While many science discoveries are the result of work by people trained as professional scientists, some important discoveries are the result of work by people who have no training in science.
Genetics is a branch of science that studies how living things pass along characteristics such as eye color or height from one generation to the next. It was developed by Gregor Johann Mendel, a friar in the Catholic Church. Electromagnetism explores how electricity and magnetism are related. It owes many of its most important discoveries to Michael Faraday, a man who received only a grammar school education. Today, Robert Evans, who spent most of his life as a church minister in Australia, holds the record for discovering more supernovas, a type of explosion in space, than anyone else. Evans has introduced a total of forty supernovas to the study of astronomy.
The Internet has made it easier for anyone to get involved in science research. Just like professional scientists, amateur scientists make observations and record data which they share with other scientists. People who conduct scientific research but do not have training as scientists are called citizen scientists.
A citizen scientist is someone who is passionate about science, but who does not have a degree in science from a college or university. Citizen scientists get involved with types of science that especially interest them. They may perform studies of their own or contribute the data they collect to projects run by professional scientists.
“Hundreds of years ago, before science was specialized, everyone did science,” Darlene Cavalier points out. Cavalier is a professor at Arizona State University. She is also the founder of SciStarter, a website that helps citizen scientists find projects that might interest them.
As citizen science has become more popular, its importance to scientific research has grown. In 2013 an article in the science journal PLOS One reported that the work of citizen scientists was vital to about 77 percent of all studies on climate change and bird migrations.
Scientists Solving Problems
Many people become involved in citizen science when they want to solve a problem that exists where they live. First, a group of citizen scientists identify a problem. Then, they may contact a professional scientist to help them plan a way to study that problem. The scientist may also give them advice on how to conduct experiments and collect data.
For example, people living near White Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, became interested in studying that body of water because of pollution. The clear waters of White Pond are popular with local people who like swimming and fishing. However, in 2015, the pond’s usually clear waters became clouded with cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria are a type of microscopic plant known as algae. Although cyanobacteria are always present in water, if the fertilizers used by farmers or gardeners accidentally get into a pond or lake, they can cause a rapid increase in the amount of algae. This sudden increase in cyanobacteria is called an algal bloom. Since excessive cyanobacteria is harmful to both people and animals, White Pond had to be closed for the summer.
Citizen scientists observed White Pond’s polluted water and collected data about what they saw. They then contributed their data to a project called the Cyanobacteria Monitoring Collaborative. The Cyanobacteria Monitoring Collaborative brings together members of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), water quality researchers, and citizen scientists to solve the problem of algal blooms.
Hilary Snook, the EPA’s program lead for the group, says that the data from citizen scientists studying White Pond were key in addressing this environmental crisis. The Concord citizen scientists helped “set off alarm bells and an urgency to find out what had caused this foul-smelling and unsightly cyanobacteria,” she says. “Often, [the local community is] who we look to, since we can’t be at all places at all times.”
There are now many opportunities online to get involved in citizen science. These are just a few examples.
Stream Selfie: Environmental protection advocacy group the Izaak Walton League sponsors a program called Stream Selfie. Citizens scientists are asked to take a picture of any stream that is important to them, answer a few questions about the stream’s quality and location, and then post the photo online. The group uses the photos and information to monitor water quality.
Rink Watch: Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, in Canada, sponsors this program that focuses on places with cold winters. Participants are asked to register a local skating rink or frozen skating pond online and then post this location to an online map. Throughout the winter, participants post updates about the condition of the rink or frozen pond. Researchers at the university use this data to learn more about local weather, as well as to study people’s participation in outdoor sports during the winter months.
Geckowatch: The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles sponsors this project to map the distribution of non-native gecko species in the United States. Through this study, researchers hope to determine the effect the exotic lizards have on native wildlife populations. Geckowatch researchers point out that non-native geckos have already managed to establish populations in 24 U.S. states. So far, with help of citizen scientists, the museum already has been able to discover two gecko species that had not been previously found in the Los Angeles area.
See other opportunities for citizen scientists at SciStarter.
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