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Opportunities abound for citizen scientists - February 21, 2013

 When people think about scientists and researchers, they usually envision people like Sheldon and Leonard from “The Big Bang Theory,” — smart but aloof and detached from the world around them, content to stay in their universities and research centers studying obscure topics far removed from the public eye.

But a recent revitalization of citizen science is changing all that and bringing science and scientists into the mainstream of society and connecting classically trained researchers with non-scientifically trained citizens in exciting research opportunities.

Citizen science can refer to a variety of different projects. However, it typically comprises of research collaborations between scientists and volunteers to expand the amount of data reviewed and provide scientific data and information to all interested parties. The key to citizen science is the use of keen observations by volunteers to import and analyze data that can then be used by professional researchers to examine a topic or issue. Often the citizens and volunteers are given a brief training about the goals of the project and how to collect data properly for that specific program.

With the emerging technologies and accessibility produced by the widespread use of the Internet, citizen science is growing and new research opportunities are added constantly. These projects cover almost every scientific field — from astronomy to microbiology and everything in between.

If someone has a passion for a specific topic, chances are there is a citizen science program, already being done or being developed, that they can help with. On top of that there are also location based citizen science opportunities. Some projects are global, some are national and some are localized to certain areas like local watersheds or forests. The size and scope of each project is carefully planned by professional scientists to fit their specific needs.

There are many citizen science projects not only nationwide but also worldwide and the following examples are only a small selection of programs anyone can do with a little training.

• Project Budburst is a national project aimed at looking at climate change through the analysis of ecological data based on the timing of leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants and trees. This program can be less demanding than many others because the volunteers are only collecting data at certain points of the year, such as spring and fall, when the plants and trees are more active.

• Seafloor Explorer is an international Internet-based project where citizens review photos of the seafloor off the northeast of North America and record what kind of substrates and sea life there is in that region.

One of the biggest users of citizen science is Cornell University, especially their well-known ornithology department. They currently have several projects that they are working on and publish papers on a consistent basis based off of the data that volunteers have collected for them.

• Project Feederwatch is a North American-based bird survey where participants record and upload counts and species of birds that visit bird feeders during winter.

eBird is a global project where recreational and professional birders can create checklists of bird species and when they saw them in specific areas and habitats. They can also look at what birds have been seen so far in areas and can create hot spots on a Google Earth map to show other local birders some of the best spots to look for certain species.

The Christmas Bird Count is a North American-based bird survey conducted between December and January looking at bird populations in specific areas during the winter months. Citizens can survey almost anywhere; from their backyard bird feeders to the middle of a snowy forest everyone is encouraged to go out and participate in this program which is the longest running citizen science program of its kind.

For our local area, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program offers multiple programs for volunteers to assist with and make a difference in our understanding of the coastal bays and their valuable ecosystem. Some examples of this are the “report a seal” and “report a terrapin” programs which allow local citizens to report sightings of these animals on our website, including where they were, what time it was and how many animals were spotted.

The MCBP also conducts a turtle count each year to look at the presence and absence of diamondback terrapins in our coastal bays. Where they are found is recorded along with the tide, temperature and weather conditions and this information is combined with data collected from the Chesapeake Bay in order to gain more information on this important wetland species.

The number of projects, volunteers and scientists involved in citizen science continues to grow and more and more papers are being published in peer reviewed journals every year based on the results from citizen science experiments. If the past decade is any indication of what the future holds for citizen science then we can expect to see even greater success and a bevy of new and exciting scientific discoveries on the horizon.

Harrison Jackson is the Coastal Stewards coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

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