Who doesn’t want to make a contribution to the great wealth of knowledge in the world — especially if it’s entertaining and free?
Citizen science is a simple way to learn something new, do a fun experiment and help broaden the world’s knowledge base at the same time. Researchers use this data in important studies and to make new discoveries.
Participating in citizen science projects is a great way to spend an afternoon with kids, or it can even be a fun and free date night. Ready to become a citizen scientist?
How Does It Work?
SciStarter, a nonprofit website, features a large directory of citizen science projects sorted by activity and topic. You can also search by keywords to find a suitable project. For example, if you’d like to work on a project involving birds, just type in the word “birds” and you’ll see dozens of bird-related projects ranging from ColonyWatch, which monitors Colorado’s waterbirds; to Magpie Mapper, a smartphone app that tracks magpie populations; to Yard Map, which helps people map their backyard landscapes while learning how to create good wildlife habitats and provide valuable data to researchers.
You can also browse options for certain times — in the rain or at night — or by location, like at school, at home or in the car. Selecting this option pulls up a fantastic list of activities that will keep the whole family entertained on long road trips. A number of the car-based activities actually focus on keeping track of roadkill along the way. Project Roadkill focuses on tracking animal fatalities in the U.S., and the aptly named Project Splatter is a similar project in the UK.
Curious? Here are a handful of the fun, free citizen science projects available to spark your interest. If these projects aren’t quite what you’re looking for, check out the hundreds of other options on SciStarter.
Learn all about zombie flies with this project sponsored by the San Francisco State University Department of Biology and other partners.
After researchers discovered a certain fly was parasitizing honey bees in California, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Washington, they set out to investigate further. Scientists are working with citizen scientists to chart the extent of the fly’s spread across North America. This fascinating project involves collecting bees and observing them over a period of time to see if fly pupae grow in them and adult flies emerge.
You’ll need long pants and a long-sleeved shirt as well as a portable light to collect the bees, but otherwise this project is free. Kids won’t be able to do this one on their own, but could certainly help an adult with observations.
If plants are your thing, join Project BudBurst researchers to collect important data by observing a certain plants and recording when they grow leaves, flowers and fruit.
Citizen scientists in all 50 states can collect data that scientists and educators can use in climate change studies. All you need to do is select a plant to monitor and then record your observations. If you’re not sure which plant to choose, the researchers offer a list of their “10 most wanted” plant species, including common lilac, California poppies and Southern magnolia.
Of course, they are looking for data on many different plants — including trees, shrubs, wildflowers, herbs, grasses and more — so if you don’t have one of the top 10 nearby, you’ll find plenty of other options. All you need is access to your chosen plant and a way to submit your observations online, which makes this an easy project for younger kids.
Spend a rainy day participating in the Solar Storm Watch project. This citizen science project enlists volunteers from all over to help spot solar explosions and track them to see if they’re headed towards Earth.
This somewhat technical project is best suited for adults or teens. It’s a great way for amateur astronomers to learn more about the sun and the ways scientists monitor it. Solar Storm Watch even has a forum where volunteers can interact with each other and become part of a virtual community.
Got an Android phone? Turn it into a crowd-sourced weather sensor with the PressureNet citizen science project.
Download the app from the Google Play Store and collect live atmospheric pressure data with your phone’s built-in pressure sensor. Researchers are hoping to use the data to predict the timing and location of severe weather events, like tornados and thunderstorms. The more smartphone “weather stations” researchers enlist, the more data they collect.
All you need is an Android smartphone with a barometer, like the Galaxy S5 or the HTC One, and the app.
Want to learn about creepy crawlies? Join the National Cockroach Project and help analyze the DNA of these little six-legged creatures.
This study aims to see how cockroaches’ genetics compare across U.S. cities and states, and even in other countries. Researchers also hope to discover any distinct species of roaches that may look similar but be genetically different.
This project involves collecting, labeling and mailing in dead cockroaches for analysis. The only required gear, according to the project listing, is “sharp eyes to spot cockroaches,” and this one’s a good option for kids, teens or anyone else who gets excited at the thought of catching bugs.
Forensic anthropologists and forensic odontologists spend a lot of time looking at teeth. Noting which teeth have emerged helps them analyze the age of each skull’s owner, but much of their data is out of date.
Participating in this project helps build a larger and more diverse database. You’ll simply share information about your age and ethnicity, as well as which teeth you have. It’s a great activity for kids, who might enjoy using a mirror to count how many of their adult teeth have come in.
Ever spend an hour lying in the grass and looking up at the clouds? Odds are, you saw some interesting shapes.
This citizen science project asks people to capture images of unusual clouds and share them with other online cloud watchers who can help identify tricky and unfamiliar clouds and formations. That is, identify them with their scientific classifications — they won’t help you decide whether that cloud looks more like a turkey or an elephant.
All you need for this one is a digital camera and the ability to upload photos, so any smartphone should do the trick.
Your Turn: Have you participated in any citizen science projects? What did you do?
Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and editor in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.