3 Rules for Successful Citizen Science

Wildwood teacher Levi Simons and his students use chemical indicator testing kits to map Los Angeles water quality.
Wildwood teacher Levi Simons and his students use chemical indicator testing kits to map Los Angeles water quality.

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, in the very short story “On Exactitude in Science,” of a great empire that sought to create a map so accurately detailed that it grew to be as large as the empire itself. Early in my teaching career, and recently out of school, I thought (in a similar, albeit less poetic, fashion than Mr. Borges) about how I was representing science as a high school teacher.

I wrestled with the same anxiety most, if not all, science teachers feel about not covering enough content. I constantly felt rushed to get through enough of the “big ideas,” and yet still felt that most of what I was doing existed only in the classroom and vanished the moment my students left for the day.

I felt like I was trying to get my students interested in science from the map I was making, when I should be taking them to the country itself.

Education as Science, Science as Education

My first experience in teaching science by doing science happened in late 2009 when I was finishing my first semester teaching an environmental science course at Wildwood School in Los Angeles, Calif. A number of my students told me how relentlessly depressing environmental science felt. Would the entire course be about how our civilization was going to collapse in an ecological catastrophe?

It was a valid question, and after spending that winter holiday thinking how to teach environmental science without inspiring feelings of learned helplessness, I proposed to my class that we find out for ourselves the health of our local environment.

We began an environmental mapping project called TIGER (Technologically Integrated Geotagged Environmental Research). We started measuring and mapping water quality at a number of sites in Los Angeles and soon began measuring air quality and radiation levels along the California coast.

During this time we started connecting with other groups doing citizen science, ranging from studying bird populations to classifying galaxies. We’re seeing how citizen science is becoming an increasingly useful tool in research as scientists realize they can get help from a much larger circle than just traditional academia.

From our experience with the TIGER project (scienceland.wikispaces.com/tiger), we’ve come up with three rules to help classrooms (and anyone else) create, manage, and collab-orate on citizen science projects.

Rule #1: Make it measurable.

As any anthropologist with a notebook full of field notes will attest, science doesn’t always need to be quantitative to be effective. However, we have stuck with numerical data with the TIGER project for two reasons. First, it facilitates comparing data between different monitoring sites and between different dates at the same site. Second, it gives our group a common language to communicate with other schools participating in the TIGER project, and with any outside groups that might want to use our data.

In the field, this has meant using equip-ment that gives quick numerical results. For example, our water quality data is captured using a variety of chemical tablets that quickly dissolve in test vials, changing color to indicate the concentration of everything from dissolved oxygen to bacteria. At the same time we’re testing the water, we also use a pair of electronic sensors: one to measure the concentration of gases such as oxygen and petrochemical vapors, and another to measure weather conditions.

Our goal in taking this data simultaneously has been to look for potential relationships between the atmosphere and water of our local environment. Already we can see periodic ebbs and flows, such as salinity variations caused by the tides.

Students also gain firsthand experience with seeing how educated guesses, errors, and experimental limitations show up in every research project. This answers the complaint, “When am I ever going to use this?”

Rule #2: Make it cheap.

Citizen science is frugal science. If you need an outlay of millions of dollars, no one, other than a few large labs, will be able to conduct your research. We have sought to keep our equipment costs low, on the order of hundreds of dollars per school, so as to make our project as accessible as possible. For example, the water quality kits we use cost about $40 for ten full tests. Accessibility is key in creating and managing a project covering a large number of students across a wide geographic area.

With the TIGER project our main costs have been buying the monitoring equipment. Transportation costs are kept low by having each group monitor their local environment and then upload the data to a central website. We also use freely available web-based collaboration software to store and analyze data.

Rule #3: Make it open.

Science, whether at a national lab or with a citizen science project, thrives not only on open communication, but on open standards. We treat the procedures of the TIGER project as the software for an open platform.

An open standard means storing and analyzing data using freely available software, but it also means using a set of common and public experimental procedures. We’ve put our procedures on a wiki, both to ensure uniformity in the type of data collected, and to leave our methodologies open to criticism, which is how science progresses.

Similarly, any citizen science project such as TIGER should also be readily open to expansion. Although we started with just water quality in Los Angeles, we’ve always used a data framework that can incorporate any environmental metric as long it’s recorded with a unique GPS stamp. As a result, we’ve been able to add more schools and more data types, such as air quality and radiation levels, to our project.

Our openness has also allowed TIGER to connect with other related citizen science projects, such as the community radiation monitoring project, Safecast (see page 52, “Drive-By Science”). As Safecast has also been keen on publishing all their data and methods in a public and open format, we at TIGER have had a relatively easy time collecting and analyzing radiation levels for both projects’ test sites.

Our collaboration with Safecast has also given TIGER students the opportunity to troubleshoot the Geiger counter hardware. Not only has their work been important for Safecast’s own documentation, and for updating future radiation sensors, but the process of trying to find the source of ano-malous readings was an authentic learning experience in how science is actually done.

test tube
Students measure water samples for pH, temperature, phosphates, nitrates, dissolved oxygen, biological oxygen demand, iron, copper, chlorine, hardness, and coliform bacteria. The data is linked to points on an online map.

What’s Next? DIY Sensors

With its large and growing network of citizen scientists, Safecast is an example of where to take a project such as TIGER. Our goal is to involve more schools, students, and volunteers and expand our geographic coverage. However, this growth will likely run into some bottlenecks very quickly.

While our current equipment costs, primarily for water quality testing kits, are low, they involve the use of chemical indicator tablets which can only be used a half-dozen times before being depleted. In addition, these kits limit the types of data we can collect.

The solution, in true maker fashion, is to build our own environmental sensors. Developing cheap environmental sensors has now become possible as the cost per sensor has dropped to near $1, and standard processor platforms such as Arduino have become readily available. There are a number of immediate benefits to going this route. First, electronic sensors can be used thousands of times, removing a limit on the amount of data collected as well as the cost.

Second, developing our own sensors gives us far greater flexibility in the type of data

collected. Given commercially available technology, we can readily monitor everything from carbon monoxide levels to soil salinity to ultraviolet radiation.

Cellphones as Sensor Network Nodes

While tens of dollars per sensor system does represent a significant cost reduction, there is an even cheaper method for developing a citizen science project such as TIGER: cellphones. Not only have cellphones become a globally ubiquitous technology, but they also contain an increasingly complex set of processors and sensors.

What students in TIGER can do, as a number of other developers have done, is create apps to harvest data from such sensors as the GPS unit and camera in order to record everything from the geographic distribution of invasive species to the amount of atmospheric haze.

Make Your Own Science

TIGER and similar projects give students the opportunity to learn analytical and reasoning skills by going into the field to collect and analyze data for their own research projects.

The real excitement, though, will start when students across the world begin to pool their work across different schools and lab groups, design and build their own equipment, and modify their own devices. In short, the future of science will come to those who make their own science.

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