Five Ways To Make Citizen Science A Year-Round Passion

By U Cast Studios
June 4, 2024

Five Ways To Make Citizen Science A Year-Round Passion
Image Courtesy Of The U.S. Science Foundation

Less than a decade ago,  SciStarter launched Citizen Science Day, which is dedicated to increasing awareness of citizen science and connecting volunteers to scientific projects in which they can participate.

This article was originally published by The U.S. National Science Foundation.

Citizen science is open to all individuals who want to contribute to and accelerate scientific research and discoveries. Public engagement in science opens new research avenues, brings diverse perspectives and skill sets to research, and allows everyone to deepen their understanding and appreciation for science.

The idea was so popular that interest in citizen science could not be contained to a single day.

SciStarter, a U.S. National Science Foundation-funded organization that connects millions of people to thousands of citizen science projects worldwide, expanded its effort to encompass the entire month of April. During the most recent Citizen Science Month, the goal was “One Million Acts of Science,” an effort to collectively generate more than 1 million data points for featured projects.

But citizen science does not have to stop at the end of April. SciStarter helps connect people to projects and events year-round, and if you want to continue to contribute, here are five NSF-driven efforts where citizen scientists can help researchers:

1. Globe at Night

Seven out of 10 people in the U.S. have never seen the Milky Way galaxy in the night sky from where they live. This is likely due to light pollution, or the presence of excessive artificial lighting in an area. It is estimated that 99% of Americans experience skies that are more than 10% brighter than natural darkness. This washes out starlight, curtailing everyone’s views of the night sky and also interfering with astronomical research.

Globe at Night, supported by NSF  NOIRLab, combines measurements of the night sky from citizen scientists to create a global light pollution map and raise public awareness of the effects of light pollution.

Measurements can be taken an hour after sunset when the moon is not up. Citizen scientists compare how many stars can be seen in a constellation with how many stars should be visible. The data, paired with time and location, is used to create a light pollution map worldwide.

2. Project Sidewalk

Walkable cities are better for the environment, contribute to economic growth and improve the health of the population. They are also in demand among younger generations. But there is a need to make sure that all city sidewalks — current and future — are accessible to those with disabilities.

Project Sidewalk is funded by the Makeability Lab at the University of Washington, which is backed in part by NSF. The effort invites anyone with a web browser and internet access to virtually explore a neighborhood via Google Street View and find sidewalks, streets and businesses that could use upgrades or repairs to make them truly accessible.

The data collected is open and publicly available and can be used by city governments to prioritize certain places for sidewalk upgrades or repairs. It can and has been used by community members to lobby for more funding for sidewalk repairs.

The long-term goal of Project Sidewalk is to use the dataset to train computer vision and machine learning algorithms to detect accessibility problems automatically. If this data can be collected automatically, it will free up money in city budgets to do the sidewalk repairs.

3. Caterpillars Count

Arthropods are an important food source for birds and other wildlife. They also have economic and environmental impacts on forests and crops. Caterpillars, the life stage of certain arthropods, are one of the most important sources of food for many migratory birds.

The seasonal timing of caterpillar availability is especially important for birds, which try to time their spring migration so that insect food will be plentiful to raise their young successfully. If either insects or birds are not keeping up with shifts by other organisms due to climate change, this may have negative consequences for populations.

Caterpillars Count, part of the Pheno Mismatch project funded by NSF, relies on citizen scientists to conduct surveys of the plants and trees around them. Local observations help researchers track how the abundance of caterpillars and other insects varies over the seasons. The data collected by citizen scientists may also reveal patterns that scientists have not yet discovered.

4. Nectar Connectors

Phenology is the study of the timing and cyclical patterns of events in the natural world, including migration, flowering and hibernation. It is a vital field of ecological research that helps understand how living organisms respond to environmental cues such as day length, temperature and rainfall, and how climate change can impact these seasonal changes.

Phenological events and traits can often impact each other. For example, the migration of monarch butterflies — the longest-known migration for insects — is limited by the flowering of species whose nectar the butterflies eat. As flowering patterns change, or critical species lose their habitats or are impacted by climate change, the butterflies are affected.

Nectar Connectors is run by the USA National Phenology Network, which has been funded by NSF. The project asks citizen scientists to find nearby nectar sources and report their flowering. These observations will assist land managers, such as those from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in conserving these species and promoting habitat for monarchs and other pollinators.

5. Project FeederWatch

Researchers are working harder than ever to halt the decline of bird populations around the globe. Tracking birds to determine where they are — and where they aren’t — is critical to this effort.

Project FeederWatch, funded by the NSF-supported Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas and other locales in the U.S. and Canada. Citizen feeder watchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch.

The data helps scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance. Results are regularly published in scientific journals and are shared with ornithologists and bird lovers.

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