Noelle Swan

Posts Tagged ‘science education’

Citizen science: How families can contribute to real science

In Science Education on April 4, 2013 at 1:20 pm

This article first was published as a guest post on The Christian Science Monitor blog Modern Parenthood on April 4, 2013.

Credit: Dennis Ward, Project Budburst, National Ecological Observatory Network

Credit: Dennis Ward, Project Budburst, National Ecological Observatory Network

What do early radar images of hurricanes, handwritten ship logs, and backyard rain gauges all have in common? More than you might think.

Each of these types of meteorological records represents one small piece of our global climate history. They all hold clues as to how our climate might be (or might not be) changing. And each one offers an opportunity for average citizens of all ages to make meaningful contributions to science.

For many kids, science class means slogging through textbooks, memorizing the discoveries of others, and performing pretested experiments that come with preconceived answers. On the other hand, citizen science projects can offer kids the chance to not just study science but also actually participate in and make a real contribution to science outside the constraints of the classroom.

Citizen science is certainly not new. The Audubon Society has called on amateur birders to conduct its annual Christmas Bird Count since 1900. For centuries, backyard astronomers have recorded their observations of the night sky, helping astronomers map the galaxy.

Today, many scientists are calling on everyday citizens to help understand the scientific issue of the century, global climate change.

When trying to develop a solid picture of the current climate, climatologists have to look at not just large weather patterns, but at individual microclimates. As the old saying goes, “Rain doesn’t fall the same on all.” Farmers and skiers can testify that hail and snow do not either. Piecing together detailed precipitation maps takes an extensive array of data, far beyond the existing weather monitoring infrastructure. So, rain networks around the country have turned to everyday citizens, families, and classrooms to collect and report rainfall measurements.

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, (CoCoRaHS) coordinates local volunteer groups in every state and parts of Canada with sponsorship from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

CoCoRaHS participants commit to spending a few minutes each day recording measurements taken from rain gauges, or plastic cylinders used for measuring inches of rainfall, placed outside their homes. Volunteers later upload their data to the CoCoRaHS website. The tasks are simple enough that even children can participate with minimal adult assistance.

In the process, kids get practical experience that reinforces several concepts taught in science class, including taking precise volumetric measurements, following consistent protocols, and organizing data.

Unraveling climate change requires not just an understanding of what is happening right now, but also of historic climate data. Fortunately, citizen scientists have collected weather statistics for centuries. However, much of that information must first be teased out of some unlikely places.

Researchers at Boston University recently plotted observations made in flower journals by Henry David Thoreau, the famed existentialist writer, philosopher, and naturalist, against temperature records to reveal the correlation between the onset of spring and bloom time. The researchers published their findings in the scientific journal PLOS One earlier this year.

Not all of these kinds of records are as manageable.

The British Royal Navy holds extensive daily records that date back to the middle of the 19th century. These detailed logs include wind speed, temperature, barometric pressure, and wave height around the world and across two centuries. Researchers atOldWeather.org have acquired millions of pages of handwritten logs and need help processing them.

This data holds valuable information about oceanic and arctic weather patterns. However, before climatologists can properly analyze these records, someone has to transcribe them into a digital format that computer modeling programs can read.

That’s where everyday citizen scientists can help.

Volunteers can sign up with OldWeather.org and pour through scanned images of ship logs. Since the site’s initial launch in 2010, citizen scientists have helped to transcribe over 20,000 log pages, an impressive number but still only 14 percent of the pages waiting to be recorded.

To help break up the tedium of data transcription, OldWeather.org has made the project something of a game. Volunteers can join a specific vessel, focusing on logs from a particular journey. Volunteers sign on at the rank of cadet. As they complete additional pages, they earn promotions. The volunteer who completes the most pages for that vessel becomes the captain of the ship. Those who continue with the project consistently soon find additional rewards hidden within the logs.

Sailors recorded much more than weather data in these log books. As volunteers sift through several pages, stories begin to emerge. Some logs detail the effects of the Spanish flu. Others talk about new pathways opening up in the Arctic as ice formations changed. Many detail happenings of the ship’s daily life, from reprimands for drunken sailors, to the tragic loss of a ship’s chocolate stores that were swept overboard. For kids and adults, these kind of stories help bring history to life.

These are just a couple of the many projects searching for citizen scientists. Meteorologists at the Cyclone Center need volunteers to help classify early infrared and satellite images of hurricanes in order to help understand if current storms are more intense than historic storms. Biologists at Nature’s Notebook need amateur naturalists to submit observations of phonological data, such as first leaf out, bloom time, bird migration, and insect emergence. Many more projects can be found on the Citizen Science Alliance website.

Leap to the Top in Science Class

In Science Education on February 15, 2013 at 11:26 am


American Association for the Advancement of Science

AAAS 2013 Annual Meeting News
Noelle Swan


teaching scienceOften, in the daily grind of slogging through a difficult science class, students see fully formed scientists and their discoveries as a distant blur. Remote men and women somehow make advanced science happen.

New efforts aim to bring students face to face with creative, imaginative scientists right in their classroom.

With a lifetime of scientific contributions at their back, many retired scientists, engineers, and physicians are returning to school, not as pupils or as instructors, but as classroom volunteers in public elementary, middle, and high schools.

This week over 400 teachers and scientists gathered in Boston for the first International Teacher-Scientist Partnership Conference, organized by AAAS Education and Human Resources and the University of California, San Francisco Science & Health Education Partnership, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Presenters are scheduled to share a range of partnership models over three days, from scientists generating digital education tools, to teachers participating in research.

Throughout the first day of the conference, the conversation turned to the idea of bringing scientists into the classroom to work directly with the students.

Virginia Shepherd from Vanderbilt University shared a comprehensive analysis of the university’s nearly 20-year-old Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education program. Presentation attendees duly applauded the success of the program but said that they had trouble establishing similar programs in their state for lack of funding.

A handful of organizations represented at the conference have found that an affordable way to bring scientists into the classroom is to recruit retired scientists.

Volunteers at Northeastern University’s Retirees Enhancing Science Education through Experiments and Demonstrations program, or RE-SEED, spend at least one day a week in an elementary, middle, or high school classroom in Massachusetts helping students conduct experiments as part of the existing curriculum.

“Retired scientists and engineers have a lot of experience from a lifetime of working in laboratories. They can make what the students are learning relevant,” said Christos Zahopoulos, a professor of education and engineering at Northeastern University.

Since founding RE-SEED in 1991, Zahopoulos has helped to start similar programs in 15 states, conducting on-site trainings for volunteers. While such programs start out strong, many of them have since faded, with only a handful remaining, he said.

Even though retirees are offering a free service to the schools, getting them trained and placed takes a certain amount of funding, Zahopoulos says. He has been fortunate to fund RE-SEED with private donations. Many programs were not so lucky.

AAAS’ Senior Scientists and Engineers (SSE), a service-oriented organization for retired scientists and engineers, has managed to sustain a similar program for seven years. In 2005, Zahopoulos helped SSE establish its own volunteer program.

Donald Rea, a former research chemist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and SSE volunteer coordinator for Virginia, hopes that helping to reinforce science education will enhance the public understanding of science in years to come.

“If you want to have an influence on science literacy, you want to get [kids] while they are young. So we work in classrooms as young as second grade,” Rea said.

This kind of investment takes many years to fully mature. So, how do Rea and Zahopoulos measure success? They look to their teachers, volunteers, and students.

Rea said he measures success by the eagerness of schools and teachers to participate year after year.

For Zahopoulos, hints of success sometimes come in the mail. He says one student wrote in to RE-SEED upon graduating from high school, several years after any contact with a RE-SEED volunteer, to say that she had decided to major in biology and had enrolled in a pre-medicine program.

Both Rea and Zahopoulos said they have been amazed at the dedication and eagerness of volunteers.

“When we first started, we asked volunteers to commit to one day a week for one year. Now we have volunteers who have been with us for 18 years and some volunteer as many as 4 times per week,” Zahopoulos said.

Ron McKnight, a former Department of Energy physicists and SSE volunteer has recently taken on the task of coordinating volunteers living in Montgomery County, Md. He still volunteers in middle school science classrooms and is considering taking on another assignment.

When asked what he loves about volunteering, he replied, “Whenever a kid I’m working with asks a really good question, that’s when I have a really good day.”

Winter storm Nemo: Take the kids out, charge their creativity

In Science Education on February 8, 2013 at 5:07 pm

This blog post was first published on Modern Parenthood, a CS Monitor blog on February 8, 2013.

file0001668013836Winter storm Nemo threatens to bury the Northeast in two feet of snow this weekend, initiating the obligatory pre-blizzard blitz on the grocery store as families scramble to stock up on cases of toilet paper, gallons of milk, and snacking provisions before schools close on Friday. The storm is likely to shut down much of New England, however for families, being snowed in does not have to mean the family has to be trapped inside.

It may seem like a distant memory for many New Englanders, but walking in a winter wonderland is what the Northeast is all about. So this weekend, as the snow piles up, bundle up the family, head outside and have a snowball fight, build a snowman, or just take a walk and enjoy the hush that freshly fallen snow brings. The kids may grumble at first, but in the end, you will all be surprised at how much fun they have. Beyond that, recent studies suggest they will learn a lot too.

In December, researchers from the University of Utahoffered up a study that says spending time in nature and away from electronic tethers to the civilized world actually boosts people’s ability to solve problems creatively.

The study’s psychologists took adults backpacking into the Utah canyons for four days without their electronics. At the end of the trip, the participants actually scored higher on tests designed to measure their creative problem solving skills than they did before starting their hike. While this study focused on adults, there is good reason to believe that quality time outside could provide a similar benefit to children.

In the age of electronics, kids have access to more information than ever before. They can look up photos, articles, and videos about any topic that interests them. However, this often obsessive pursuit takes away much of the need for creative thinking. Want to build a fort? No problem. Google will readily supply tried and true schematics. Want to tweak the flavor of a recipe? No problem. Extensive recipe sites offer endless variations

These vast stores of information can be extremely valuable. On the other hand, such access reduces the need for creative problem solving. Why try to work out a solution by trial and error when you can just look up the answer?

In the non-virtual world (aka the real world!)  kids are likely to face many problems that don’t have concrete answers. Navigating the complex social tangles of adolescence while juggling academic and extracurricular responsibilities requires a strong set of creative problem solving skills.

So how does spending time in nature help?

A big part of the equation is likely removing the distractions of smartphones, electronic tablets, and televisions.

But there’s probably more to it than that.

Study authors speculate that the effect may be linked to attention restoration theory, the idea that spending time away from the noisy distractions of everyday life and experiencing nature. Spending time away from the noise of traffic and the bustling pace of everyday life promotes a sense of calm and mindfulness.

Families do not have to completely disconnect themselves from civilization for days at a time to benefit from experiencing nature. Spending an hour strolling along a river’s edge, an afternoon hiking through the woods, or even a few minutes playing tag in a field may help families to connect with each other and the natural world.