—the verification of data:

In 2013 we published an article in Computational Intelligence about this. We tested statistical methods to evaluate the accuracy and reliability of users. For example, to evaluate the accuracy we compared the user annotations with those assigned by an expert. We also measured the degree of consensus among users based on how correlated their annotations were.

The results showed a surprising level of accuracy, which my purely objective test might support—after about 15 attempts I began to recognize ‘clumpiness’ more intuitively, and after just 30 I felt I had it nailed. Hutt and colleagues hope to publish an extended version of the paper this year in a special issue of Soft Computing.

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With respect to obtaining a consensus score people were asked to make annotations in one of three paradigms: classification, scoring and ranking. Termed “a web-based citizen science experiment,” Clumpy tasks are evaluated in relation to the accuracy and agreement among the participants using both simulated and real-world data from the experiment. The results show a clear difference in performance between the three tasks, with the ranking task obtaining the highest accuracy and agreement among the participants. That means people like me were capable of producing accurate results when we checked in to Clumpy!

[Note: Read more on how other projects verify crowdsourced data through consensus, and read about one success story about how crowdsourced data was comparable to that produced by leading experts.]

Until now the results have been used to publish more on the computer-collection side, than on the plant biology side, but Littlejohn said, “We are looking to fit this result in with a broader biological study.”

The project has been running since August 2012 and currently houses over 10,000 annotated images. Imagine the cost, time and resources allocated to this process, if citizen scientists had not been involved!

Images: Courtesy of clumpy.ex.ac.uk


Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at www.dragonflyec.com.

Measuring Environmental Stewardship

By March 19th, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Comment

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Environmental Behaviors Project seeks help in sorting and ranking environmental stewardship.

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Many citizen science projects have been very successful in collecting high-quality scientific data through the participation of citizen scientists. However, less emphasis has been placed on documenting changes to citizen scientists themselves. In particular, many projects hope participants will increase their environmental stewardship practices, but few, if any projects, have been able to accurately measure or detect behavior change as a result of participation.

Beginning in 2010, our team of researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology set out to create a toolkit of resources for helping project leaders measure participant outcomes. This project, titled DEVISE (Developing, Validating, and Implementing Situated Evaluation Instruments), is the parent of the Environmental Behaviors Project. In fact, the EBP is one of the final elements of the toolkit to be developed. So far, the DEVISE team has created and tested valid tools to measure interest, motivation, self-efficacy, and skills related to both science and environmental action.

When completed, the Environmental Behaviors Project will result in a tool for measuring environmental stewardship behaviors in citizen science participants. We are looking for about 75 participants to sort a variety of stewardship activities into categories, and then rank those same activities by ease and importance. What makes this tool unique is that it will have input from a variety of people and be a weighted scale, informed by the degree of ease and importance that people assign to each item.

The environmental behaviors tool will be an exciting conclusion to the DEVISE project. It is very common for citizen science projects to list behavioral change and increased stewardship as main goals – but these can be very difficult to measure accurately! Hopefully, by making this, and the other DEVISE tools available to project leaders, we can go beyond anecdotal accounts of the power of citizen science and provide evidence-based outcomes of the importance of citizen science to the people who make it possible.

Image: Glacier NPS

Co-authors:

Tina Phillips
Evaluation Program Manager
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Marion Ferguson
DEVISE Project Assistant
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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: publiclab.org

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.

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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: PublicLab.org, 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.