Citizen Science at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

By Caren Cooper | December 16, 2014 1:51 pm

“Citizen Science at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences,” is part of a SciStarter series highlighting Citizen Science at Science Centers.

People visit science museums when they are feeling curious. And when it rains. And when nieces and nephews visit, when there is a new dinosaur exhibit, and because it’s a compromise the whole family agrees upon. Life provides a zillion reasons to visit a science museum. Once there, museums stir the inner scientist that dwells in every individual. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has a mission that is eloquent and profound: to illuminate the interdependency of nature and humanity. That’s a mission I’ve chosen to accept, being a newly hired investigator in their Biodiversity Research Lab. I’m helping the NC Museum of Natural Sciences with one method they’ve been using to achieve their mission: citizen science. The Museum opens doors to welcome the public into the world of scientific research in the following ways:

Credit: Eric Knisley

Credit: Eric Knisley

On-exhibit research

The Museum facilities in downtown Raleigh are a living mash-up of informal learning and research and curation. One wing of the Museum is the Nature Research Center (NRC) where five productive research labs are on exhibit: Biodiversity (my new home), Astronomy, Microbiology, Paleontology, and Veterinary Medicine. The walls of these labs are made of glass. They literally serve as windows for visitors to see the lab equipment, workbenches, and computers and witness the scientists and students in their daily work. Other than National Geographic specials and the New York Times series, Scientists at Work: Notes from the Field, there are few other scenarios when the public gets a behind-the-scenes look at discovery-in-the-making.

Citizen science during visits to the NRC

Visitors of the Nature Research Center can get involved in several citizen science projects during their visit. These include projects in partnership with the Your Wild Life program at North Carolina State University. In these projects, visitors provide samples of the rich diversity of invisible life that make their home on our skin. In Meet Your Microbes, volunteers have provided data about themselves (as habitat) and physical samples of the microorganisms in the recess of their armpits (Armpit Life) and navels (Bellybutton Biodiversity). These studies have resulted in the discovery of new species and unexpected insights into the unprecedented diversity of the human microbiome. In Meet Your Mites, volunteers donate samples of mites that live in facial pores. Before visiting the Museum, you might think that the bravest explorers encounter lions and tigers, but visitors show courage, and a steady stomach, when encountering their living auras.

kids museum citizen science

Citizen science during field visits

A satellite of the Museum, about six miles away in the outskirts of Raleigh, is the Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Chris Goforth engages visitors in a variety of citizen science projects focused on long-term monitoring. These ongoing projects at the station include Chris’s own Dragonfly Swarm Project, as well as FrogWatch USA, Natural North Carolina’s Journal with iNaturalist, Neighborhood Box Turtle Watch, Turtle Trax, and Wading for Water Sticks. There are a handful more on the way in the coming year.

Enrolling in citizen science with the Museum

Visitors can enroll and receive instruction to participate in several projects run by Museum researchers which are leading to new discoveries. These project involve turning one’s home and backyard into a field site. In Cat Tracker, cat owners outfit their roaming feline pets with tracking collars to discover their secret incredible journeys. eMammal allows volunteers to use camera traps (motion-sensitive cameras) to identify the surprising (and flash! surprised) nocturnal animals that quietly live in residential neighborhoods. In a past project called LifeTrack, classrooms used GPS devices to track Great Egrets, each named after participating teachers. This spring, the Museum will help Neighborhood NestWatch (a project of the Smithsonian) expand to Raleigh, to understand the challenges faced by songbird populations residing among urban backyards. My upcoming program, The Counter Culture, will include partnerships and projects to investigate consequences of the spatial distribution of environmental stressors, such as noise and light pollution and chemical contaminants. For example, I am starting an as-yet-to-be-named eggtraordinary project for volunteer collection of eggs of the very abundant, non-native house sparrow. After curating the eggs (on-exhibit at the Museum), we can use the eggs to map areas of high and low levels of contaminants. Wild bird eggs are eggcellent biomonitoring tools and can inform communities of hazards. (Have an idea for this project’s name? Send me a tweet @CoopSciScoop).

kiosk scistarterVisitors to the Citizen Science Center, located within the Nature Research Center, can also use the SciStarter kiosk to learn about and enroll in over 800 projects from institutions around the world which they could opt to do any time of year.

Citizen science with teachers

The Museum works collaboratively with NCSU on a program called Students Discover. Selected teachers serve as Keenan Fellows and spend their summer training in one of the on-exhibit labs, engaging in a citizen science project, and preparing lesson plans for teachers to engage students in real-world research projects.

Citizen Science to Solve Problems

Science happens in a complex social matrix. Some influential forces drive science in ways that do not necessarily represent the needs and desires of people. Sometimes there is a gulf between academics and the rest of humanity, which is a serious problem. The solution is to push science out into public view and offer up the system of validating new knowledge so that it is accessible to all. Science is fantastic at making new knowledge. But science is only great at solving problems when it is not cordoned off from society by layers of jargon and opaque walls. The on-exhibit research labs and citizen science at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences move discovery to the mainstream.

A new gold standard for citizen science practice is that people will do more than contribute data, and researchers will do more than use the data: together, a new relationship between scientists and public can be created. That’s the best reason to visit a science museum!



Citizen Science Salon

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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.

About Caren Cooper

Dr. Caren Cooper is also a blogger for the Public Library of Science, guest contributor to Scientific American, and Director of Research Partnerships at She is founder and moderator of #CitSciChat, Twitter Q&A session about citizen science. She is assistant director of the Biodiversity Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. As Senior Fellow in the Environmental Leadership Program, she has a forthcoming book about citizen science. She is co-editor-in-chief of Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, a new journal of Citizen Science Association. She has authored over 50 scientific papers, co-developed software to automate metrics of incubation rhythms, and is co-creator of NestWatch, CamClickr, Celebrate Urban Birds, YardMap, and the Sparrow Swap. She likes to propel herself on one wheel, two wheel, and eight wheel devices. Follow her on Twitter @CoopSciScoop


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