Citizen Science

This is where you stop just reading about discoveries in our universe, and start making ’em. Here is an incomplete list of ways that you can get involved, now, in helping scientists make scientific discoveries, through playing online games, examining epic space photos, documenting wildlife encounters and more. If you find any projects out there that you particularly like and think should be listed here, let me know!

Firstly, Science For Citizens and Citizen Science Alliance both have many citizen science projects to jump into. SFC has a huge and evolving database of all kinds of projects; the highest rated right now is EteRNA, an online game where you can design RNA and, if you win a weekly competition, have your RNA synthesized at Stanford to see how well it performs. This is a successor to Foldit (below), as researchers use mass brainpower to figure out the complicated rules of RNA folding that even computers can’t model. 

The Zooniverse is a collection of projects by the Citizen Science Alliance – for some reason not all of the Zooniverse’s projects are listed in the CSA website, so refer to the Zooniverse website. Most of the Zooniverse projects are space-related, including Planet Hunters (below); you can document features on the moon’s surface, classify the shapes of galaxies to help deduce how they formed, help find supernovae and more. 

Honestly I think the coolest Zooniverse project though is Ancient Lives – with the software on their site, you can translate ancient Greek papyri that were uncovered in 1907 but still aren’t translated, because of their sheer volume. How many people get to do that?

Moving on:

Foldit: An online game where you try to figure out the best configuration of a protein that scientists haven’t cracked yet. I wrote about it when Foldit players got into a Nature article for figuring out the structure of a protein necessary for HIV replication. This apparently took a few weeks to accomplish. 

Phylo: If you’re interested in Foldit or EteRNA, here’s another online genetics game, courtesy of McGill University: you match up DNA sequences between species to identify commonalities, for the eventual purpose of finding the sources of genetic diseases. I took a crack at it and the interface is very simple and potentially fun, but my meager puzzle-solving skills were sorely inadequate for this game. Sorry, science!

Planet Hunters: A website where you can analyze and discuss data from the Kepler spacecraft, looking for signs of exoplanets. I wrote about it when two candidate planets identified by Planet Hunters were acknowledged as legit by the Kepler team and published in a paper. This occurred after only a month of Planet Hunters having access to Kepler’s data. 

Field Expedition: Mongolia: Here you can examine satellite images over Mongolia looking for ancient structures, pointing out likely sites for National Geographic archaeologists to investigate on the ground. I’d watch the how to video purely based on its enthusiasm; when they bust out UAVs, you know it’s serious.

MAPPER: A website where you can analyze photos taken by the Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP), for the eventual goal of identifying possible life on Mars (NASA’s description). The PLRP is a joint project by NASA and the Canadian Space Agency where subs have taken many, many photos of the underwater environment in Pavilion and Kelly Lake in British Columbia. With MAPPER participants’ help, they’re analyzing a particular feature of the environment that may help grant an understanding of where life can exist on Mars “and beyond”. 

Stardust@Home: Here you can look at images from NASA’s Stardust mission looking for stardust – particles of dust older than our sun that formed around other stars and now form pieces of comets in our solar system. The mission’s purpose was to analyze the components of comets to learn about the history of our solar system.  


There are a huge number of citizen science projects that involve that whole “outdoors” thing; Science for Citizens has tons of them, and here are a few.

The Christmas Bird Count: The real deal, what Wikipedia cites as probably the longest-running citizen science project (started in 1900). Every year, tens of thousands of people volunteer to go bird watching for a day, and a giant census is compiled. American participants get sent an issue of American Birds with summaries and articles on the data. 

World Water Monitoring Day: Not exactly a “day”; for most of the year, people around the world are invited to use a test kit to monitor the water quality in a local body of water. This data is collected, analyzed and published by the Water Environment Federation and International Water Association. Last year they had 212,000 participants from 85 countries. 

eBirdNestWatch and FeederWatch: The Christmas Bird Count’s inevitable 21st century parallel. Each of these are sites for submitting bird observations: eBird for bird sightings, NestWatch for nest observations, and FeederWatch for, you guessed it, feeder observations. eBird and NestWatch are year-round and world-wide, FeederWatch is in Canada and the U.S. during the winter. These are all projects of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, with the National Audubon Society (eBird), the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (NestWatch), and Bird Studies Canada (FeederWatch). Participants can see all the gathered data online, and the data will be published in academic papers. 

ECOCEAN Library: The Christmas Bird Count’s x-treme parallel, where contributors can submit photos and data from their encounters with whale sharks, who can then be individually identified for conservation efforts. 

CocoRaHS: The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network; in the U.S. only. Participants measure precipitation whenever that time comes (this must be popular in Boston and Seattle) and submit their data online; this data is used by the National Weather Service and just about anyone who has a vested interest in meteorology. Its main sponsors are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation

This list only scratches the surface of all the projects out there that you can get involved in to contribute to scientific research, while having fun and doing something awesome. Find something you enjoy and explore your universe!


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