Your Citizen Science Idea Could Fly to Mars and Win You $20,000 from NASA!

By Arvind Suresh | September 22, 2014 10:45 am
mars balance challenge

Rack your brains for a chance to win cash from NASA (Image Credit: NASA)

Buckle up folks, ‘cause NASA is coming to you with a challenge. On Saturday, NASA announced at the World Maker Faire in New York that it has opened up registration for the ‘Mars Balance Mass Challenge’. The space agency has had a history of engaging citizen scientists through online crowdsourcing initiatives such as Target Asteroids!, Planet Mappers and Be a Martian and on the ground challenges such as its annual Sample Return Robot Challenge. In August this year, they partnered with ECAST (Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology) for the ‘Informing NASA’s Asteroid Initiative’ which invites the public to discuss and comment on how NASA is tackling asteroid exploration, potential asteroid threats and planetary defense. Read More


Stewards of the Stream: When Citizen Science Meets Water Quality

By Ian Vorster | September 19, 2014 12:42 pm
Stream Team-1

From left: Joshua Caditz, Amanda Ebling and Spencer Towle collect samples at the Cate School bioswale. (Image Credit: Ian Vorster)

Spencer Towle is a senior at Cate School in Carpinteria. As we walk down to a bioswale on the campus, this San Francisco native with a head of unruly brown hair describes his first year as a member of the Cate School Stream Team, “A senior took us through all the instruments and showed us how to work them, and what we were sampling for. That made Stream Team a lot more real for me. We weren’t just dipping instruments into the water and reading the numbers—I really learned the purpose behind it.”

Joshua Caditz, an environmental lawyer turned science teacher, leads the group and is proud of his band of water-monitoring geeks. “The students for the most part run this watershed monitoring project with the guidance and assistance of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, and they’re doing an outstanding job. We currently manage the entire watershed except for the summer when Channelkeeper sends in a few interns to take over.” Caditz founded the Cate Stream Team in 2010 with the two-fold objective of conducting a long-term study of water quality in the Carpinteria watershed, and engaging students in a combination of field and laboratory work. He lodged the program under the oversight of the non-profit group Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.

Santa Barbara Channelkeeper operates similar programs to keep tabs on water quality in Ventura, Santa Barbara and Goleta. Jenna Driscoll, Watershed and Marine Program Associate at Santa Barbara Channelkeeper says, “It’s really rewarding to see people connecting with their watershed. When I first started working for Channelkeeper I was shocked to learn how many streams there are in our area. Santa Barbara Channelkeeper is a “watchdog” organization. Often times government agencies do not have the resources to do all the monitoring that they are mandated to do by law. When this is the case, Channelkeeper steps in to fill the monitoring gap.”

Data collected by the team is used by government agencies to inform pollution prevention programs and water resource management decisions. “We’ve identified numerous pollution hot spots and sources through Stream Team sampling, and have worked cooperatively with the relevant government agencies to get these problems cleaned up,” says Driscoll. The students repeatedly test water samples for signs of contamination, relying on indicator species like E. coli, and they annotate their observations to create a data-snapshot of the local watershed.

Stream Team-2

From Left : Pharibe Pope, Amanda Ebling and Spencer Towle begin to process the samples in the lab (Image Credit: Ian Vorster)


An important part of the program for Caditz is the opportunity for his students to fulfill what amounts to Cate School’s mission—service and the teaching of leadership. He says, “ I was looking for an opportunity for students to do meaningful science that would contribute to their community, getting them out and about, and getting them involved in an environmental issue.” That sounds like another definition for citizen science. Caditz continues, “Developing student leadership was also important. The first year I did everything, but over time I gradually transferred responsibility to the students—as the program matured, seniors began taking control, and they’re now coaching all newcomers.” In the process the team has helped Santa Barbara Channelkeeper achieve an important objective—establish a comprehensive baseline of ambient water quality for the Carpinteria watershed—the initial goal is to span a decade and the program has been running for a little over five years.

Volunteers receive training in scientifically-sound water sampling techniques, gain knowledge in ecology, chemistry, hydrology, and environmental policy, and learn about the specific water quality issues that are impacting their watershed as well as solutions to address those impacts. Driscoll notes, “Our volunteers become watershed stewards and educate their peers about local water quality issues, causing a ripple effect that creates heightened environmental awareness, more environmentally conscious practices and behaviors, and support for stronger environmental policies, all of which contribute to a stronger and healthier community.” To date, Channelkeeper has trained over 1,000 Stream Team volunteers.

Pharibe Pope, a senior from Baltimore and a student leader in the group says, “Once a month, usually on Saturdays, we split up into two teams and visit seven sites around Carpinteria to take our water samples. We eat pizza, drive home and complete the lab work over the following two days.”

Another senior, Amanda Ebling is soft spoken but purposeful as she displays the leadership she is learning when she says, “Last year I was a co-head, and we were transitioning in learning how to organize the test dates, getting other students to participate, do all the calibrations of the meters, and even arrange the cars and drivers. And this year it’s all up to us.” Caditz will be melting into the background as his students take the lead.

This water quality citizen science program is growing up with about 10 Cate students every year. Along with purposeful science and pollution prevention efforts, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper is fostering environmental stewardship, while Cate School nurtures leadership. This seems to be an alchemy from which both crowdsourced science and young lives are bubbling—the perfect way to celebrate World Water Monitoring Day.


Stream Team is one of more than 800 citizen science projects on SciStarter. Visit the project site to get started and if you want more, use our project finder to search for citizen science that piques your interest!

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Citizen Science and Water Monitoring: How Healthy is the Water Near You?

By Arvind Suresh | September 17, 2014 2:38 pm

On September 18th of each year, the World Water Monitoring Challenge (WWMC) encourages people around the world to test the quality of the water near them, share their findings, and become inspired to protect one of the most important (if not the most important) resource on our planet. 

In celebration of the WWMC, SciStarter’s editors are floating a handful of water projects by you in our latest newsletter!



World Water Monitoring Day
Use a DIY kit to sample your local water body for basic water quality parameters: temperature, acidity (pH), clarity (turbidity), and dissolved oxygen. Create world map of the health of water bodies in the process. Get started! Read More

The Key to Unlocking Collaborative Conservation for Birds

By Caren Cooper | September 15, 2014 11:33 am
State of the Birds 2014. (Image Credit: Fish and Wildlife Service/Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

State of the Birds 2014. (Image Credit: Fish and Wildlife Service/Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published as part of Caren Cooper’s Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop. Interested in citizen science opportunities of the feathered kind? Check out Celebrate Urban BirdsNorth American Bird Phenology Program, NestWatch and many more bird themed citizen science projects on SciStarter.

This was a big week in the news for citizen science in bird conservation. Audubon released a report on projected impacts of climate change on birds. The annual State of the Birds report was released at an event in Washington, DC. One partner in the State of the Birds is the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI) Committee. Given the citizen science data used in the Audubon report and State of the Birds report, the NABCI chose a timely focus for the fall issue of their All-Bird Bulletin: The Power of Citizen Science for Bird Conservation. I was asked to write the concluding article, which I’m sharing here.

One of the biggest mysteries that puzzles ornithologists and birdwatchers alike is not about the songs of birds, or their nesting, or even their migration. The biggest mystery about birds is how humanity can best co-exist with them. When we manage our natural resources, we cannot tell birds when to migrate, which routes to take, or where to nest. We can only manage people and habitats in ways that we think will influence birds for the better. Can citizen science help provide answers to resolve this co-existence mystery? We think so.

A lot can be accomplished without citizen science. Scientists are taught to do research, publish it, and to tell managers about their findings. Birdwatchers are taught to join conservation organizations, adopt green behaviors, and write to elected officials. In this way, bird conservation is a balanced mix of rigorous science and shared public values and it gets us pretty far. But birdwatchers collect a lot of information that can be used to achieve our desire for bird conservation—if we make effective use of it. In this way, bird watchers become citizen scientists.

Citizen science is a way to discover more about birds and leverage the human dimension of conservation. With it we can gain both a shared understanding of birds and a shared concern for birds. Here are three ways citizen science expands our options for conservation:

First, citizen science not only makes good science but also fosters good citizenship. Good citizenship arises because people are empowered by the process of co-creating knowledge. There is something transformative about discovery—new knowledge enables people to see the world differently— which is a major force for change. When birdwatchers join citizen science projects, they are entering a powerful collaborative effort.

Birdwatchers have always been responsive to conservation. In response to declines in bird species at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, people shifted from killing birds to watching them, and the term “birdwatching” was born. Conservation-oriented birdwatchers transformed the Christmas Side Hunt into the Christmas Bird Count. They switched from collecting eggs to monitoring nests. In the 1960s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sparked the formation of the Breeding Bird Survey and the Nest Record Cards (now called NestWatch). Birdwatchers, and serious birders, are adjusting their hobbies to advance research and conservation. Most recently, concern for birds moved eBirders to see the value of not only reporting additions to their life lists, but in repeatedly creating complete checklists that indicate the presence and absences of species at a site. As birdwatchers discover what’s possible with their collective observations, through programs such as eBird and Breeding Bird Survey, they increasingly engage in citizen science. In the past, by the thousands. Now by the tens of thousands. One day, perhaps, by the millions.

Joining with others in citizen science to gain a shared understanding of the world is a powerful feeling. Studies in informal science education have just begun to explore the empowerment aspects of citizen science. One of the first evaluations of social impacts of  citizen science began with a focus on learning and attitude changes from citizen science participation in ornithology in 2005. They found that people learned more about birds, but didn’t detect changes in attitudes about birds or science, probably because people self-select into the project and came to the project with highly positive attitudes already. Since then other studies have found that participation by “newbies” in citizen science can lead to more positive attitudes about science. Now new, more sensitive, evaluation instruments have been developed and we await more studies of participants in ornithological citizen science.

Meanwhile, studies of citizen science in other disciplines have found that participation can lead to increases in awareness, knowledge, interest, skills, attitudes, and conservation behaviors. For example, in Texas, researchers documented that volunteers who monitor water quality gained social capital through community networking on environmental issues and this has led to increased capability of the community to address these issues. In North Carolina, researchers found that volunteers monitoring the nesting of Loggerhead Sea Turtles gained local expertise and now co-manage this endangered species with the state agency. They even undertake adaptive management by adjusting their field practices according to the results of the monitoring.

In the Midwest, researchers found that people monitoring Monarch butterfly larva have experienced an increase in their feelings of connection with nature, which subsequently led to conservation actions. In Louisiana, vulnerable communities collected data on exposures to health risks after the Gulf Oil Spill. These data made their way into the hands of policy-makers (though sadly did not result in new policy). In the western U.S.,  collaborative monitoring of forest resources by immigrant communities built trust among agencies and stakeholders. Taken together, it seems that citizen science can create communities with resilience that arises from being able to learn and respond.

Second, citizen science is one of the few tools for the study and management of residential lands. While much of the nation’s public lands remain important natural areas for birds, residential lands matter too. According to The State of the Birds 2012 Report, about 60 percent of land in the United States is privately owned. In western states, public lands abound, but in the East, some states are as much as 98 percent private. We cannot rely on public lands to harbor and sustain all bird species. As urban sprawl increases, residential communities hold the potential to make or break conservation efforts. Landowners engage, intentionally and unintentionally, in actions that affect, for better or worse, the conservation of birds.

Citizen science projects like YardMap are designed to increase people’s capacity to manage their residential lands for birds. Imagine implementing the recommendations from books like Steve Kress’s The Bird Garden and collectively evaluating each recommendation via YardMap? Logistically, how else can we study and effectively manage millions of dispersed, relatively tiny parcels of land in a coordinated way? As managers of their own property, the public has the potential to adaptively manage residential landscapes at scales that have continental significance. Citizen science thus can bring inclusive and deliberative approaches to create a new culture of landuse practices with significant conservation potential. In this scenario, citizen scientists become agents of the public good and facilitators of research and conservation.

Third, citizen science is a way for the public to bring both values and knowledge to the decision-making table. The perspectives, ideas, values, and opinions of members of the public are valid influences on policy, and these can be benchmarks that decision makers use to make informed judgments on issues. Through participation in citizen science, members of the public can also contribute to the other key part of the decision-making equation: formation of scientific knowledge. For example, scientific research via citizen science could tell policy makers how many birds might be at risk from the placement of a communication tower along a flyway; public values can tell policy makers the benchmark, that is, the amount of risk that is acceptable.

Thus, with citizen science the most heightened civic engagement is possible: contributions to the formation of new knowledge and articulation of values. People can hold different values, disagree in their opinions, and be informed by different experiences, but knowledge derived from sound science is reliable, repeatable, and indisputable. With citizen science, the public can engage in the science and that leaves room for public discourse on the values. The cautionary flag is to avoid inadvertent advocacy by clearly distinguishing value judgments from scientific information. Citizens can by all means contribute both but must do so distinctly.
Citizen science advances scientific research, provides informal science education, can facilitate social and environmental change, brings fulfillment, joy, enriching experiences, and scientific discoveries, creates networks with social capital, and the list goes on. Despite how far citizen science has taken us, however, it is still in its infancy. The bottom line is that the participatory process of citizen science is operating in the service of society by informing collaborative conservation decisions and solutions based on shared evidence and shared values.



Cancer Research is Rocketing into Space and You are Invited to Take the Pilot’s Seat

By Carolyn Graybeal | September 8, 2014 11:47 am
Playing Games to Advance Cancer Research (Image Credit: Cancer Research UK)

Playing Games to Advance Cancer Research (Image Credit: Cancer Research UK)

In Discover Magazine’s November print issue the article ‘Trial and Error’ talks about the many reasons why progress in cancer research is slow. This article details how citizen scientists can speed up cancer research by playing games that crowdsource analysis of cellular and genetic data. 

Gene duplication or gene amplification is characteristic of many cancers, the result of errors during cellular replication. When a cell replicates, a process called mitosis, the genetic material of the cell needs to be duplicated. While there are built in check points during the replication process, errors can sometime sneak in. Some errors are subtle such as a switch of a single nucleotide, for example a guanine (G) to an adenine (A). Other times the errors are duplication or omission of a part of a chromosome, several parts or even the whole chromosomes. When parts of a chromosome are duplicated or omitted, the genes residing on those pieces of chromosome are also duplicated or omitted. This is a phenomenon called copy number variation. Researchers have observed that certain cancers are associated with increases in copy numbers of genes.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: citizen science

Mission Control Calling All Artists!

By Angus Chen | September 5, 2014 2:27 pm
NASA/Cassini: Images taken from space like this one of Saturn by the Cassini spacecraft can find their way into JPL infographics

NASA/Cassini: Images taken from space like this one of Saturn by the Cassini spacecraft can find their way into JPL infographics

Scrolling through the infographics webpage at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or JPL at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, feels like browsing through a digital science museum. You can click on anything from interactive graphics detailing the history of space exploration to sprawling posters on exoplanets. Over the past two years, JPL has been inviting graphic designers to blend art and science to create these visual features drafted from images sent back from spacecraft or 3D models conjured up at JPL.

Graphic designer Justin Moore and Jon Nelson, JPL’s online content manager, started the project to bring planetary science to the general public. Nelson says that in the past, JPL’s science presentations were too technical and difficult for people outside of the JPL community to understand. He wanted to find a way to present the information in a way that was going to be easy and engaging.

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Crowdsourcing Synthetic Biology

By Arvind Suresh | August 29, 2014 2:13 pm
Biology + Engineering = Synthetic Biology

Biology + Engineering = Synthetic Biology (Image Credit: Shutterstock / Tarchyishnik Andrei )

At first glance, the terms ‘synthetic’ and ‘biology’ seem like parts that wouldn’t quite fit with each other. Ironically though, not only do they fit together, but creating and putting parts together is what synthetic biology is all about. Except in this case, the parts aren’t made out of steel or plastic that are manufactured in a factory. The parts are made out of DNA, RNA and proteins. Building blocks that make up living things. Synthetic biology, as defined by the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc) consortium “is the design and construction of new biological entities such as enzymes, genetic circuits, and cells or the redesign of existing biological systems.” Synthetic biology, which is equal parts biology and engineering, is emerging as one of the hottest fields in basic and applied research around the world. The applications of synthetic biology are far and wide, ranging from engineering bacteria that can clean up waste to creating more effective vaccines and delivering drugs with precision.

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SciStarter’s Back to School Citizen Science Backpack!

By Arvind Suresh | August 29, 2014 3:38 am
SciStarter Goes Back to School!

SciStarter Goes Back to School! (Image Credit: Shutterstock / YuriImaging )

It’s that time of the year when SciStarter goes back to school! Our Project Finder is full of citizen science projects perfect for the classroom. Why citizen science in the classroom you ask? Well here are 8 great reasons why citizen science works in the classroom!

We highlight 10 projects here that can be used in the classroom, as homework assignments, or as after school family activities across a variety of subjects and age groups. For more classroom projects take a look at our classroom picks!

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MORE ABOUT: citizen science

How Citizen Science is Helping Us Cross the Quantum Computing Barrier

By Arvind Suresh | August 29, 2014 2:03 am
Quantum Computers - The Future of Computing

Making Quantum Work – The Future of Computing (Image Credit: Shutterstock / winui )

“Every story has its own beginning”, writes Jacob Sherson, an associate professor of Physics at Aarhus University (AU) in Denmark on his blog. The story of his citizen science project, Quantum Moves, began at the Max Planck Institute in Garching, Munich where he was a post-doctoral. Along with his colleagues, he was working on an experimental system that could manipulate individual atoms, a fundamental requirement of creating a quantum computer.

I’m no physicist myself and it took me a while to even begin to understand how a quantum computer might work. So bear with me here as I attempt to describe it to you. The guts of any computer are really tiny transistors that can be in one of two states; 0 or 1. Thus all information that passes through a computer is represented by a string of ‘bits’ which are either 0s or 1s. One way by which computing power has increased exponentially over the years is by manufacturing smaller and smaller transistors. This allows us to pack more of them within a given space hence increasing the ability of the computer to process larger amounts of information at once. But as you can see, there exists an inherent size limitation here. We will soon reach a point where the smallest transistor would have been made with currently available technology. So where do we go from there for more processing power?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Uncategorized
MORE ABOUT: citizen science

Informing NASA’s Asteroid Initiative: Your Chance to Participate!

By Arvind Suresh | August 28, 2014 1:00 pm
Asteroid Sample Retrieval

Asteroid Sample Retrieval

August 28, 2014


In its history, the Earth has been repeatedly struck by asteroids, large chunks of rock from space that can cause considerable damage in a collision. Can we—or should we—try to protect Earth from potentially hazardous impacts?

How about harvesting asteroids for potential economic benefits? What do we do if we find an asteroid that threatens Earth? How should we balance costs, risks, and benefits of human exploration in space?

Sounds like stuff just for rocket scientists. But how would you like to be part of this discussion? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Uncategorized

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Citizen Science Salon, brought to you by SciStarter, is where science enthusiasts can join forces with top researchers. We'll feature weekly collaborative, crowdsourced, and DIY research projects that relate to what you're reading about in Discover, so you can take science into your own hands. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

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