Thursday, April 21, 2011

Watching for

The last few posts we've moved away from our spring biology series and looked at some other aspects of citizen science and projects not tied to the season.  But now we're ready with the next "Spring into Citizen Science" project: FireflyWatch.   I've actually been holding back with this one since these fascinating insects aren't usually active until late April, but most states should start seeing them soon and I want you to be ready for them!

Although the project is run out of the Museum of Science in Boston and focuses on the New England area, they encourage participants from everywhere and have many participants from across the country. So don't feel shy about signing up.  It's a great project requiring minimum time commitments and can be enjoyed by people of all ages.  All you need is a backyard and ten minutes a week; the rest we'll let the fireflies do.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Check out the FireflyWatch: About the Project web page to read the project basics and learn more about these insects you've been fascinated by since childhood.
  2. Find a convenient place to do your firefly watching.  It can be a local meadow, schoolyard, or even your own backyard.
  3. Travel over to the Virtual Meadow to practice your watching skills and see examples of different types of fireflies you might encounter .  You'll also learn about the traits you'll be observing: Flash Color, Flash Pattern and Insect Location.
  4. Sign Up with the site and register the location you'll be observing from.  The questions are pretty simple and mainly ask what the nearby lighting is like, whether there are pools or creeks nearby, and information like that.
  5. Print out an FireflyWatch: Observations Form to write down everything you see.  The questions on here are pretty simple too; just the observations you learned about in the Virtual Meadow, as well as environmental conditions on that particular night.
  6. Return to the FireflyWatch web site, log in, and submit your observations.  That's it!

 Nothing can be simpler, or more fun, then taking your kids outside and asking them to watch fireflies.  It's the perfect summer evening!  And the best part is you'll be helping scientists understand these animals and teach your kids to become budding scientists.

Finally, after collecting all your observations come back tot he site and check out everyone else's observations.  Just click on FireflyWatch: View and Explore Data to see maps of firefly sightings by month, or to download data sets of all the collected information (including firefly patterns, environmental and site data, etc.) for your own analysis.  If you come up with some interesting findings they'd love to hear from you.  And when you do, make sure to let your OpenScientist friends on this site know about it too in the comments below. Everyone likes to hear about success, and this helps us give you the credit you deserve.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Science of Benjamin Franklin

"Electrical Battery" of Leyden jars
American Philosophical Society
Photo Credit: Peter Harholdt

See it yourself at the Franklin Institute
in Philadelphia!
We've taken a bit of time off and are back now with the latest OpenScientist Book-of-the-Month club entry, "Benjamin Franklin's Science" by I. Bernard Cohen.  Franklin has been rightfully touted as a statesman and inventor with a treasured place in American History.  But too often overlooked is that this self-made printer can also be considered one of America's first Citizen Scientists. 

By focusing on Franklin's scientific interests this book provides a refreshing peak at his intellectual pursuits.  Unfortunately it's still just a peek, but more than is gleaned from other biographies and hopefully inspires future writers to tackle his legacy from this perspective.

The book is laid out as a walkthrough discussion of his various discoveries, academic debates on how his theories evolved, and how they were received by his countrymen and fellow scientists worldwide. Of course much is focused on his experimentation with static electricity; from his introduction to leyden jars for collecting a charge and "batteries" of jars connected together to store larger charges, to the sentry box and his ultimate discovery and taming of lightning's electrical basis.  This is also the author's first big opportunity (on page 40) to describe how Franklin was first introduced to electricity and began experimenting with it himself:
According to his autobiography, Franklin saw his first electrical experiments in Boston. Here is his first account of this event and its consequences: 'In 1746, being at Boston I met there with a Dr. Spence, who was lately arrived from Scotland, and show'd me some electrical experiments. They were imperfectly perform'd, as he was not very expert; but being on a subject quite new to me, they equally surpris'd and pleas'd me. Soon after my return to Philadelphia, our library company received from Mr. P. Collinson, Fellow of the Royal Society of London, a present of a glass tube, with some account of the use of it in making such experiments. I eagerly siezed the opportunity of repeating what I had seen at Boston; and by much practice, acquir'd great readiness in performing those, also, of which we had an account from England, adding a number of new ones."
The author's dedication to researching his topic and writing about the academic debates still surrounding Franklin provide the reader insights not obtainable elsewhere.  Among these gems is a multi-page discussion (beginning on page 174) surrounding the origins of Franklin's interest in science and his connection to influential preacher Cotton Mather:
Those who think of Cotton Mather as the typical Puritan bigot may hold it odd that he had any influence on the liberal Franklin. Cotton Mather, however, has been a neglected figure in our history, and his full stature and character are not generally known. One revaluation of Mather has come from the study of his interest in science. It has been shown that he was the author of the first account of spontaneous hybridization in plants. His sponsorship of inoculation against the smallpox in 1721 has become part of the literature on colonial American medicine, and his manuscript treatise on medicine, The Angel of Bethesda, has been subject to scholarly analysis...Loving science implied, in Mather's terms, a respect for nature, a recognition that the empirical evidence of the operations of nature in the external world is in perfect harmony with the principles of revelation and true faith...Franklin, of course, had little sympathy with Cotton Mather's theological outpourings. Yet in Mather's activities in 'that realm of social experience' called by Max Weber 'the Protestant ethic', we may catch a glimpse of Franklin in the making.
It is in these sections that we see tantalizing glimpses of Franklin the Citizen Scientist.  He seems to follow the same route many current readers (and citizen scientists) do and works through many of the same emotions.  After all, he was just a working-class printer in a far-away colony who had left school at the age of 10.  What could he possibly contribute to science, and why should the college-educated elites listen to him?  Hindsight allows us to respect his piercing scientific mind, but in his shoes things are much less clear.  We even see it in his reaction following the famed kite-flying experiment, as described on page 98:
It seems to me, therefore, that an important reason why Franklin did not at once make public the results of the lightning experiment in June was the fear that no one would take him seriously; he did not want to compromise his reputation. After he had heard of the news from France [duplicating his initial results], he was then willing to publish a brief account of the kite, since he now had independent confirmation of what he had proved by means of this experiment.   

This theme continues when discussing the culture of Philadelphia and many like-minded people who shared similar interests.  For we should not just give Franklin credit for his own discoveries (prodigious as they may be) but also for his role in encouraging his fellow citizens to follow scientific developments and make their own contributions, regardless of background. 
Franklin's double role in the development of science on the American continent consisted first, of adding to knowledge by his own penetrating research and second, of stimulating others to do research, organizing scattered individual scientific efforts so that they might become more effective, and transmitting scientific information to his countrymen and his fellow scientists abroad.
Finally, the book wraps with a discussion of Franklin's interest in astronomy with the Transit of Mercury, and his continuing invention of the Franklin stove.  Completely new areas for him and not at all related to the field of electricity, where he'd made his mark and was the most experienced.  Proving once again his personal ability to contribute in multiple areas, but inspiring modern readers to contribute as well.  Which is what I choose to take from the book, at least until the next author comes along willing to give us the full story of Benjamin Franklin, OpenScientist.

Now I'm interested in what you think.  Have you read the book and have your own review to offer, or want to share thoughts on the man himself? Then let me know in the comments below.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Citizen Science in the Spotlight

Yeaterday the Washington Post published a great article on the citizen science movement I wanted to share. It highlights a number of the projects previously featured here on OpenScientist (such as Galaxy Zoo and the Bird Phenology Program) as well as some (such as Field Expedition Mongolia) that will be featured here shortly. So it's also a great preview of coming attractions too!

The article does a great of highlighting the most important way to keep volunteers motivated to get involved, as seen in this section:

Though professional scientists have collaborated with amateurs for decades, social networking and the Internet are making it more fruitful than ever.

“We found that we could make something that was engaging enough to inspire people to participate without having to pay them,” says [Project Leader Albert] Lin. “This is the part of citizen science that is most interesting to me: How can we motivate people to dedicate their time?”

How? By making it fun, Lin said.

So check out the full article at here, and let me know your comments on it below.   Does it capture what you love about citizen science too?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Measuring April Showers with Creekwatch

They say April showers bring May flowers.  It can also bring lots of rain and rising water waters in streams.  So this seems the perfect time to discuss Creekwatch, a project that tracks the state of creeks and streams in your area. It's also the first "Spring into Citizen Science" project designed for iPhones and iPads.

There are two important parts to this project. The first looks at water levels and tracks the rise and fall of individual creeks, helping scientists understand local rainfall and the potential for soil runoff. The other part tracks general pollution levels and indicates the creeks overall health. So not only does it help ecology researchers but also urban planners and farmers that rely on clean water for their livelihood.

Before going on, I should warn you that while data collection continues the data viewing portion of the web site has been down recently (Update: It's been fixed!).  I'd hoped this would be fixed sooner but didn't want to hold this post any longer.  So just be aware.  Also, I presume an Android-based version of this application is coming but have not been able to confirm anything about that yet.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the Creekwatch web site or go directly to the Apple App Store from your iPad or iPhone (IiPhone 3 or later) to learn more about the program.
  2. Dowload the free application and start it up on your phone or iPad.
  3. Fnd a creek to follow and take a picture of it.  This will provide a permanent visual record of the creek on which you will have based your analysis.
  4. Answer the three basic questions about the creek's appearance along with any additional comments:
    • What is the water level (Dry, Some, Full)?
    • What is the creek's flow rate (Still, Slow, Fast)?
    • How much trash appears? (None, Some, A Lot)
  5. If you have any questions about what to look for, just click the question label on each to view examples of each potential answer.  This will help standardize the data and improve data quality, as well as teach you about the creek being investigated.
  6. That's it!  Once the data is submitted click the "Browse" button to see readings in your area of other creeks taken by your fellow citizen scientists and see how your data compares.
The beauty of this project is in it's simplicity and in taking advantage of smartphone technology to ease data collection.  So check it out, and hopefully we'll see your data in their too!