“Citizen Science” is a movement that is growing around the world. It can be defined as the participation of non-professionals (including students, teachers, and individuals from the general public) who aid in data collection and analysis for scientific experiments. Although usually done under the supervision of a professional scientist, increasingly these amateur scientists even design the experiments and publish the results. There are several excellent examples. I had the privilege, as part of my participation in the NASA Explorer Schools program, to observe students at a middle school in urban Washington D.C. collecting data of loggerhead turtle movements in the Atlantic Ocean (from radio collar frequencies) and correlating that data with plankton abundance and ocean temperature gathered from an orbiting satellite. This program is called Signals of Spring. Other students track migratory waterfowl. I have had the opportunity to see the Telescopes In Education program in operation, where students at schools around the country use software to calculate the ephemeris of star locations on a given night and time, then communicate to a docent at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in California who slews a 24 inch reflecting telescope to view the location specified, then takes photos of that spot using the exposure times and filters the students specify and uploads them to the students’ computers. A 14 inch scope at the site is fully automated, and was being paired with a scope in Australia to view the southern skies. Using this system, students have access to the same data collection and stellar photography techniques of professional astronomers.
My own students participated in the Mars Exploration Student Data Team program in 2003-04 (described in my second post) to collect and analyze raw data acquired by the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey space probes in support of the rover missions. They looked for atmospheric patterns (temperature, dust abundance, etc.) to predict possible dust storms or other meteorological events that could have disrupted the rovers. They then used their media design skills to create graphical representations and animations of this data, as shown in the image. Four of my students also participated in the Mars Student Imaging Program at Arizona State University, where they were allowed to select a spot to photograph on the surface of Mars using the Mars Odyssey spacecraft’s THEMIS camera. They then analyzed the image for signs of water or geological activity. My students also download and animate 3D altitude data acquired by the Mars Orbiting Laser Altimeter on the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.
Putting authentic data in the hands of students and the public allows for engagement and excitement in the scientific enterprise. Students and other amateur scientists see themselves as participants and stakeholders, and become scientifically literate. This is one of the major purposes of The Elements Unearthed project.
Although they will not be collecting new data in the form of a scientific experiment, our collaborating teams will be collecting new historical facts and developing their own interpretations. As citizen historians, they will add to society’s knowledge of the history and processes of mining and chemical production and make this information available to the general public. They will join the ranks of amateur citizen scientists that participate in professional-level data collection and analysis.
Ultimately, the major problem is the divide in our society between those who do science and understand it and those who merely use the technologies it produces without understanding. We are becoming a technocracy; a population ruled by the few people who design, control, and maintain the technology we rely on. Numbers from the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2007 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates show a total of 1,255,670 physical, life, and social scientists (not including technicians) in the United States and 1,480,050 engineers. Of these scientists, 18.7% are life scientists, 20.4% are physical scientists, and 60.9% are social scientists. Altogether, scientists and engineers make up about .85% of the total U. S. population, or less than one percent. In other words, of 100 elementary students in school, only one of them on average will go on to a career as a scientist or engineer.
Currently, this less than one percent of the population is the only segment actively engaged in creating science or technology; they are solely responsible for discovering the majority of the new knowledge and technologies our country relies upon. If we were to map out the relationship between the amount of fundamental new science created on a vertical axis and the percentage of the population involved in this creation horizontally, we get another steeply-sloped Pareto curve. For a discovery or technology to be considered “acceptable” professionally, it must be published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal such as Nature. Usually only professional scientists with PhDs and years of advanced training in experimental design and statistical analysis can have any hope of being published.
Yet beyond the narrow band of professional scientists and engineers lies a long tail of semi-professionals or generalists, including college science and engineering professors who are part-time researchers and high school science teachers, as well as amateur or “apprentice” scientists such as college and secondary science students and the “citizen scientists” in the general public. All of these people could potentially be creators of acceptable new science and technology if they were sufficiently trained and the rules were changed a bit. In the chart shown, the total amount of science produced can be represented by the area under the curve. What would happen, though, if we found a way to move the level of acceptability to the right to include science conducted by part-time researchers, generalists, teachers, students, and even “citizen scientists” in the general populace? We would dramatically increase the total amount of science done, and enlarge the depth and breadth of the research conducted. We would also engage a larger segment of the population.
This would have secondary effects. As teachers, students, and the public get a taste of doing authentic, valid science, and become more experienced in data collection and analysis, they will tend to move to the left on the scale, becoming more professional. More students will become excited about careers in science, thereby increasing the number of science and engineering graduates and increasing the total output of science produced which will broaden the curve. As more of the general public gets involved, more people will hear about the possibility, get excited about it, and become involved and the border of participating population will potentially increase. Therefore, small effects in boosting the amount of “amateurs” doing science will have huge benefits in the total amount of science produced.
Of course, there are many issues to resolve about how to train the amateurs and semi-professionals to do accurate, valid, repeatable science and to broaden the access of these studies to peer-reviewed publication. Podcasting, as in our Elements Unearthed project, can reach a broad audience but to gain professional respect such grass-roots research must be evaluated and mentored by reputable scientists and given the same scrutiny as any peer-reviewed study.
If may seem daunting to attempt to increase participation in authentic science across the country. Surely our project can’t do this all by itself, but it can make a start and add to efforts already out there. If all we can do through this and other projects is to simply encourage one more student to pursue a career in science and technology out of every 100, we will double the amount of science and engineering done. This should not be too difficult a task. If we can involve the general public in data collection and make them scientists in that they learn to ask questions and observe nature to find answers, we will fulfill a fundamental human need to understand the world. This may very well be the most humanizing activity we can possibly do, and the most beneficially in the long run for humanity. A scientifically literate populace would make better decisions regarding resource allocation issues. Certainly it is a cause worth investing money and effort into.
Through The Elements Unearthed project, we hope to engage students and communities. We will involve local scientists, engineers, and historians as subject matter experts; train teams of students and community members to become amateur science historians and video content producers; and generally increase the excitement of students to enter careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Through this we will contribute to preserving the history of chemistry, producing a scientifically literate public, increasing U. S. competitiveness, and helping individuals understand the properties and hazards of the materials they use.