As cities, states, and countries begin to reopen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us will still face restrictions for some time regarding what businesses and facilities we can access and where we can travel. This “new normal” means that most of us will still spend more time at home, or nearby, than we’re used to, and finding ways (much less, productive ways) to fill our time will become even more difficult.
If, in the past few months of staying at home, you’ve finished Netflix, perfected your sourdough bread, and sufficiently honed your cocktail-making skills, you’re probably looking for a new activity or skill to get involved with. If this is the case, consider joining a citizen science project.
National Geographic defines citizen science as “The practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs.”
Although the term “citizen science” was coined in the 1990’s by sociologist Alan Irwin, many people point to the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1900, as an early example of citizen science in action. In fact, “ordinary” (i.e. non-scientist) citizens have been participating in scientific research for decades, in areas such as astronomy, species counts, and environmental tracking. These activities primarily involved observation and data collection, but today, citizen science projects can include volunteers operating their own instruments, designing hardware or software, and analyzing data.
If you’re interested in becoming a citizen scientist, or just want to learn more about the projects available, here are four sites that allow you to search for projects based on criteria such as subject, location, and age range (especially helpful if you want to involve kids). Project disciplines vary by site, but they extend beyond the traditional STEM subjects you would expect in a “science” project. For example, the Zooniverse includes project categories for the arts, history, language, literature, and social science.
So regardless of your area of interest, available time, or whether you’re more comfortable at your computer analyzing data or out in the field gathering data, there’s a citizen project for just about everyone.
SciStarter is “an online community dedicated to improving the citizen science experience for project managers and participants.” SciStarter is the result of a graduate project at University of Pennsylvania and is now managed in part by Arizona State University.
Example Project: Speak to AI – An online, multiplayer word game to help advance artificial intelligence.
The Zooniverse is a “platform for people-powered research” and is a collaboration between the University of Oxford, Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, and the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, together with hundreds of researchers and millions of participants (citizen scientists) from around the world.
Example Project: Snapshot Serengeti – Classify animals caught on camera in Serengeti National Park to help conservationists learn what management strategies work best to protect some of Africa’s most elusive wildlife.
The NASA Citizen Science website lets you participate in real NASA science projects. Focus areas include the universe, the solar system, the sun, and the earth.
Example Project: Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 – Search the realm beyond Neptune for new brown dwarfs and planets.
This is an official government website “designed to accelerate the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science across the U.S. government.”
Example Project: The Milky Way Project – Analyze infrared images of the Milky Way Galaxy to help scientists understand how stars form and discover massive stars.