Male Red-breasted Nuthatch at a birdfeeder.

Citizen science – scientific research done by amateur scientists. Citizen science is sometimes called “public participation in scientific research.

Citizen science – “the systematic collection and analysis of data; development of technology; testing of natural phenomena; and the dissemination of these activities by researchers on a primarily avocational basis”.

In other words, anyone can help. Some projects require special equipment and training. Most just require internet access to learn about the project and send back the information the scientists need you to provide such as pictures (seahorses in the wild), observations (what birds did you see in your backyard each day), data (temperature, rainfall).

Engineering plays a big role in helping people participate in these science projects

  • requests for help – notification, requirements, instructions
  • information gathering – web site to input information collected by participants – observations, measurements, location, time and date
  • recording – instruments, probes, audio / video recording, photos
  • distributed processing – SETI At-home – using your computer to analyze huge amounts of information automatically when you aren’t using your computer. Having thousands of home computers working on the problem replaces the need for SETI to own and operate their own.
  • recognition, analysis, processing – look at images and identify the objects. People are much better at this than machines.
Hyperia – Hyperia macrocephala (plankton)

What’s the problem?
Plankton Portal – The project scientists sampled plankton by using a plankton imaging system – In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS). ISIIS acts as a “virtual net” which captures the images of the organisms and information about their immediate surroundings. By sampling continuously, the result is a collection of digital images that record the exact location of the various planktonic organisms in relation to each other and the environment in which they live. Your job is to identify which organisms are present, and what they are doing there (e.g. are they prey or predators?).

  • Ask – How can the project work of identifying the animals in each of thousands of digital images be done by volunteers?
  • Imagine – What do volunteers need to know? How can they help? How can the size of the animals be measured?
  • Design, Build – The volunteer is shown an image of a bunch of plankton to “measure” and identify by comparing the image to an example. This information is recorded in the project database. Eventually all the plankton on all the images will measures and identified, so project scientists can analyze to get a better understanding of the type of plankton in the study area.
  • Improve – Better techniques for measurement have been added. The volunteer uses an online drawing tool to highlight the edges of the plankton in the image. The application knows the scale of the entire image and can determine the exact size of the plankton from the highlighted points.

That’s engineering

  • engineered instruments – spectrometers, oscilloscopes, cameras, telescopes, interferometers, tape recorders, thermometers etc. and tools like clocks, scale that help in improving the accuracy, quality and utility of the information obtained from an observation.

Engineering ideas

  • virtual, computer-aided, digital images, sampling, collection, location, environmental data, sensing, measurement, mobile apps, geolocation, distributed processing, data analysis

Do It
Challenges for you to work on…

  • Look through the projects listed on the SciStarter site. Look at the equipment needed and the kinds of work that they want you to do. How has engineering helped to make these projects possible?

Learn more…

  • SciStarter is the place to find, join, and contribute to science through recreational activities and citizen science research projects. Our database of citizen science projects enable discovery, organization, and greater participation in citizen science.
  • Plankton Portal