Saturday, December 29, 2012

Happy Holidays to Citizen Scientists Everywhere!

The Holiday season has almost drawn to a close.  For the past few weeks friends and family have discussed the Peace, Love and Joy of the season.  But I want to talk about one more thing...the joy of giving citizen science.

Unlike other gifts citizen science is not just enjoyed on Christmas or Hanukkah.  It is a gift of lifetime exploration and the wonder of nature.  It also helps everyone else...helping researchers learn more and advancing the technology crucial for making the world a better place.  Each post of mine tries to big that same gift to you, and  my holiday gift guide hopefully helped you give it to others.  But I was also fortunate to receive a couple gifts myself this year and wanted to share them with you.

First up is a homemade gift put together by my mother-in law.  "Citizen Scientist Dave's Chemistry Lab" is a collection of pre-packaged  experiments demonstrating important scientific concepts.  It includes projects in splitting water through electrolysis, creating plastic, acid-base reactions, and the famed Diet Coke - Mentos experiment.  Everything I'll need is in each container, including raw materials, instructions, and measuring supplies.  Interestingly, the packaging is reminiscent of the main kits I've received from other citizen science projects so she must have been on to something (or she's secretly been enjoying those projects herself!)  I'm still unpacking and cleaning from the holidays but will report back soon on the fun I've had with each project.

Second up is a gift from my sister-in-law, a digital camera binocular for viewing, and capturing wildlife at a distance.  At 10x25 magnification it should provide a nice field of view and good magnification; perfect for the backyard or an afternoon hike through the woods.    But better than just seeing birds, you can take pictures of what's in the viewfinder and download for future viewing.  So I hope to add these pictures to future blog posts about nature, or to future sightings in Nature's Notebook, the Great Backyard Bird Count, or other citizen science projects.

Coming up is 2013 and a whole new year of citizen science.  I look forward to playing with these new gifts and discovering many projects to discuss with you.  Things are changing rapidly and I'm excited to have you on board with me.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Discover the Living World Hidden in Your Own Home

Photo Courtesy:
Let's get back to basics. Here at OpenScientist we haven't looked at an individual project for a while now.  Although spouting off my opinions on citizen science is fun my first love has always been the projects themselves.  So today let's look at an interesting one I've waited a long time to join, Wild Life of Our Homes.

I discovered this project about six months ago but when signing up discovered they were temporarily filled up.  Ever since I've been waiting to receive participation kit.  But that wait is over as it arrived in the mail last week.

If you've ever wondered about whether your house is really as clean as you think it is, this project will be perfect for you.  Researchers are looking to understand the millions of tiny creatures and microscopic life living on your doors, your kitchen counter tops, and even your pillow.  It may seem a bit gross at first, but remember, you've been living with these creatures all your life.  In fact some may even be beneficial to your health.  So scientists need to learn more about them and how they impact human health.

What specific hypotheses are they trying to test?

  1. Your home's physical characteristics influence the microbial communities found inside it.
  2. The macro-species with whom you share your home influence the microbial communities found within it.
  3. Geography, Climate, and Landscape features influence the microbial composition inside and outside of houses.
  4. The microbes you live with influence your health and well being.
The only way to find these answers is to sample homes from across the country.  So won't  you sign up and donate a little bit of home to science?

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Check out the main Your Wild Life web site to learn more about this and a number of other related projects. 
  2. Register online to receive a collection kit.  While mine took months to arrive they still have a few kits available and the wait is currently quite short.
  3. Once the kit arrives create a new account at  Provide your name and e-mail address, and once you receive a confirmation e-mail back then click through to finish registering.  The process is admittedly odd but doesn't take up too much time.
  4. Log back in and complete the participant questionnaire.  It's a bit long but the questions are easy.  Just provide short answers to about the pets and plants in your house, describe the house, and let them know about home's residents and any relevant allergies. 
  5. Click Submit and get your confirmation code.  And before you forget, write this number on the handy test tube labels provided in the kit.
  6. Now Collect some SAMPLES!!!  The instructions are pretty easy to follow; just unwrap the packaging, twist off the cap, and simultaneously rub both Q-tips on the requested surface.  Close it up tight to keep everything sterile and attach the proper label.  This should take less than five minutes.
  7. Last but not least, sign the informed consent document and seal everything up in the pre-addressed envelope.  Add $1.95 in postage (5 first-class stamps) and send it on it's way.  Don't worry about the $2's a small price for the fun of participating and let's the researchers send kits to more people.
Now we just have to wait until the analysis gets done...and that's when it gets interesting.  Participants will receive an e-mail linking them to the results from their very own kits.  So if you want to know, really want to know, check back in and learn about all the wild life living with you in your own house!  Just don't tell your significant other :)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Citizen Science Holiday Gift Guide

The holiday season is upon us.  The nights are longer (for better stargazing) and snow is coming (to all you home meteorologists).  But you also need to do some gift shopping for all the citizen scientists in your family.  Sure, anyone can give a telescope or new set of binoculars, but you want to give something more creative.  Well have no fear, the 2012 OpenScientist Wish List is here.

Urban Weather Station:  For anyone who's worried about the air they breathe.  This is the first personal weather station designed to work with an iPhone or iPad.  Measure indoor air quality, sound quality, and CO2 amounts, along with indoor and outdoor temperature, barometric pressure and humidity.  All with a sleek design and ever sleeker iPad interface.    Available for $179 from NetAtmo at Alternatively, check out this blog post on choosing a home weather station for even more options.

Strain: Who says bio-engineering and family game night can't co-exist?  Let everyone get in on the DYBiology fun with this board game.  Race to design the most successful organism by adding organelles and making ATP while evading toxins and marauding viruses. Recommended for 3-7 players ages ten and up.  Available for $19.99 from CoolStuff at

Makey Makey:   This handy kit was featured on KickStarter and quickly became popular.  It's easy to see why.  The kit let's you turn anything (a banana, buckets of water, pencil drawings) into a computer interface.  So create your own joystick, motion detector, or musical instrument for a tiny price.  For the tinkerer in every family.  Available for $49.99 from Thinkgeek at

Archaeology Kit: Ideal for beginner and weekend archaeologists.  Take this collection of brushes, trowels, levels, and rulers out to your local Native American Heritage Site or Civil War battlefield to dig up a piece of history.  Just make sure you join up with a existing group so everything stays legal and your finds can be scientifically validated.  I bought one for my father last year (he loves to join archeological digs on the weekends) and it has really come in handy.  Available for $100 (US) from Archeostore at

Wildlife Camera: Enjoying all the birdwatching and backyard animal projects but want to take your game up a notch?  Don't just record sightings while you're in the yard...set up a camera and watch all the time!  With both night and day capabilities, this camera will sense when wildlife are near and snap a picture.  Not only will it improve your animal counts, but you learn more about the critters prowling around just under your nose!  True, this particular camera is made for hunters, but that doesn't mean we can't use it to protect wildlife as well.  Available for $78 from Amazon here.

FitBit: Track your fitness, eating, and sleep with just a tiny monitor worn on your arm.  The tiny FitBit stays with you and records vital body data to keep you fit and healthy.  You can also track everything on your iPhone or iPad with a quick wireless connection. Available for $99 at

Hopefully this will help you fill your loved one's stocking with the gift of citizen science.  But let me know in the comments below if there are other fun gifts you're buying for your loved ones!  (Don't worry...your secret is safe with us).

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Citizen Science and Super Storm Sandy

The last few weeks I've been dealing with some family issues that have reduced my blogging.  So not much has been written since Hurricane Sandy struck over a month ago.  But there is one item we must get to before it is too late.

Photo Courtesy: SUDS and iAMScientist
The SUDS (Send Us your Dirt from Sandy) Project asks volunteers whose homes were flooded to collect the silt and sand that washed in and send it to researchers for analysis. This is a unique opportunity to cheaply obtain samples from a wide area and better understand the toxic chemicals survivors may be exposed to.  Anyone along the New York/New Jersey coast can submit a sample and it is not too late despite the Sandy hitting over a month ago. So despite the loss there is a silver lining of valuable information that can be obtained from the Storm.  In the words of the researchers themselves:
We are interested in learning what chemicals may be present in deposited sediment. We are already starting to receive samples collected by people in affected areas. The collected samples will be analyzed for a variety of organic and inorganic contaminants including heavy metals, organic compounds from gasoline and other fuels, pesticides and other industrial effluents following similar methods to those used following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Louisiana Peninsula (1).  Specifically we plan to measure leachable Cadmium, Arsenic, Mercury, Copper, and Vanadium by ICP-MS; pesticides by GC-MS and GC-ECD; benzene, ethylbenzene, and xylene by headspace GC; and PAHs  by HPLC or LC-MS.  
The results of this study will determine the extent of any contamination deposited as a result of flooding from Hurricane Sandy. By surveying flooded areas we can identify hotspots that may need further investigation and cleanup by the EPA. We may also be able to provide information to individuals who may be concerned about possible exposure. Knowledge of this type will also be useful for preparing for future flooding events in the region which are predicted to become more prevalent.
This is important science, and also a great way to help the area's long-term recovery from the storm.  I've made my own donation and hopefully you will contribute to this worthy cause too. 

But this is also a great opportunity to discuss a few other trends in the citizen science community. Unlike the historical model of working with existing groups of citizen scientists, or working with a site like SciStarter to market the program, this project is being advertised and funded through the crowdfunding site IAmScientist.   While this isn't a completely new phenomenon it's my first good opportunity to talk about it.

Crowd-funding sites not only spread the word they also help researchers find funding for their efforts.  For projects with particular public appeal or that can be readily explained to the lay-person, this can be a much better funding route than waiting for foundations and government agencies to select it for funding.  A popular topic can quickly become viral and allow researchers to hit the ground running.

An important part of these sites is letting donors become involved with the project.  In cases like SUDS it reaches out to people for submitting samples.  In other cases, such as on KickStarter, the more a person donates the more they receive as a "Thank You" for contributing.  This can be early versions of a product (for invention and design projects), access or acknowledgement in published journals (for basic science research) or offering subscriptions to a newly developed service.  This worked well for the Citizen Science Quarterly and can work for many other projects too.

The importance of involving donors is part of the overall goal of motivating people to participate.  First there are the incentives for participating, like we discussed above.  There are also "time-limited" challenges where projects must meet financial goals within a certain period of time to be funded.  Much like a car salesman's "Act now before it's gone!"  slogan, it provides a sense of urgency and energizes the fundraising.  Some sites, such as RocketHub, also use "Badges" to reward frequent funders; we've seen this tool before and it's a great motivator as well.

At this point the record of crowd-funding sites helping citizen science is a bit mixed.  The folks at got some help from it and CSQ sold a few quarterly editions of their magazine, but ultimately the energy ran out and not all funding goals were met.  Similarly various individual research/design projects, especially in the maker community, have been successful.  It's not always easy to explain these projects to the public or keep their attention for long periods of time.  But there have been successes and there is still a lot of untapped potential.

So I encourage you to check out this project or any of the other equally worthy projects looking for help.  There are many ways to pitch in when a community is struck by nature, now let's show everyone what the citizen science community can do.

P.S.  Followers of the OpenScientist Facebook page have known about this project for a few weeks thanks to lead researcher Neil Fitzgerald who posted it there and brought it to my attention. So I encourage both researchers looking for volunteers and people hoping to join interesting projects to join me on Facebook as well.