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1. Scientists and citizen scientists: Cooperation and reservations
Citizen science projects engage people — often with little formal scientific training — in collecting, analyzing, and/or tagging data about the natural world. Interactions can occur in nature, such as counting birds, looking for tags on butterflies, or banding turtles. With increasing frequency, citizen scientist projects can be completed via online project portals, allowing armchair astronomers to look for galaxy patterns, amateur biologists to tag elephants in photographs, and non-professional medical researchers to outline the nucleus of cells.
These volunteer labors are often under the direction of a professional scientist, who may design the research study or even take the volunteers’ raw data and process and synthesize it. Given that funding for research is highly competitive in the sciences, citizen science contributions can dramatically accelerate the quantity and speed of the research process. More can be done with fewer funds.
While citizen science can yield important results, how are citizen scientists viewed by the professionals with years of formal training? Here, we’ll look at three citizen science projects as well as a scientist’s analysis of a citizen scientist project. The first project is River Keeping, the second is online browsing history, and the third is roadkill. The scientist’s editorial discusses the recent concern over artificial turf causing cancer.
- Meyer, Chelsey. 2017. “Citizen Scientists Donate Data for Online Price Personalization Research.” Discover, May 3. Accessed June 9, 2017. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/citizen-science-salon/2017/05/03/citizen-scientists-donate-data-for-online-price-personalization-research/#.WTqsyuvyvIV .
- Ropeik, David. 2017. “Citizen science often overstates ‘cancer clusters’ like the one linked to artificial turf.” Stat, May 5. Accessed June 9, 2017. https://www.statnews.com/2017/05/05/cancer-clusters-artificial-turf/ .
- Russell, Sharman. 2017. “River Keeping in New Mexico.” Discover, April 25. Accessed June 9, 2017. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/citizen-science-salon/2017/04/25/river-keeping-in-new-mexico/#.WRNX7PnyvIU .
- Strickland, Eliza. 2010. “Citizen Scientists Take Charge of California’s Roadkill.” Discover, September 14. Accessed June 9, 2016. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/discoblog/2010/09/14/citizen-scientists-take-charge-of-californias-roadkill/#.WTqtNOvyvIV .
- How do the various citizen scientists contribute to research in these articles? What does their involvement make possible that might not otherwise be possible?
- What previous training is required and is not required to be a citizen scientist in these examples?
- How do the various authors view citizen scientists? Do they mention any citizen scientists by name? How do they use language to describe these citizen scientists?
- What are the scientists asking citizen scientists to do? Who should be credited when new findings are discovered?
- What are some of the possible limitations with citizen science and with using volunteer efforts in general?
- David Ropeik says, “Citizen epidemiology can be tremendously valuable, but it is not science.” Do you agree with this statement? Why?
- One hundred years ago and more, the distinction between formal and informal science investigations was significantly blurrier than it is today. It was considered appropriate for upper-class gentlemen to engage in the study and classification of insects, flowers, and animals, for example. Doctoral degrees were far less common than today. How has science changed as a result? Has anything been lost?
- How is the study that Griffin conducted in the Stat article different than the studies conducted by citizen scientists in the other articles? Why might that matter?
- Why might the authors from Discover choose to write about citizen science in a very positive light?
- Why might Ropeik write about citizen science in a negative light?
- After looking through the articles, what kind of research benefits from citizen science? Should citizen scientists try to move beyond those expectations? Why or why not?
2. Candy Crush and Zooniverse: The psychology of citizen science
My father handed me his binoculars as we stood amidst the tall grass. Through the lenses, I watched the controversial reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. I was only five, but to this day I remember fuzzy dots running through the arid foothills of Western Montana. Years later, I defended species reintroduction in a debate during social studies class. Oftentimes, the act of seeing a living animal at a young age has an impact on how children evaluate the value of wildlife (Clayton n.d.). Citizen science projects like Zooniverse allow children and adults to view pictures of animals in the wild, helping both with the conservation of animals and the fostering of appreciation for wildlife.
Many citizen science projects have turned to the human processing power for pattern recognition in the classification and sorting of data. At first blush, the act of looking at picture after picture seems like it would be mind-numbing; however, the citizen science projects that utilize this method have proven to be very popular and effective ... and keep volunteers’ attention. The success of Zooniverse’s methodology has to do with psychological imperatives built into the human brain regarding pattern recognition and community building.
Take, for example, Wildwatch Kenya, a citizen science project on the Zooniverse.org platform that focuses on giraffes and other vulnerable or endangered species. Researchers have rigged 100 cameras with motion sensors along trails in the nature preserves of Kenya. Every day, the cameras take thousands of pictures and upload them. Volunteer classifiers are “served up” one random image at a time and are asked to identify the animals in the picture. To maximize accuracy among these non-zoologist participants, each picture is sent to fifteen participants. The reality is that while artificial intelligence (AI) can identify many things, humans can still do a better job. Researchers use the resulting tagged images to verify the existence of new species of giraffes, track giraffe migratory habits and activities, and document other species that share their habitats. Scientists hope this data and the conclusions derived from it will contribute to the preservation and conservation of giraffes and their environment.
Is it just cute mammals that keep volunteers at their computers? Perhaps there’s more to it than that — perhaps the same instincts that keep us engaged with animal identification projects like Wildwatch Kenya, Michigan Zoomin, Penguin Watch, or Elephant Expedition (all on Zooniverse.org) is similar to the psychological effects of playing repetitive games like Candy Crush, Tetris, or Bejeweled.
This case study looks at the psychology behind environmental citizen science projects that rely on pattern recognition and how these projects foster conservation concerns within the participants. Before reading the articles and discussion questions below, please spend fifteen minutes or so actually participating in the citizen science project (link here: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/sandiegozooglobal/wildwatch-kenya). While you can participate without logging in, creating an account will let you keep track of your citizen science efforts across time.
- Clayton, Susan. n.d. “Learning to Care About Animal Conservation.” Center for Humans & Nature. Accessed July 21, 2017. http://www.humansandnature.org/learning-to-care-about-animal-conservation .
- Dockterman, Eliana. 2013. “Candy Crush Saga: The Science Behind Our Addiction.” Time, November 15. Accessed July 21, 2017. http://business.time.com/2013/11/15/candy-crush-saga-the-science-behind-our-addiction/ .
- Hillman, Keith. 2016. “Pattern Recognition and Your Brain.” Psychology24, March 21. Accessed July 21, 2017. http://www.psychology24.org/pattern-recognition-and-your-brain/ .
- Stafford, Tom. 2012. “The Psychology of Tetris.” BBC, October 23. Accessed July 21, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20121022-the-psychology-of-tetris .
- Zooniverse.org. n.d. “Projects.” Accessed September 13, 2017. http:/zooniverse.org/projects . (Search for Wildwatch Kenya so you can explore it before continuing with the discussion questions.)
- When you were exploring Wildwatch Kenya, did you have questions afterward about the animals in the photographs? For example, did observing animals at night or seeing animals in clusters versus alone raise new lines of inquiry? How did you feel when the picture showed an animal you had never seen in the wild before?
- Do you think the potential spike in dopamine caused by a successful recognition affected how long you persevered with the animal identification task?
- What are some of the similarities and differences you noticed between the games Candy Crush, Bejeweled, and Tetris and the act of identifying animals on Zooniverse?
- Think about the steps you took to identify an animal that might not have been instantly recognizable. How did you go about trying to identify it? Do you see pattern recognition activity in your decision-making?
- How big of an influence do you think psychological factors play in the retention of Zooniverse volunteers? What might be other reasons why people return to the site?
- The first pop-up on the Classify page for Wildwatch Kenya says, “In many cases, you’ll be one of the first to see [the pictures]!” Do you believe this influences how you feel about the process and the animals in the pictures? Why or why not?
- Do you think you would feel differently about the experience if you were looking at animals native to your location instead of animals in Africa? Why or why not?
- What studies would you like to see conducted on the psychological impacts of online citizen science identification projects?
- Did you end up using the chat option to go to the forums to discuss what you saw? If you did, what did you notice about the conversations? How does that fit into social psychology?
- Do you think you will do this again? Is the use of game mentality an ethical method in citizen science projects? Why or why not?
3. Citizen science techniques to uncover insights in the humanities
Even though “citizen science” appears, from its name, to be only about science, nothing could be further from the truth. Utilizing the skills, observation and intent of citizen science projects – those projects that include citizen participation in the capturing, interpreting, and analyzing of data – encompass a wide variety of subject areas including art, history, biography, and government.
Artist sketchbooks and diaries can enlighten art enthusiasts, while reviewing old sailor logbooks and transcribing Civil War soldier diaries help us to understand the daily lives of previous generations and their unique perspectives. At the same time, the work of transcribing the content of these documents makes the information collected available for study and understanding. These projects help students to see data differently: Not just as a series of tick marks or numbers but as snippets from a past world that, together, form an intriguing constellation of ideas, thoughts and perceptions. By crowdsourcing the efforts of many enthusiastic volunteers, new insights emerge as well.
Projects on the Zooniverse.org citizen science portal cross many subject areas from biology, physics, and ecology to humanities-based subjects such as language, literature, art, and history. Many of these include transcription of letters, diaries or other hand-written documents. Students have much to gain by joining in on projects like these because they gain an uncommon perspective: the ability to see the world via the minutia of one person’s daily observations. As they engage with projects to transcribe and describe primary source documents into text that can be easily searched by future scholars, students can see how someone living in a different time and place observed his or her world. Historians on the back end of the project gain a collection of documents that are easy to use, thereby giving them access to a wider view of their research.
How can we create a classroom environment that encourages students to notice how these documents and artifacts are data points? And when those data points become scannable and searchable, how can students see that the affordances of current technologies can give us new insights into the past? How can humanities-based citizen science projects help students to walk in the footsteps of others to see what drives their collaboration, discovery, and innovation?
In this case study, we invite you to divide the participants up into small groups. Give each group a project you’ve selected in advance from Zooniverse.org/projects from the Arts, History, Language, Literature, or Social Science categories. Then invite them to share what they have learned, brainstorm teaching and learning connections, and respond to the questions below.
- Zooniverse.org. n.d. “Projects.” Accessed June 30, 2017. http://zooniverse.org/projects .
- How might humanities data collection differ from more typical definitions of citizen science data collection?
- What questions might one ask of an historical document that they might not ask of a scientific document?
- If there are lots of documents in museums and other archives, how might digitizing them help us with access? What can we gain from this access?
- How can humanities subject specialists learn from data gathered by projects like those available in the Zooniverse categories listed above?
- How can the humanities use citizen science data to gain a deeper understanding of culture? How does crowdsourcing the effort impact this understanding?
- What can the humanities learn about research from the citizen science movement so that they can apply it to their own subject?
- Why would a K-12 teacher engage students with a humanities-based citizen science project?
- Once a teacher has completed a unit using a citizen science project, how could he/she bring it together for students to see/understand the bigger context/picture of their work?
- What would assessment look like for participation in a humanities-based citizen science project?
4. Tour of the Leafsnap leaf identification app
Leafsnap is an online database with a mobile app interface for tree identification, providing high-resolution images of trees’ flowers, fruits, petioles, seeds, and bark along with their known geographic distribution. An image import feature allows users to tag images with geocoded location data, contributing to mapping and monitoring biodiversity in the Plant kingdom.
The mobile app uses the device camera to capture visual information about the edges and contours of the leaf to compare to its database. The app processes the image to suggest possible genus and species, but relies upon the user to refine the results. When users upload or import their own photographs, the app encodes them with location information in the form of geospatial data. This encoding automatically links the photo information to the location and adjusts the mapped range of the species as necessary.
The web-based version features tabs for Northeast US, New York, Washington, D.C., and Canada; an independent U.K. version is supported by the Natural History Museum in London. An alphabetically sorted list has columns for leaf, flower, fruit, common and scientific names. The more than 20,000 high-quality laboratory images from the Smithsonian collection appear in controlled backlit and front-lit versions, with several samples per species on black backgrounds for contrast. In addition, more than 7,000 images have been uploaded from the field, taken by mobile devices in outdoor environments containing varying amounts of blur, light, and shadow. The dataset is also available for research.
In this case study, you’ll explore Leafsnap and its algorithms to consider potential possible influences that could affect the app’s database.
- Kumar, Neeraj. 2012. “Leafsnap: An Electronic Field Guide.” Neeraj Kumar. Accessed May 30, 2017. http://neerajkumar.org/projects/leafsnap/ .
- Marx, Eric. 2011. “LeafSnap, the Field Guide on Your iPhone.” Popular Mechanics, July 13. Accessed May 30, 2017. http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/gadgets/reviews/a6938/leafsnap-the-field-guide-on-your-iphone/ .
- Stephens, Wendy. 2014. “App of the Week: LeafSnap.” YALSA Blog, July 30. Accessed May 30, 2017. http://yalsa.ala.org/blog/2014/07/30/app-of-the-week-leafsnap/ .
- “Unifying Life Site: Placing Urban Tree Diversity in an Evolutionary Context.” n.d. City College of New York. Accessed June 8, 2017. https://www.ccny.cuny.edu/education/unifying_life_site .
- The Leafsnap project started in the Northeast United States with Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution as founding partners, with plans to expand to include the whole of the United States. What is the relationship between this area’s dense population, early settlement, and tree data? Do you think the app could be useful in other geographic areas? Rural areas?
- The dynamic nature of the Leafsnap database makes it a modern update to traditional printed field guides. What features are unique to its digital incarnation?
- Leafsnap got its start in facial recognition software. Thinking about the capabilities of augmented reality apps like Google Translate and Aurasma, what else might be identifiable by shape?
- Given the high resolution camera necessary to submit images, who do you think contributes to Leafsnap? Do you think mobile computing can be democratizing in this context? Why or why not?
5. Habitat Network: Learning about and managing the landscape we share
Originally begun in 2012 as the YardMap project, the Habitat Network is associated with the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy as a platform for citizen science. Habitat Network provides an opportunity for individuals, including members of the professional science community and ordinary citizens to collaborate and share information in order to develop a better and deeper understanding of the environments we share with wildlife. Data is collected as individuals across the country create an account and “draw maps of their backyards, parks, farms, favorite birding locations, schools, and gardens” (Habitat Network 2017). The project is designed to provide participants with landscape details and tools so that they learn how to manage and sustain wildlife habitats as part of a greater conservation community.
The project relies upon a three-part process:
- Draw a map (to assess the habitat);
- Learn about habitat (use custom tools and articles to create habitat and seek out guidance from the community);
- Create change (use information to manage the habitat; report back on changes made and impact).
The Explore Tab provides:
- an opportunity to enter a ZIP code and discover local resources such as information about the particular EcoRegion, pollinators, native plants, and local experts;
- a link to a photo gallery of images submitted by participants;
- a graphic representation of the “average” American backyard; and
- featured sites of exemplary projects.
The Learn tab provides menu-driven access to vetted and linked articles on native plants, healthy ecosystems, design advice, flora and fauna, mapping, and more.
In this case study, you’ll explore some background information about biodiversity, the Habitat Network site itself, and the website for the lead organizations behind Habitat Network. Then you’ll discuss how this site might be a useful citizen science site for your community.
- Bies, Laura. 2014. “Wildlife Habitat Fragmentation Fact Sheet.” The Wildlife Society. Accessed July 10, 2017. wildlife.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Wildlife-Habitat-Fragmentation.pdf .
- “Habitat Network.” 2017. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Accessed July 11, 2017. http://content.yardmap.org .
- “Home Page.” 2017. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Accessed July 11, 2017. http://www.birds.cornell.edu/Page.aspx?pid=1478 .
- “Home Page.” 2017. Nature Conservancy. Accessed September 13, 2017. https://www.nature.org .
- “What is Biodiversity?” n.d. National Wildlife Federation. Accessed July 10, 2017. http://www.nwf.org/Wildlife/Wildlife-Conservation/Biodiversity.aspx .
- Why is it important to study and share practices to improve the wildlife value of residential landscapes? Does your answer change if you live in a rural, urban, or suburban area? Why or why not?
- Observational studies such as the Habitat Network have limitations that “gold standard” research projects may not have. For example, they may lack of rigorous controls, replication, randomization, or baseline data. Why is crowdsourced observation still valuable?
- Does transforming urban areas into functional habitat to better support a diversity of wildlife also increase the quality of life for people and communities? Why or why not?
- Thinking about your own community, have you noticed any changes, good or bad, impacting wildlife habitat? What are the consequences, both positive and negative?
- Can you identify an area in your community that has been impacted recently by habitat fragmentation? How might the community mitigate the impact?
- What other types of data collection do you think would be useful to assess habitats and wildlife health in your community?
- Go online and look at the websites for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy. Are there other projects that your community and/or school might be interested in participating in?
- How can activists further promote engagement with habitat conservation efforts?
6. Smithsonian Institution Transcription Center
There are many projects on the Internet taking advantage of crowdsourcing to speed up and validate laborious and painstaking tasks. One of these projects is the Smithsonian Transcription Center (http://transcription.si.edu), which allows volunteers to sign up and help to transcribe analog texts given to the Smithsonian for online access. These range from scientific journals to diaries from explorers to jokes from Phyllis Diller’s personal joke collection. While the material varies broadly, the common thread is that the text is such that a computer cannot properly scan it, hence the need for volunteers. Anyone may sign up to be a volunteer (or, as they like to say, volunpeers), and there is no minimum requirement for time worked or expertise. Multiple rounds of transcription help staff and volunteers alike feel confident that accuracy will be developed over time.
- Smithsonian Digital Volunteers: Description Center. 2017. “About.” Smithsonian Institution. Accessed September 13, 2017. https://transcription.si.edu/about .
- Smithsonian Digital Volunteers: Description Center. 2017. “Tips.” Smithsonian Institution. Accessed September 13, 2017. https://transcription.si.edu/tips .
- Wright, Andy. 2016. “How the Smithsonian Institution is Crowdsourcing History.” Atlas Obscura, February 10. Accessed May 30, 2017. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-the-smithsonian-is-crowdsourcing-history .
For the rest of this activity, we recommend you give participants at least 20 minutes to make an account, explore the site and its projects, and try their hand at transcribing a document to see what they can discover.
- What general similarities or differences do you notice between the projects? How do they connect to your curriculum, service club volunteer needs, or community interests?
- What subject matters were covered in the projects you saw? Did you feel like most subject areas were covered by the selected projects? What factors do you think went into choosing specific projects for the Transcription Center?
- From the projects you saw, do you think you are equipped to participate right now? If not, what expertise or training would you need to feel like you could participate effectively? Even if you feel ready to participate, what training could the Smithsonian provide that would improve the contributions of the volunteers?
- Does this project appeal to a particular subset of society, by education or socioeconomic class? Why? What could be done to appeal to a broader swath of society?
- Most of the Smithsonian collection is handwritten, and much of that is in cursive. How does that impact what volunteers are interested and equipped to help in a substantive way?
- What impact does being hosted by the Smithsonian have on the appeal of the projects? The contents? Funding?
- How easy to use is the website? Do you think it encourages people to get involved, and does it make it easy for them to do so?
- What barriers are there for other museums and archival institutions to engage in the same kind of project?
- Which projects were particularly compelling to you? Which were not? Were there any that you feel no one would be interested in?
- What could the Smithsonian do to encourage participation in specific projects? Should it do so?
- Do you think some of these projects are more worthy of inclusion than others? Discuss why you may or may not think some are more or less worthy, and what selection criteria the Smithsonian should use in the future.
7. Where does federal data go?
A government document is any document produced by the government with taxpayer money. With rare exceptions, government documents are not protected by copyright; instead, they are considered to be in the public domain, meaning that they belong to all of us. Some government information is mandated, with direct legal instruction to compile data, or provide proof of service or collect particular information. Government information is an ever-changing commodity subject to politics, economics, and legalities. In the past, government documents would be printed on paper and sent out to a variety of government document repositories that would collect, catalog, and make these documents available to researchers and the public. If a report went out of print or if government priorities changed, those documents remained in those print collections.
As the government has continued to publish its documents online, at great cost savings over print production, it has emerged that there is no formal requirement for federal agencies to archive their online content at the federal level. Therefore, some online government information is archived, but some is vulnerable to loss.
Government websites change with each new presidential administration, and efforts to build archival systems have been underway for nearly a decade. As early as 2008, the End of Term Web Archive project of the California Digital Library and the Internet Archive were working to copy and archive government websites at the end of a presidential administration (see http://eotarchive.cdlib.org/). With the addition of the Library of Congress, University of North Texas Libraries, George Washington University Libraries, Stanford University Libraries, and the U.S. Government Publishing Office, the project grew into the End of Term Presidential Harvest, which began saving online government content in July 2016, months before the November 2016 presidential election outcome was known (see http://digital2.library.unt.edu/nomination/eth2016/about/).
However, with the 2017 presidential transition, government information has been scrutinized carefully by the new administration for political position and viewpoint. There is a concern among citizens that access to historical government data will be closed, and new data will remain secreted behind closed Agency doors. There is also uncertainty about the preservation of data if government agencies are defunded and closed moving forward.
The Open Government Act (https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1770) has been proposed to keep public Agency information open and available for citizens to see and use. If passed, each Agency would create and follow an “Open Government Plan” and post it on their websites.
Many are worried that important government information not only will be, but is, being lost. What are the ramifications of these changes? Who owns the data once it is no longer accessible? In this case study, you’ll browse the sites below to gain awareness of the issues around archiving and accessing government data.
- Cornell University Library. 2017. “A Guide to International and US Statistics Sources: Archived Government Data,” June 13. Cornell University. Accessed July 7, 2017. http://guides.library.cornell.edu/ datasources/archived_gov_data .
- DataRefuge. n.d. “Data Refuge: Building Refuge for Federal Climate & Environmental Data.” Accessed July 7, 2017. http://www.datarefuge.org .
- California Digital Library, Internet Archive. “Home.” End of Term Web Archive. Accessed July 7, 2017. http://eotarchive.cdlib.org/ .
- Dwyer, Jim. 2016. “Harvesting Government History, One Web Page at a Time.” The New York Times, December 1. Accessed July 7, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/01/nyregion/harvesting-government-history-one-web-page-at-a-time.html .
- Eilperin, Juliet. 2017. “Under Trump, Inconvenient Data is Being Sidelined.” Washington Post, May 14. Accessed July 7, 2017. http://wapo.st/2pL2YtN .
- “Index.” 2014. Internet Archive: Wayback Machine, December 31. Accessed July 7, 2017. https://archive.org/web/ .
- Jefferson. 2016. “Preserving U.S. Government Websites and Data as the Obama Term Ends.” Internet Archive Blogs, December 15. Accessed September 13, 2017. http://blog.archive.org/2016/12/15/preserving-u-s-government-websites-and-data-as-the-obama-term-ends/ .
- Mooney, Chris and Juliet Eilperin. 2017. “EPA Website Removes Climate Science Site From Public View After Two Decades.” The Washington Post, April 29. Accessed July 7, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/04/28/epa-website-removes-climate-science-site-from-public-view-after-two-decades/ .
- Who owns government data and who should determine who can access it?
- Who benefits from being able to access government data? Who benefits when data disappears? What right do ordinary citizens have to accessing government data? Who should decide?
- How would you go about finding government datasets? Who would you ask for assistance?
- Which projects seem to have the most promising capabilities to preserve government data? Which strategies do you find most compelling? Most valuable?
- Some government datasets, such as citizen science projects hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Smithsonian Institution (SI), is constructed with data provided by ordinary citizens who believe they are contributing to a more effective and impactful government. What rights do citizens have to be able to access datasets to which they have contributed?
- Since websites change with different administrations, where does the previous administration’s information go?
- Do you see datasets as objective or subjective? Is government information authoritative, if it can come and go at will?
8. Native knowledge meets scientific knowledge through citizen science
Long before Western explorers discovered that there were lands and peoples living beyond their own world, these people were traveling across oceans, navigating from island to island and other land forms with knowledge acquired by experience, education, and lore. Ancient Pacific Islanders could navigate between landforms by reading waves, wind, and bird patterns. Inuit weather predictors relied also on the visual, physical, and observational patterns of wind, cloud formations and other clues to upcoming weather (CU Boulder Today 2010).
Today, weather forecasters use the power of the Big Data of the historical record alongside worldwide contemporary observations to predict the next round of heat or in-coming storms. Yet, even with the help of immense data, has weather forecasting become more accurate today than in previous generations?
“Native knowledge” – that knowledge handed down through generations by direct instruction, storytelling, cultural folklore, and daily observation – provides a kind of knowledge gleaned from decades of informal and personal data collection that has worked previously, but may or may not be grounded in scientific research. Yet for centuries, it has been used to guide people through processes (such as weather, birth, health, farming, and gardening) that impact our lives. Such knowledge helps us create a sense of understanding around which we create our social, legal, and cultural norms.
What some scientists call “alternative knowledge” can be considered as knowledge that is derived from sources other than those conducted scientifically, e.g., “ancient wisdom.” “Old wives’ tales” fit into this category, as most of us have benefitted from [much to our chagrin sometimes] the advice handed down to us from our mothers and grandmothers. There are many examples of scientific research designed to prove or disprove the substance of motherly claims.
Which data should we trust: lived data, scientifically-gathered data according to Western principles, or both?
- Arctic Eider Society. n.d. IK-MAP. Accessed August 1, 2017. https://arcticeider.com/map .
- “Comparisons Between Traditional & Scientific Knowledge.” n.d. Alaska Native Science Commission. Accessed July 7, 2017. http://www.nativescience.org/html/traditional_and_scientific.html .
- “How to Make an Igloo.” Created by Craig S. Smith, Kaitlyn Mullin, and Maureen Towey. New York Times, 2017. Accessed July 24, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/canada/100000004999377/how-to-build-an-igloo.html .
- Kestler-D’amours, Jillian. 2017. “Introducing an Online Encyclopedia of Inuit Arctic Observations.” NewsDeeply, April 20. Accessed August 1, 2017. https://www.newsdeeply.com/arctic/articles/2017/04/20/introducing-an-online-encyclopedia-of-inuit-arctic-observations .
- Ocean Today, NOAA. n.d. “The Ocean Shows Us the Way.” Video, 1:50. Accessed July 7, 2017. http://oceantoday.noaa.gov/oceanshowsusway/ .
- Stillman, Janice. 2013. “History of the Old Farmer’s Almanac: The Almanac Editors’ Legacies.” The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Accessed July 7, 2017. http://www.almanac.com/content/history-old-farmers-almanac .
- Strategic Relations. 2010. “Traditional Inuit Knowledge Combines With Science to Shape Arctic Weather Insights.” CU Boulder Today, April 7. Accessed July 7, 2017. http://www.colorado.edu/today/2010/04/07/traditional-inuit-knowledge-combines-science-shape-arctic-weather-insights .
- Begin by viewing the New York Times video on creating an igloo. What kinds of knowledge do you see playing out in the video? How might a formally-trained scientist explain what is happening?
- How does native knowledge, which thrives on observation based on daily impacts compare to the data captured by citizen scientists, which is built on quick observation of empirical data?
- Consider the Kestler-D’Amours article and the IK-MAP project. How does this project show a partnership between contemporary data documentation methods used by scientific experts with the deep traditional knowledge of elders?
- The Farmer’s Almanac was first published in 1792, bringing data and observational lore to farmers, sailors, and city dwellers. How might a publication like this kick-start scientific observation – not expensive and sophisticated data collection tools – as a way to predict upcoming weather, how to best plant our garden, and when to head to the river to fish?
- How might knowledge accumulated through the years or generations and through social connections be construed as citizen science? Are they similar in any way?
- Are “old wives’ tales” considered to be incorrect because of implied sexism? For example, does society downplay these tips because of an inherent bias that knowledge handed down from women cannot be factual? What other “tales” are discounted because they do not come from scientific evidence?
- How has science interrupted native knowledge, bringing about unhealthy or unsafe processes?
- How might native processes – those rituals and/or solutions used by those within a cultural context – have interrupted science by refusing to make important changes?
- How can indigenous knowledge work with Big Data to create new solutions to problems? What examples do you see in the readings above?
- How might scientific research help native knowledge recognize changing patterns that might not be easily seen in the short time periods within its changes?
Bonus feature: Choosing a citizen science project for your classroom
Citizen science (we call it C-science) projects offer teachers the opportunity to connect their students to scientists doing real research on real-world problems. Some citizen science projects help students engage with the natural world: counting butterflies in a field, using telescopes to scan the night sky, photographing mosquitos, or measuring photosynthesis. Others involve online contributions, like marking up images of cells, counting penguins, pinpointing the eye of the storm on radar images, and identifying wildlife in photos. There are even projects on citizen science sites that use C-science principles of collaboration and crowdsourcing to look more closely into art, history, or culture, but aren’t science at all — such as transcribing Civil War telegrams, Phyllis Diller’s joke file, and tagging images so scholars can search and find relevant graphics in less time. These “citizen humanities” projects follow the same format and mission as C-science, but encourage citizens to interact with artifacts including letters, diaries, documents, and images.
Done well, C-science can make science “come alive” for students, by connecting them to the scientific community at large, encouraging them to engage with the global community and empowering them to design their own research that might open new insights about the world around them. How do we find the “right” project for our students and our courses? There is no Match.com for teachers and projects; however, there are some considerations that can help you plan a rich and rewarding experience for you and your students.
What is citizen science?
While citizens have done this for centuries, the modern idea of a citizen scientist emerged from increasingly large, professionalized scientific research projects in the 1900s. The earliest C-science projects were often driven by the need for geographically diverse data or by scientists looking to scale data collection beyond what they could accomplish on their own. Today, there are C-science projects led by scientists in universities, activist-scientists working at non-profit organizations, even neighbor-to-neighbor grassroots initiatives. In fact, some of today’s longest-running citizen science projects were born out of the activist movement of the 1960’s — ordinary citizens taking action to improve the world around them. For example, the Maryland “Save our Streams” program — one of the earliest in the U.S. — began a conservation initiative in 1969 which expanded nationally in 1974. In all cases, utilizing volunteers to identify, capture, tag, and categorize observations and data allows all of these groups to enlarge the scope of their study, giving them better, more reliable results.
C-science involves ordinary people in large-scale data collection and analysis, usually to study some aspect of the natural world, and often under the project leadership of a professional scientist or scholar. While projects in environmental science, astronomy, and bird migration are popular, there are thousands of active investigations in all areas of science. Scientists benefit from having data collected by hundreds or thousands of volunteers and students, while the volunteers gain experience and personal pleasure collecting, observing and helping to analyze data in scientifically designed projects.
C-science is sometimes conflated with service learning, since both involve student volunteers for a “real” purpose. However C-science projects are unique in that scientists or experts manage the research design and analysis, but employ large numbers of volunteers to conduct very specific observations, measurements, or tests. Sometimes data collection happens “in the field” and sometimes it is done via computer, for example marking up medical scans or looking for numbers branded onto sea lions. These options mean that citizen science is not merely for those with the means to take students on field trips: all students can be engaged without leaving the building.
Finding a right-fit project
Finding the right project may seem like a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Unless you want to design your own study — and portals like http://zooniverse.org/lab have protocols for how to do this — most of us will be searching lists of projects to find those that align with a topic or standard. Thorough vetting of the project on the front end will help you design the best experience for you and your students. Some engage participants in the design and are focused on collecting data that can withstand peer review; others are preliminary experiments used as proof of concept. Understanding who funds and manages the research is important in order to decipher the agendas or desired outcomes of the project.
Here are some questions to consider as you begin looking for a citizen science project:
- How much training of volunteers is offered?
- Has this project (or, if using an online portal like SciStarter.com or Zooniverse.org) worked with high school students before?
- Are there videos, online tutorials, and other teaching resources available?
- What is the role of the lead scientists? Do they have an outreach or instructional team member who is available for questions or assistance? Are the scientists teaching allies and in communication with participants directly, or do they direct the research behind the scenes?
- Can you discern political or social perspectives, and are you comfortable discussing these?
- Is there an obvious educational goal, or are objectives primarily related to “doing science” or service learning work?
- How social is the team with its citizen scientists? Some online projects use Twitter, email newsletters, tagging within online platforms, and even gamified features like leaderboards to keep volunteers engaged. Are their communications and platforms compatible with your school’s policies?
- How participatory is the project design? Could you and your students have input in methods and instruments?
- How much redundancy is in place? In other words, if your students decide to mis-tag wildlife photos, are there enough other people looking at the same photo that the “joke” will be ignored? In most cases, there is far more redundancy in online projects than you might anticipate. For example, the Michigan Zoomin project (https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/michiganzoomin/michigan-zoomin), which seeks to gather baseline data about Michigan wildlife in various locations around the state, serves up each of its hundreds of thousands of images to fifteen participants. Even if your class clown thinks she’s just sabotaged the research, she hasn’t.
Considering your teaching objectives, how you will define success? Are you interested in having students contribute to solving a scientific problem in your community? Seeing students read more science news? Having students gain fluency in working with large datasets? Encouraging students to view science as a form of civic engagement? Or maybe success is that your students become “hooked” on C-science and seek to contribute to another C-science project.
Do you want this project to have local or national impact? For example, those participating in Cornell’s eBird project contribute their own local birdwatching data to a national dataset that has benefits far beyond their local community, whereas those who count turtles at a local beach will have greater grassroots impact. A decision about scope will determine the scale, number of volunteers, and size of the data set. Another variation on this question is to ask: Will the data only flow one way — from your students to the project — or do the scientists provide feedback and disseminate results back to your students?
Think about your curricular objectives. For example, what area of curriculum interests you and your students, enhances their passion for science, or supports scientific principles like classification or discovery? Whenever possible, involve your high school students in the process of matching selection criteria to a project! Browsing sites like SciStarter (https://scistarter.com/page/Educators.html) or Zooniverse.org can show students the breadth and depth of potential projects and create great classroom discussions. California Academy of Sciences shares tips for guiding students through the choice (https://www.calacademy.org/educators/lesson-plans/choose-your-own-citizen-science-project#search).
Feeling more ambitious? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an excellent toolkit (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/citscitoolkit/toolkit/toolkit) for designing your own project in any scientific area and offers advice on everything from question formulation to finding volunteers and collecting, analyzing, and disseminating data.
Type of engagement
What kind of experience do you want for your students – contributing to data collection or learning the process of experimentation? Delighting in photographs of animals in the wild or learning to prepare specimens for review? Doing field work or staying in front of a computer screen? Some goals might be to foster inquiry, enhance engagement, improve science process skills, or gain understanding of the nature of Big Data sets. If you want them to analyze data, what kinds of data literacy skills are required?
The type of engagement you choose will also dictate the amount of time spent on the project. Doing field work will require time away from the classroom (think multiple field trips) whereas identification of computer images can be done individually at home or as a whole-class activity at school.
What kind of preparation will your students need prior to engaging in a project? Perhaps, in order to participate in a citizen science project, they will need to know how to accurately measure liquids, count ladybug spots, take a water sample, or understand how cells replicate. They might also need practical advice, such as wearing (or avoiding) bug spray, perfume, or sunscreen. Without that context, students may be active without actively learning.
Consider, too, the season and time of year. Some citizen science projects require a burst of rapid-fire volunteer input and complete quickly. Others last over several months or years, with ongoing data collection, analysis, and new opportunities for input as the projects unfold. Does starting early in the year allow for a longer partnership with a C-science project? Are there certain projects — such as bird tracking — that can only be done in summer or early fall before birds migrate for the winter or deciduous trees drop their leaves? Are there certain seasons in which getting students out in nature or onscreen for a virtual project are a better fit for the academic year?
Some studies go on for years. If you want your students to get feedback on the data they’ve contributed, make sure the project’s timeline will accommodate those needs. On the other hand, you may not want to be the first group to sign up; some suggest that the project should be in at least its second year of data collection.
Sources for projects
Now that you have brought your aspirations for C-science into focus, you’re ready to find a project that match your learning goals. Some projects are already featured in the case studies in this section of the book. Here are some of our favorites.
These sites can be a good start for schools because there are numerous projects on a single website. So with a single log-in and similar interfaces for each project, students can move quickly from one project to another.
Scistarter.com (https://scistarter.com/page/Educators.html) was updated and redesigned in 2017 and, as of press time, featured nearly 900 projects from which to choose! Projects at the time of publication include photographing clouds or overflowing water, documenting flu cases around you, contributing editing skills to a video about the 2017 eclipse, and air monitoring. You can help NASA, U.S. National Parks, weather networks, and the U.S. Geological Survey. You can browse from the home page or check out the Educator’s page, which sorts projects by elementary, middle, or high school levels
Zooniverse.org has numerous wildlife projects as well as those in transcribing and digitizing historical papers and artifacts. As of press time, you could help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitor Steller sea lions or identify cyclone patterns, lend University of Michigan researchers a hand in tracking Michigan wildlife, read and transcribe the diaries of British World War I soldiers for the Imperial War Institute and Britain’s National Archives, or help scholars identify beach plastic from photos taken by drones.
Smithsonian Transcription (https://transcription.si.edu) lets you interact with documents and resources from its many museums. Many projects ask project “volunpeers” to retype or describe content that is photographed but not machine-readable. As of press time, projects included transcribing the notebooks of an Arctic explorer, a book explaining 18th century compound interest, the materials of Harvard’s earliest female astronomers, or correspondence between global art dealers.
CitizenScience.gov (https://www.citizenscience.gov/) is the hub for citizen science and crowdsourced projects run by various government agencies. At the time this book went to press, projects included public health tracking for the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Army Corps’s annual Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey, and the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s app to try to catch child predators.
These sites list citizen science sites of interest:
Scientific American has a comprehensive lists of citizen science projects (https://www.scientificamerican.com/citizen-science/). While some projects point to Zooniverse or SciStarter already, others are standalone sites. Be sure to check project dates – some projects listed are no longer seeking volunteers. At press time, open projects include in-person habitat monitoring in the Florida Keys, an annual survey of trees in California and Oregon to monitor for Sudden Oak Death, and a University of Oklahoma soil collection project. For app-based citizen science, try the publication’s list at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/8-apps-that-turn-citizens-into-scientists/ .
Wikipedia lists several ongoing and completed citizen science projects. Their list included, at the time this book went to press, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count (a tradition for over a century), the Big Butterfly Count, and projects from the California Academy of Sciences.
Individual project sites
Want to keep students from wandering into other projects instead of working on the one you hope for? Consider a standalone project site like one of these:
GalaxyZoo.org, a sister site to Zooniverse.org, asks volunteers to help classify galaxies.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of citizen science’s longest and most successful citizen science initiatives, has several projects from counting birds at your back yard feeder to the complex eBird project for counting and tracking birds. See http://www.birds.cornell.edu/page.aspx?pid=1664 .
Fold It (http://fold.it), the University of Washington’s gamified project that uses human puzzle-solving skills to figure out how proteins fold. Unlocking the secrets of protein folding could help doctors figure out how to undo the ravages of some diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The USA Phenology Network is a consortium of numerous university, government, and research labs that studies phenology, or nature’s cycles — the timing of things such as bird migration, insect emergence, and fall leaf color change. The Network’s team members study the effect of climate change on plants, animals, and landscapes. See https://www.usanpn.org .
Nova Labs (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/labs/about/), based around the award-winning PBS television series, is a unique take on citizen science because it teaches students the skills to use professional data to draw conclusions across a wide range of scientific topics. This portal was designed for educators and students to choose an active experiment where they can learn to “think like scientists.”
Don’t see what you’re looking for? We recommend this online search strategy: [“citizen science” AND a topic area AND a locale]. Note that the brackets represent the search box itself and should not be typed into the search engine!
Armed with a more nuanced understanding of citizen science and related projects in the humanities, educators can select a project that best matches curricular objectives and our students’ abilities and interests. Knowing what you’re looking for, you’ll be delighted by how many citizen science projects are available to you and how many scientists are eager for your students’ volunteer support.