Lots of spring break movies, a new citizen science project, better-late-than-never obituaries for women, and more stuff we like.
Not only was my family sick over our winter vacation in December, my kids are sick again now, a month later, and so am I. Sigh. But, I found the perfect citizen science project to go along with my sore throat.
Flu Near You is a tool that allows individuals to report and track infectious diseases. It was created by epidemiologists at Harvard, Boston Children’s Hospital and The Skoll Global Threats Fund because tracking flu symptoms is slow when they rely on doctor’s offices to do the reporting. Many people don’t even visit the doctor when they have flu-like symptoms.
If you sign up with Flu Near You, your personal information will remain completely confidential, and your report will be anonymous to the researchers. Once a week, you’ll receive an e-mail reminding you to report any symptoms—or no symptoms—that your family is experiencing. Even if you don’t think you have the flu, but you have a sore throat, you should report that. You cannot know for certain if you have the flu unless you visit a doctor, so Flu Near You does not expect you to know exactly what you have. You simply click on any symptoms. They have recently added more symptoms so that they can identify potential outbreaks of other diseases, such as Zika, Chikungunya, or Dengue fever.
It only takes a minute to make the report. Flu Near You will collect these reports and list them on a map that you can access on their website. This way, you’ll know if there is a flu outbreak where you are traveling to or in your local area. If there is, you can take extra precaution.
I signed up for Flu Near You, and they only asked me for my e-mail address, birthdate, gender, and zip code. I was able to add other family members using nicknames, but this was optional. When reporting, I simply click on any symptoms we have (or “no symptoms”) and then click “report.” It was that easy.
And that’s my year of citizen science projects! Thank you to everyone who has been following along.
This month I stumbled upon an interesting citizen science project that anyone can participate in from his or her computer. Three scientists from Harvard University, the University of Washington and the University of Virginia founded Project Implicit in 1998. According to its website, “Project Implicit is a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition - thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a ‘virtual laboratory’ for collecting data on the Internet.”
Once you register on the site, you can return again and again and take several tests, but if at any time you decide you would rather not participate, you can just close your browser to quit. The site is secure and will protect your privacy. According to scistarter.com, there are more than 90 different topics being tested. They seem to appear in a random order.
So far I’ve taken two of the tests, and the first one took me about 15 minutes. The second one took less than 10 minutes. They were not difficult tests, although figuring out what they were testing was a puzzle. Although I was given results at the end, I still wasn’t sure what it was about. However, I’m happy to help research as I continue my year of citizen science projects. Speaking of which, I have one to go! If you’ve enjoyed participating in any of these projects, I’d love to hear about it.
It’s that time of year when I am making an extra effort to check the weather report everyday because I never know if there’s going to be a frost, so I need to bring some plants inside, or if the day will be unusually warm, so I need to pull out some T-shirts for my boys. This is why I am happy to help the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) with their Meteorological Phenomena Identification Near the Ground (mPING) project.
That may be a mouthful of a project name, but it’s actually quite simple. The NSSL created an app called mPing so that everyone, including you, can quickly report the weather in your area. The information you send is completely anonymous. This is helpful because weather radars cannot see the ground level. According to their website, these reports are used by the NOAA National Weather Service to fine-tune their forecasts, and the NSSL uses them to develop new radar forecasting technologies and techniques.
I downloaded the app onto my smartphone, and I was happy to see that it’s very easy to use. You simply tap “Report Type,” and pick the appropriate report, such as “Rain” or “Hail.” You may be asked more specific questions such as the approximate size of the hail, etc. After that is done, you simply tap “Submit Report.” This is especially helpful to do before, during and after a storm.
For more citizen science project ideas, click here!
I know I have claimed past citizen science projects as easy to do, but Project Squirrel must surely be the easiest. That is, if you live in an area with squirrels. There is a guide on the website that will help you identify the kind of squirrels that live in your area. In my yard, we only have grey squirrels.
All you need to do is fill out a quick form online stating your location, the number of squirrels you see, and a little bit about the habitat. It literally took me less than five minutes while I was sitting on my porch watching the squirrels forage around in the leaf litter. The hardest part will be remembering to do this four times a year, which is what the researchers at Project Squirrel hope you’ll do. I put some reminders on my calendar.
Why study squirrels? Well, for one thing, squirrels are easily identifiable, and most people are familiar with them. They are found in most American cities. Squirrels are also diurnal, and they don’t hibernate during the winter. This makes them easy for citizen scientists to study.
Scientists want your data on squirrels because they can tell a story about the ecosystem you live in. Many other animals depend on the same food that squirrels depend on. If there is a predator in the area preying on squirrels, that predator is probably preying on other animals too. The more people who contribute to this study will help researchers learn about local and regional ecosystems.
Like I said, it was very easy and took very little time. Just walk outside, count how many squirrels you see, and fill out a short form online. Done!
Have you participated in a citizen science project this year? Please tell me about it.
This month I focused on the citizen science project Bugs In Our Backyard, which, you can probably guess, is about finding bugs in your own backyard. Seems easy, right? Bugs are everywhere! (Except when you are trying to find them.)
I gotta tell you, this was a little more time consuming than my previous citizen science projects. In the end, it turned out not to be hard, so I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying it, but there are more steps to take.
For a busy homeschooling mom who would like to do things quick, quick, quick, I got a little hung up on the paperwork and the fact that one way to look for bugs is to find a tree or plant and then describe all the bugs on it and around it. You see, I went outside, found a tree, and I couldn’t find any bugs. Then I found another tree, and I found some bugs, but they were mostly ants, and I couldn’t identify the ant species. (They offer a field guide on their website for the most common bugs you might find, but, of course, I wasn’t finding any of those.) You also need to describe, measure and identify the tree or plant and take photos of everything.
I took photos of those first bugs I found, but then I put off filling out the paperwork. This probably had more to do with how busy I was at the time, but the form to fill out asked for my latitude and longitude, and sigh, I didn’t feel like trying to figure that out on top of everything else. So, I put this project off a month.
Fast forward, and I felt refreshed and determined to complete this project. I sat down and read all the fine print (which is 3 pages long), and I realized that I could just go outside and look for bugs that weren’t attached to any plant, but if I did that, I would have to fill out a separate form for each bug on their website. Well, okay, if I must.
They do have some pretty cool activities on their website for students, and if you have a child who’s interested in bugs, you’ll probably love this project and their teaching modules. I printed out some Bingo scavenger hunt pages for my boys, and they went outside looking for the items on their sheets while also helping me look for bugs. They had fun.
We found some cool bugs, but only one of them was on a tree. I took photos, and later at my computer, it was pretty easy for me to identify them by googling their descriptions. And I also found out it’s easy to find out one’s latitude/longitude with a quick google search too. So, ahem, I was just being lazy before.
I decided to report only three bugs because you do have to fill in separate forms for each. I found a large cicada, a Largus and a Saddleback caterpillar. It didn’t take long to fill out the forms and upload my photos.
Like with any citizen science project, when you do it once, you realize it’s not hard, and it would be easy to continue to help the project by continuing to find and report. I think Bugs in Our Backyard could be made easier by letting participants fill out one form per site (like a yard instead of just a tree), but I understand that there’s a reason the researchers need their data reported this way too. It’s a worthy project, especially if you have children who like looking for bugs.
Let me know, if you try out any of these citizen science projects, and tell me what your experience was like.
I’m calling this month's citizen science project “not quite” because technically, it’s not a citizen science project. That is, it is not supporting any kind of research, and there are no scientists or researchers involved in this. Instead, it’s a group of volunteers who are striving to help the Monarch butterflies, which studies are showing to be in decline.
As you may know, Monarchs are the only butterfly species who make a mass migration. They travel up to 3,000 miles! During the summer months, they live in the northern U.S. and Canada, and then they migrate to Mexico for the winter months. (We usually see them in our yard around October.) You can read more about this incredible phenomenon on this National Geographic page.
When my eldest son was seven, we raised two generations of painted lady butterflies. (You can read more about that in the Summer 2014 issue of home/school/life magazine.) Now I have plans to raise butterflies again, but this time, I’d like to raise Monarchs. I knew that before I do that, I’d need to grow milkweed in my yard because this is the host plant that the Monarch larvae or caterpillars feed on. This is how I stumbled upon LiveMonarch.com.
As it turns out, growing milkweed is a good thing because part of the reason that Monarch butterflies are decline is loss of habitat, i.e. loss of the milkweed plant.
LiveMonarch.com is run by the Live Monarch Foundation, a United Charitable Program. Their mission is to educate everyone about habitat loss and what they can do to assist the Monarch butterflies. For a $3 donation, they will send you 150 milkweed seeds! (If you don’t need that many seeds, you can donate some of them. See the different options on their website.) They will also make sure you get the proper seeds that you need to plant in your region and directions on how to grow the milkweed.
Even though this isn’t exactly citizen science, I thought it deserved a place in “My Year of Citizen Science” because 1) it’s easy to order and grow the milkweed, 2) it’s a great project to do while you learn about the butterfly life cycle, which is part of any homeschooler’s science curriculum, and 3) you’d be helping the Monarchs, which researchers and scientists are trying to do too! And who knows? It might inspire you to raise butterflies too!
Not sure you have time to do citizen science with your kids? Well, you have time for this project. It’s the easiest citizen science project ever!
The University of Oklahoma Natural Products Discovery Group is asking you to send them a soil sample from your backyard. All you have to do is go to their website, order a kit, which is free (although they welcome $5 donations to cover the cost of the kits), and once you receive your kit, follow the simple directions for how to collect the soil.
The kit comes with a short form to fill out, a scoop, and a small plastic baggy. Open the package carefully because it converts into a pre-paid mailer that you will drop back into the mailbox once you have collected your sample. It literally took my son and I less than 10 minutes to do this project!
Why do they want your soil? They are looking for the microscopic life in it. There are many kinds of fungi, and most of it we cannot see with the naked eye, but it could be life saving. They are using these samples to find molecules that might fight cancer or stop the spread of infectious pathogens or any other deadly disease. Since there are millions of different kinds of fungi on earth, you might have something they don’t have in your backyard.
Not only is this project easy, it will help your child understand the importance of scientific research, and you may be helping to save lives too.
Before you mail off your sample, you will write down a soil sample i.d. number, and with this, you’ll be able to track your sample on their website, find out how many fungi came out of your sample and also see photos of these amazing organisms! (It may take awhile before your sample shows up in their database, so be patient.)
What citizen science projects have you participated in?
When I spoke with the naturalist at our local nature center about citizen science projects, she recommended that all kids use either Project Noah or iNaturalist to keep track of their nature discoveries. So during April, I decided to take some time and get to know what these projects were and how we could begin using them at home.
Project Noah and iNaturalist are very similar. They are both crowdsourcing tools that can help scientists and researchers study wildlife in your backyard. Through their websites or apps, you can simultaneously keep track of your nature discoveries, connect with other people who love nature, get help identifying that plant, bug or animal that you don’t know the name of and also help scientists with their research.
In each of them, you can also join one or more groups that focus on a particular place or specific plants or animals. This is a great way to connect with other people in your area or who are interested in birds, for example, or plants…whatever you like observing and taking photos of the best! In Project Noah, these groups are called “missions,” and in iNaturalist, they are called “projects.”
I signed up for both of these programs, but I was disappointed to discover that I could not find the Android app for Project Noah in Google Play. Perhaps it’s being updated? I sent a message to Project Noah to ask about its status, but I haven’t received a reply yet. Sadly, if I can’t use my phone camera, I doubt I’ll be using Project Noah very often.
I had better luck with iNaturalist. I signed up on their website, and then I downloaded their app to my phone and signed in there. I’ve only uploaded one photo of a little hairstreak butterfly my son found in our yard the other day, so I’m still tinkering with the site. I’m excited to see there’s an option to keep a “journal” – a sort of blog – on there too! I did not see this option on Project Noah.
If you’re a member of iNaturalist, and you’d like to connect with me, my handle is “mamaofletters.” I look forward to sharing our nature discoveries with you!
For my third citizen science project that I began in March, I picked Project Budburst, and I highly recommend this for homeschoolers with young children because it’s super easy.
The researchers at Project Budburst would like you to pick a plant in your area that you can visit often and record the changes it makes through the seasons. You will then create an account on the their website and input the data you find.
If you visit their website, you’ll find easy directions, and there is a database of plants where you’ll probably find your plant. (There are certain plants that they would prefer you to observe, so be sure to check out that list.) Once you find your plant, you can download a chart that will tell you exactly what changes you need to look for with a space to record the date. You can pick a tree, shrub, flower…whatever you want!
I picked a flowering dogwood tree that is growing in my front yard. During this spring season, it’s been changing rapidly, so I’ve been checking it almost everyday! Here you can see the chart I’m using to record the date of my observations.
I’m going to be recording my observations year-round, but they also give you an opportunity to do a single report (that is, a one-time observation: click here for that report), so if you are facilitating a co-op class, that would be a great choice.
The study of the timing of how a plant or animal changes or moves with the seasons is called phenology. As you work on your budburst project, there are many pages on their website that will teach you about phenology, why it’s important, and how that’s teaching scientists about climate change. This page has a short video that I showed to my boys.
If you try out Project Budburst, I hope you’ll have fun and tell us about your experience!
The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual citizen science project that your family can participate in together.
If you read the Winter 2016 issue of home/school/life magazine, you may know that I made a resolution to do more citizen science projects this year in my Hands On Science column. While I hope to teach my boys more about citizen science and get them involved in some of the projects, this resolution is actually for me. My goal is for me to do them.
Why am I doing this? First, my oldest son has showed me how much I love science. (When I was in school, it was my most dreaded class!) So I think it’s really cool that I can become involved in real science even though I am not a credentialed scientist. I am doing this because I want to.
Second, as a homeschooling mom, I think the best way to get my kids excited about something is to do it myself. Also, if I learn about a subject thoroughly, I’ll be better able to teach my children.
Third, my oldest son has always been interested in science. I consider it my job to help him continue his interest, and I’m looking for other ways to teach science in a hands-on way.
I’m not sure how many citizen science projects I can tackle in a year, but for now, I’m going to try to do one project (or at least look into) one project per month. For January, I wanted to start easy. (You know, because I was also easing back into a routine after the holidays.)
For my first project, I picked Lab in the Wild because it is completely online, and I could do it from my desk chair. As the website states, “LabintheWild tests your abilities and preferences. At the end of each experiment, you will see a page with your personalized feedback, which lets you compare yourself and your performance to other people around the world. By participating, you contribute to research on people's similarities and differences and help improve users' experience when interacting with technology.”
So over the course of two weeks, I took the twelve short tests they have on their website. Each test takes about 5-10 minutes. (You could do it in one sitting, I guess, but they were a bit energy draining for me.)
- In “Can we guess your age?” I learned, for example, that I can distinguish between colors as well as a 15-year-old. (They were way off on my age!)
- In “Test your social intelligence,” I learned that I score higher than average when it comes to reading the emotions of others by looking in their eyes.
- In “What is your thinking style?” I learned that I am both intuitive and analytic.
Can this information help me in my daily life? Well, not really. But it’s fun and interesting nonetheless, and it’s helping the scientists.
After I finished taking the tests, I showed the site to my 9-year-old and explained the purpose to him. He wanted to try some of the tests, so he took three. He also took “Can we guess your age” and they guessed he was 17! (Not as far off as they were with me.) In the “What is Your Thinking Style?” test, he was more intuitive than analytical, and as for the “Do you have the reaction time of a cheetah?” test he learned that no, he’s not quite as fast as a cheetah. I wonder how he will score on these tests in 10 years or 20? That would be an interesting experiment!
If you have a few minutes, and want to help out some researchers, I dare you to try out these tests as well! Click on over to Lab In The Wild.