Archive for the ‘Guest post’ Category

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.

303px-Carbon-monoxide-3D-vdW

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.

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. 

Citizen Science, Mobile Technology, and the Next Generation Science Standards [GUEST POST]

By March 20th, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Comment 1

How one science educator used SciStarter to inform pre-service teachers how to use citizen science in the classroom and in curricula.

See the Citizen Science App Matrix, which aligns citizen science projects found on SciStarter to teaching standards!

This is my first attempt to enter the blogosphere, so please bear with me. As part of my duties of assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, I teach science education methods to elementary education majors (preservice teachers) in the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education. Beginning in 2012, my college launched an iPad initiative where every undergraduate education major would receive their very own iPad for use in their university and field experience classrooms.

Upon receiving my own iPad, I immediately began searching the internet for viable iPad applications (apps) that were specific to science education. It was through this searching that I came across the concept of “Citizen Science” and the SciStarter website. Citizen Science, as a formal concept, has been prevalent in our society for more than 30 years. As the internet and subsequent technologies continue to develop over this period, so do the opportunities for amateur “scientists” to get involved in these types of research-based projects. These mobile smart technologies allow teachers and their students to collect and analyze data, as well as to contribute these data for the dissemination of the findings related to these projects.

Seeing the vast potential of the citizen science projects listed in the SciStarter database for my elementary school science methods course, I utilized the SciStarter Project Finder’s “Advanced Search” option to identify those citizen science projects that specifically require an iPad. After reading each summary posted on SciStarter, I then visited each project’s website to examine thoroughly the project task. To justify using these projects in the elementary school classroom and for my own edification, I aligned each citizen science project with the scientific practices, disciplinary core ideas, and related performance expectations in the Next Generation Science Standards.

Once I gained proficiency in this task, I assigned the citizen science project to my preservice teachers. My students were responsible for visiting SciStarter and selecting one citizen science project that required the use of an iPad. They were then instructed to determine the research question that guided their particular project and to prepare instructions for data collection and an appropriate data organizer. Students were expected to collect and submit data pertinent to the project and analyze the current and existing data by generating or reproducing graphs that best represented these data. After experiencing these projects, students then aligned the scientific practices that best aligned with the project and determined the disciplinary core idea(s) and performance expectations inherent in the project.

Most of my students thoroughly enjoyed this assignment and related experiences. Many of these students incorporated their chosen project in their field experience placement during the semester. Through this assignment, I have observed the value of citizen science apps and their relevance to elementary education majors and their field experience students. Thank you, SciStarter, for providing this database for my students and me.

Image: Wikimedia


Timothy A. Laubach is an assistant professor in science education at the University of Oklahoma. He holds a BS in earth science education and a MEd and PhD in science education. Tim has 20 years of combined teaching experience at the elementary, secondary, undergraduate, and graduate levels. He has published 12 peer-reviewed journal articles and one book chapter and presented 40 papers at national/international to state-level science education conferences. Tim has also lead extensive professional development for science and mathematics teachers across the state of Oklahoma. He will occasionally be advising SciStarter on aligning citizen science projects to Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and the basic scientific practices.

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.

Citizen_Science_hiking_credit_GlacierNPS

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

The Genetics of Taste: A Bitter Story

By February 11th, 2014 at 9:40 am | Comment

The Genetics of Taste citizen science project from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science set out to understand the link between genetics and TAS2R38 gene, responsible for the “bitter” taste receptor.

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

Guest post by Michelle Murphy-Niedziela.

Don’t like brussels sprouts? Hate IPA beers? Prefer your cream with a bit of coffee? You might be a supertaster. So, what’s your super power as a supertaster?

tasteBeing a supertaster means that you have an increased taste sensitivity, particularly for bitter foods, due to the presence of the TAS2R38 gene and an increased number of fungiform papillae (or taste buds). Those taste buds have receptors that sense sweet, salty, bitter and sour. TAS2R38 is the gene responsible for a certain type of bitter taste receptor, sensitive to the bitter chemicals PROP and PTC. So more taste buds + more bitter receptors = SUPERTASTER!

The citizen science efforts from the community-based Genetics of Taste Lab at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, led by curator Dr. Nicole Garneau, set out to replicate the academic data and prove that non-scientists can do genetics work.  By recruiting members of the community to participate, they collected 3000 samples, analyzed for age, gender and genetics.

After a rocky start while figuring out and learning the techniques, they completed the study in early August 2013 with 1800 genetic samples and 500 tongue photographs.  While they weren’t able to replicate all the findings found in academic labs (they did find differences in TAS2R38 expression in males versus females as well as age differences), they were not able to find a connection between the number of taste buds and genetics.

Separate from Garneau’s study, scientists studying taste genetics have found that supertasters may have better control of their appetite and may avoid sweet and fatty foods leading to better health and a less occurrence of metabolic syndrome and obesity (Shafaie et al., 2013; Turner-McGrievy et al., 2013).  Further, supertaster patients are less likely to need surgical intervention for chronic rhinosinusitis (Adappa et al., 2013). Women are more likely to be supertasters, 35% of women and 15% of men (Bartoshuk et al., 1994). It turns out, about 25% of people are supertasters; 25% are non-tasters; and the other 50% are somewhere in the middle (medium tasters carry only one copy of the TAS2R38 gene, so fewer of those special bitter receptors and fewer taste buds than supertasters). But have no fear, being a supertaster or nontaster represents normal variation in the human population like eye or hair color.

Garneau and her team will be presenting their work at the Association for Chemoreception Sciences (AChemS) and have even submitted their work for publication in the academic journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Want to find out if you are a taster or a non taster? Here are two more fun things you can do at home.

1. Count your taste buds – Dye your tongue using blue food coloring and count the number of bumps on your tongue, compare with your friends!

2. Taste test at home – Order PTC or PROP taste strips online (can be found on Amazon); place them on your tongue; and tell us the results! If you taste nothing, then you are a non-taster. If you taste bitter, then you are a taster!

Image: The Creative Panic


Dr. Michelle Murphy Niedziela is a behavioral neuroscience expert in neuropsychology, psychology and consumer science with a focus on flavor and fragrance technologies. Michelle obtained a PhD and masters in neuroscience and biopsychology from Purdue University and a BS in psychology from Florida State University. In the past she’s worked at Johnson & Johnson, Mars Chocolate and is now a neuromarketing Scientific Director at HCD Research. In her spare time, Michelle enjoys cooking, blogging and traveling. Follow her on Twitter @nerdoscientism and her blog.