You don't have to be a rocket scientist to help astronomers learn about the Universe. You don't need a degree in biology to help track bird populations. Interested in what whale songs mean? You guessed it—you don't need to be an oceanographer to help scientists figure it out. All it takes is an interest and computer access and you can join the growing ranks of Citizen Scientists. Most projects provide tutorials or clear instructions on their websites. You don't even have to be an adult! Many projects are well-suited to children and teens or have special programs for younger participants.
Can you really make a difference?
Yes! Citizen Science relies on the power of crowdsourcing. The more people who participate, the more data can be collected or processed. For example, scientists working on the Old Weather Project estimate it would take 28 years for one person to transcribe and cross-check just one log book. But with the power of crowdsourcing, that could drop to just 6 months.
What if I make a mistake?
One of the beauties of crowdsourcing is that many people will work on the same data. If one makes a mistake, the others probably will get the right answer. So you can relax. Your work is being compared to other people's responses. Any error you might make will be caught and corrected.
Projects that will take you into the great outdoors
Great Backyard Bird Count
Every year this event, sponsored by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, takes place over a weekend in February. All you have to do is watch and count birds in your yard, a park, or at your bird feeder for as little as 15 minutes. Then enter your bird list online. The site includes an online bird guide and links to other bird count projects like eBird, a year-round bird count project, as well as a For Kids page. The 2013 Great Backyard Bird Count will take place February 15 - 18.
National Wildlife Refuges Chesapeake Bay App
This free app uses the Project Noah photo sharing site to track sightings of wildlife in 11 National Wildlife Refuges in the Chesapeake Bay region. Help scientists learn about the plants and animals in this threatened watershed close to home. The app is currently only available for Apple devices. But Android users can participate in several Project Noah missions set in some of the same National Wildlife Refuges, like the one set in Plum Tree Island National Refuge.
Watch plants in your own neighborhood or backyard and report important events during the growing season, like when you see the first leaf or first flower. If you don't want a long-term commitment, you can make single reports on certain types of plants. BudBurst Buddies is a special program for younger naturalists in the making.
Take pictures to document wildlife you spot and submit them to this online community with information about what you saw. Don't worry if you don't know exactly what it is you've photographed. Just leave the title blank or ask for help to identify it. Use the iPhone or Android apps to post spottings from your mobile device. Join specific missions to help scientists with ongoing research. Earn patches for the number of spottings you contribute and missions you join. Project Noah has an Education page where teachers can register their classes and encourage their students to participate in Project Noah missions.
Old Weather Project
Transcribe log notations, including weather observations, from U.S. ships since the mid-19th century and help scientists collect information about historical weather patterns. A tutorial explains the process in detail, and help boxes explain which information to include for each section. You can join the "crew" for a specific ship and work your way up in rank from ensign all the way to captain.
Look at pictures of the seafloor and help build a library of ocean wildlife off the Northeast coast of the United States. Identify the ground cover, like sand or pebbles, and mark fish, scallops, sea stars and more. A tutorial walks you through the process, and a discussion board lets you chat with other participants about the images you see. Data from Seafloor Explorer not only provides information about the creatures in the pictures, it will also help scientists build training sets of images to help automated systems learn to better identify what is in future images.
Did you know that each family of killer whales has its own dialect? Participants in this project listen to whale calls and categorize the sounds to help scientists understand what the whales are saying. This site includes calls from orcas and pilot whales. Each recording is also presented as a spectrogram so you can compare them visually, not just by what you hear. As with the other computer-based projects, there is a tutorial and plenty of online help available.
Find More Projects
This list barely scratches the surface of active citizen scientist projects. There are projects related to everything from archaeology to astronomy, from medicine to zoology. To learn more about Citizen Science and find other projects, check out these websites:
*Scientist clip art by Phillip Martin