Category Archives: citizen science

Post Summer Solstice Post

I hope you went outside yesterday and soaked up the sun during the longest day of the year. I know I did along with a lot of autotrophs in the Northern Hemisphere. Project Budburst was counting on summer observations and I gave you additional encouragement and details in yesterday’s post.


I made my observation yesterday. ICYMI, the Crape Myrtles planted along our town’s main drag are in full bloom these days. Now everyone on the interwebz knows.


Then I went to check the observation map.


Nailed it!

But then I thought…


Well, fine. I’m the only one in Louisiana that bothered to report that the Crape Myrtles are blooming. Let’s hope more of you bothered to notice them in real life even if you didn’t log it on the internet. I’m sure it won’t come back to haunt you when science fair season rolls around.* My observation for our state puts us ahead of South Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Arizona, Delaware, New Hampshire and Maine. So that’s something!



*Passive-aggressive comment of the day.


Summer Solstice

Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere. With all of this sunlight shining down on such large areas of land, it is also probably the most productive day of the year in terms of photosynthesis.* That’s reason to celebrate, right? Seriously, what are you doing reading my blog today? Go outside!** But don’t let the plants do all the work today. No, I’m not asking you to help with photosynthesis. We’ve covered that impossibility before.

I’m talking about participating in a citizen science project called Project Budburst. This NSF-funded project aims to collect observations on the plant life around your location at any given time of the year. As I’ve mentioned before, plants aren’t just beautiful scenery, they are vital components of the biosphere and we need to monitor their cycles. Scientists can use this data to track how plants respond to changes in climate on local and regional scales.


Here is their mission statement:

“Engage people from all walks of life in ecological research by asking them to share their observations of changes in plants through the seasons.”

Want more proof that they are legit? They even have a mission statement haiku:

People watching plants
Contributing to research
Join Project BudBurst

I rest my case.

Sure, spring gets all of the attention (hence the name budburst) with new green leaves and bursts of color after a weary winter, but the project needs information on the status of your plants all year round. By the time summer rolls around flowers just aren’t as novel. Everyone is headed to the beach or taking refuge inside air-conditioned structures. If trees are noticed, it’s for their shade not their fruiting stage. That’s why Project Budburst is having its summer challenge: Summer Solstice Snapshot. It’s easy to participate; just check the link for details. If you’re a frequent reader of this blog, you probably have a head start on the general public when it comes to plant science knowledge. However, Project Budburst’s website has all of the information you need to record and login useful observations. It’s even easier if you have a Android device- they have a mobile app!

moardataAll of this data is freely available to anyone who’d like to use it. Not just scientists, but educators and citizens too. By having !MOAR DATA! we can track the changes in the world around us and make predictions on trends. Still having a hard time wondering when you will ever personally use such data? Just wait until two days before you or your child’s science project (worth 15% of their grade) is due and you have NO DATA. Voila! Project Budburst data to the rescue. Just come up with a semi-interesting question, like comparing species over different years or climate zones. You have an instant passing grade with minimal swearing and loss of sleep. Sorry, I cannot help you with your presentation board. Hope you have some glue and a fresh ink cartridge!

So, go ahead and take that snapshot and submit that report today. I am. Also, I’m calling out my Louisiana friends on this one. It turns out Project Budburst has an interative map with pins recording all observations. So I checked Louisiana….


WTF?!? Really? As much plant life as we have budbursting every day of the year? Not. One. Single. Entry. Now that you have been appropriately shamed, make an observation! Put down your Sno-cones or daiquiris or whatever and tell them what your Crape Myrtles and Magnolias look like. You really have no excuse. Check back tomorrow for my snapshots and reports.



*How do I know? Stay tuned more on that in an upcoming post.

**Unless of course you are reading this from a mobile device. In that case, give yourself a gold star and know that I am proud of you.


References and Links:

Project BudBurst. 2014. Project BudBurst: An online database of plant phenological observations. Project BudBurst, Boulder, Colorado. Available:; Community Attribution:; Accessed: June 20, 2014.

PhotosynQ: Taking Photosynthesis Research Beyond the Growth Chamber

In many of my posts, I’ve talked about photosynthesis research conducted in universities by professionals with specialized equipment. I hope you were paying attention because not it’s your turn to be the photosynthesis researcher. Introducing ‘PhotosynQ’- a citizen science project with the goal of turning anyone with a cell phone into a photosynthesis researcher that can contribute to a database of results from plants growing in their natural environments around the world. What? Photosynthesis researchcitizen science… open source and open access… chlorophyll fluorescence on your cell phone… It must be my birthday!*

Personally, I’ve spent more than a decade performing these measurements on plants and pond scum in controlled lab conditions (as have numerous other photosynthesis researchers). Now, it’s time to take that capability to the streets, well fields any way. The PhotosynQ project simplifies the user experience for sophisticated biophysical measurements. In other words- cheap and easy! All of that real-world data is then deposited in the cloud for open access analysis by researchers. This creates a win-win situation for both citizen and professional scientists. Citizen scientists get a meaningful scientific experience connecting with cutting-edge photosynthesis research (no more chlorophyll bore-o-phyll). Professional scientists get access to loads more data collected on organisms in real-world conditions, which can be analyzed for trends and relationships that may not be evident in controlled growth conditions. These results and new hypotheses then feed into additional research.

PhotosynQ Explanation via

PhotosynQ Handheld Design via

Before you get too concerned that we’re unleashing an army of researchers that will leave a trail of dead and damaged plants in their wake, let’s set the record straight. All of these measurements are non-destructive- just clip a leaf in the holder for a moment while it is still attached to the plant. The measurements take advantage of the way photosynthetic organisms use light energy or, more specifically, release the excess light energy they cannot use as fluorescence. Obviously, they do not glow in the dark (they might, but that’s for completely different reasons and that’s another project altogether). This is a much lower level of emitted red light that instruments can detect with useful sensitivity. Remember the ‘Visualizing Photosynthesis’ post where primary productivity was being measured from space? That’s basically the data the satellite was collecting. Check out the last video in that post for a refresher tutorial. Other experiments are absorbance measurements that also exploit spectral changes caused by the function of the photosynthetic machinery. Sure, it sounds sophisticated, but again we’re talking something handheld that connects to your cell phone. It’s not like you’ll be wearing the Ghosbusters proton pack, and there’s no need to worry about crossing the streams! The PhotosynQ instrumentation is as safe as any other modern portable electronic device. Who knows, maybe one day they’ll make a Google Glass version and I can finally just detect photosynthesis measurement results with my own eyes.**

The brainpower behind this project is a small group of researchers affiliated with the Kramer lab at Michigan State University. They are very close to releasing a beta test version, so if this is something you’d be interested in, go fill out the application ASAP. Otherwise, you may have to wait awhile until the final version is available. I think this is a great opportunity for science classes, gardeners, farmers, park rangers and naturalists to measure the photosynthesis occurring all around us. You could follow the photochemistry of your garden all season. Find the most productive I’m definitely finding a way to plug into the project to translate the science behind the measurements.


*It is btw.

**Too much? Just me? Yeah. Got it.

References and Links:

Talk to a plant

OK, the theme for this week is distractions. Twitter and social media can be a great way of keeping up with breaking research, policy initiatives and science news. This week has been more than full with all of that standard fare- Nobel Laureate announcements, government shutdown consequences for science, and even photosynthesis research in a glam journal.* However, there have been plenty of distractions this week too. These range from interesting facts to bring up at parties like, “Jaguars prefer Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men.” To the inspirational- a new way of teaching and connecting with students (there’s even a joke about photosynthesis within the first minute of the video). To the physically improbable- a seal balances on a shark’s nose and manages to escape the attack.

Then I saw this tweet from the Danforth Center in St. Louis…

Wait, what? Yes, it’s the latest in interactive science. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science has set up a unique experiment that we can all participate in. It just started as part of their larger Mythbusters Exhibit. The experiment is to track the growth of two different plants; one solitary plant and the other exposed to the sounds of the human voice. The test will determine whether talking to plants will result in greater growth.

So, does the museum have someone on staff to talk to the plant or can you visit it in person and offer some audible affection? No, this is 2013. Technology has been specifically developed to turn your tweets into speech that is broadcast to the plant. If you use the hashtag phrase #talktoaplant in Twitter, the program will pick up on the tweet, whatever the actual content may be, and read it aloud to the plant. Here are some examples:


If you aren’t on Twitter, don’t worry. You can still talk to the plant. Go to their website and click on the call-out window to type your own message to the plant. I’m not really calling this citizen science, but it is a great chance to participate in an experiment. I couldn’t find details as to how long the talking vs. silent plant experiment will continue, but the website will offer more details about the experiment as it continues. Newly-developed tweet-talking technology aside, it is a rather simple experiment. I wish they would have used more than just one plant in each condition. Also, I wonder if just any sound waves will do? Is there something specific about the (mostly encouraging) human voice? What if it were listening to CSPAN? Maybe it would prefer other ambient nature sounds like a babbling brook or the rainforest? Would the plant prefer classical music or classic rock perhaps? If we played ‘Call Me Maybe’ on a continuous loop, how long would it take the plant to die or acquire the ability to leave the room? See, there could be so many spin off follow-up experiments.

So take the time to talk to a plant today. It could be the plant in the Denver museum or one that you have a more personal relationship with. Interact- with science and with plants.


*More on that next.

Shaking it up: Citizen Science Projects on Earthquakes, Volcanoes, Landslides and Seasonal Changes

ShakingitupToday I’m shaking things up a bit. Let’s take a detour from plants, plankton and publications. I came across some interesting citizen science initiatives through the U.S. Geological Survey that I would like to pass along to you. Collecting geological data? Sounds boring, right? Think again. We’re not talking about pens and leather-bound journals, Milicent. We’re talking on-line reporting and tweets.

Help the U.S.G.S. collect earthquake data through their program ‘Did you feel it?’ Providing information through their website about the location and intensity of seismic activity will help their scientists create maps and study the effects of these earthquakes. The Tweet Earthquake Dispatch has two twitter accounts offering earthquake alerts if you are interested in following them (if the shaking wasn’t alert enough for you). Also, the U.S.G.S. surveys tweets for the word for earthquake in a number of different languages to detect earthquakes. It turns out that this kind of survey is able to detect seismic activity ~30s – 2min faster than official recorders in some areas. This was true of the 5.8 magnitude 2011 quake in Virginia where seismic activity is rare and official recorders are few and far between. Now, that is government surveillance I can get behind!

If earthquakes aren’t your thing, there are also programs for reporting landslides (Did you see it?) and volcanic activity (Is ash falling?). You can also add data to The National Map to create a more complete picture of the U.S. with buildings and other features. The U.S.G.S. is also a partner of the National Phenology Network, which collect a wide range of data from nature to benefit scientific studies. If you enjoy spending time in nature, which could include your own backyard, then consider contributing to their Nature’s Notebook on-line reporting program. You can submit your observation location and keep track of certain species of plants and animals for scientists that use their data to track seasonal information. For my Baton Rouge area friends, this can be as simple as letting them know when your magnolia tree is blooming or when your pecans are falling off your trees. (Hey, I guess there is a plant connection after all.) I think someone somewhere would also like to know that there were no blueberries and the figs are late this year.

These can be great hobbies, family activities or group volunteer projects for school classes, scout troops, 4-H clubs, senior centers etc. So get involved!


*I also came across this post if you are looking for a more complete description of citizen science.


Citizen Science: Welcome to the Team

I know I said in a previous post, that scientists aren’t really out to convert everyone else into professional scientists, but honestly we could use your help. We’re trying to answer larger questions. This means we need more data than we are able to gather and process all by ourselves. As a way of addressing this problem, there is a growing trend of citizen science projects in which scientists advertise their projects and enlist the help of the general public in collecting the data they need.

The power of the internet is making this possible. Through specific project websites and hub sites like Scistarter, scientists describe their projects, the observations they would like you to help with, along with how and when to submit that data to them. It is a win-win situation. Scientists get the help and data they need, and the citizen participants gain a new level of connectivity with science that would otherwise be largely invisible to them. In this model, science stops being mere facts about our physical world and turns into an active process of which we are all a part.

Here are a few example projects from Scistarter:

“By playing EteRNA, you will help extend and curate the first large scale library of synthetic RNA designs. You play by designing RNAs, tiny molecules at the heart of every cell. If you win the weekly competition your RNA is synthesized and scored by how well it folds. Your efforts will help us understand, dissect, and control the functional properties of real and designed RNAs from bacteria, viruses, and our own cells. Join the global laboratory!”

“Some bee populations have experienced severe declines that may affect food production. However, nobody has ever measured how much pollination is happening over a region, much less a continent, so there is little information about how a decline in the bee population can influence gardens. The Great Sunflower Project makes it easy to gather this information. Plant a seed or two, spend 15 minutes watching your flowers for bee visits, and send in your data. You can make as many observations as you want while your flowers are in bloom. Plant, Watch, Enter. Repeat. That’s it. And, who doesn’t like sunflowers?!”

Project Squirrel is calling all citizen scientists to count the number of squirrels in their neighborhoods and report their findings. The goal is to understand urban squirrel biology, including everything from squirrels to migratory birds, nocturnal mammals, and secretive reptiles and amphibians. To gain data on squirrel populations across the United States, citizen scientists will also be asked, when possible, to distinguish between two different types of tree squirrels – gray and fox.”

Here are some links (also cross-listed and curated under the ‘Resources’ page) to lists of projects looking for scientists like you. For home-school parents that may be reading this, these might be something to work into your science curriculum. These projects are great for anyone else out there looking for additional science enrichment for scientists of all ages. You can find projects on all kinds of subjects. These can be done inside on rainy days, on your phone, in your backyard, or beyond. Many sites listed below have blogs or eNewletters to stay up to date with new projects.



Scientific American Citizen Science

                National Geographic Citizen Science


Science is a team sport. The great thing is that we are all on the same team.  Welcome to the team. Here’s your jersey- let’s work together.



Some other useful posts on citizen science from PLoS, New Scientist, Scistarter, and others here on wordpress.