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Time to spare? Why not conduct some real online research to advance science

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If you are looking for something constructive to do in this stay-at-home period of our lives, I might suggest joining a team of scientists conducting real online research.

Zooniverse, a clearinghouse of about 100 active crowd-sourced science projects, has added educational materials for all age groups. Students learning at home can assist professional researchers as they seek answers to real scientific questions.

For a few other stay-at-home ideas, skip to the bottom of this page.

One interesting Zooniverse project is “Penguin Watch,” in which citizen scientists are asked to look at photographs taken automatically at remote research sites where penguins congregate. The goal is to mark on the image where you see adult penguins, baby penguins and penguin eggs. The sheer number of images makes it difficult for a handful of researchers alone to do the work.

Radio reporter Andy Kubis of The Allegheny Front recently watched 4-year-old Nina Schulz working on the penguin project with her mother, Cristy Gelling of Pittsburgh. Nina carefully marked a spot on the screen.

“How do you know it’s a baby?” Cristy asked.

“Because it’s not black and white; it’s gray. And fluffy,” Nina replied. “I thought it was just a rock, but it wasn’t!” (Check out the audio below or on the AF website.)

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Allegheny Front: “Become a citizen scientist”


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By collecting many such observations over many photos, researchers can estimate the timing of penguin breeding, nesting and hatching under various conditions.

In the medical field — of particular interest at this time — participants are asked to “Bash the bug,” which involves identifying whether tuberculosis bacteria are growing in the presence of antibiotics at different concentrations. The goal is to identify strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and point the way to new antibiotic treatments.

Laura Trouille, co-lead for Zooniverse

The number of people participating in Zooniverse has recently increased dramatically as more people are staying home, said Laura Trouille, director of citizen science at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and co-lead for Zooniverse. Last week, 17,000 new accounts were created — five times the number seen in a typical week. That brought the total number of registrations to 2 million, a major milestone for Zooniverse.

“To me, it has been extremely heartwarming to see the role that citizen science can play in this unusual and scary time,” Laura told me, adding that she has two young children who have been able to be involved from home.

Zooniverse, a collaboration of the Adler Planetarium, University of Oxford and the University of Minnesota, lists 11 general categories, from biology to literature to space. Each project includes a forum where researchers can discuss the findings and answer questions from participants. Researchers say the discussions have helped broaden their own perspectives as they share their knowledge.

Occasionally, citizen scientists involved in Zooniverse may make a remarkable discovery, such as when Hanny van Arkel, a 25-year-old Dutch school teacher, spotted something unusual while looking for galaxies on a project called Galaxy Zoo. She posted a question in the online forum after she spotted a cosmic “smudge” in the corner of her screen.

Eventually, the object was identified as a rare quasar ionization echo, described as a “ghost image” associated with a black hole. Someone named it Hanny’s Voorwerp (Dutch for Hanny’s object), and the name stuck as the object attracted the attention of astronomers from around the world. (Check out Hanny’s story on her website.)

While Zooniverse projects often seem more like games than real science, Laura pointed out that pooling the work of multitudes of people can produce significant results. For each project, a team of experts validate the results by taking a sample of images and comparing the amateur and expert classifications. For most projects, there is a very high degree of agreement. Any differences often reflect a disagreement among the experts themselves.

So far, the citizen science projects have produced about 200 scientific papers, Laura told me. The papers are widely recognized for their findings and often quoted in other scientific journal articles, Laura said.

With 100 active projects to choose from, it should be easy to find a project that suits your interests. A good place to start is a new page called “Remote and online learning resources,” which lists projects of interest to different age groups.

Another new page describes how Zooniverse can be used to fulfill service or volunteer hours needed for high school graduation or for college scholarships. The page includes an eight-point program for getting the most out of the experience.

Other projects for those staying home
  • 20 suggestions. I was impressed with the 20 smart suggestions offered by the Kitsap Sun’s Betsy Kornelis in an article about “teaching from home.” At the end of her piece, Betsy provides a sizable list of online resources worth checking out.
  • More advice. Katharine Hill, a learning specialist in Brooklyn, offers some good advice and interesting websites in an article in the New York Times.
  • SeaDoc Society, a research and education organization based in the San Juan Islands, has compiled a list of videos and activities organized by scientific field of interest. See “Homeschool: Your one-stop shop…”
  • Survive the Sound, a game based on the real-life movements of salmon, begins May 4, but participants can sign up now and choose a fish character to follow during the game. Start with the game and check out “Getting started in the classroom.” The project is sponsored by the organization Long Live the Kings.
  • Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, sponsored by Puget Sound Institute. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my own publication, which I have promoted as an educational tool for both teachers and students. EoPS, as we call it, contains information about some of the latest research on dozens of topics involving Puget Sound and the entire Salish Sea. A good place to start is to choose an interesting “keyword” on the EoPS main page or scroll down to “recent articles” below that.

If anyone would like to make other suggestions, please mention them in the comments section below.

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