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Improve Student Engagement and Learning in Online Science Courses Through “Citizen Science” Projects

By Peter Jeschofnig, Ph.D., Institute for Excellence in Distance Science Education

When teaching on-campus classes, I involved my environmental science and environmental chemistry students in semester-long environmental monitoring projects like water chemistry, stream discharge, and aquatic invertebrate monitoring. I was not surprised to find that they were much more enthused about these hands-on, experiential projects than their standard lab experimentation.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could get online students involved in similar activities? Well, with some planning, we can. Due to safety and equipment considerations, the activities cannot be exactly the same as I did with on-campus students, but there are related discovery activities that can contribute to the increase in students’ enthusiasm level beyond that of performing only traditional lab experiments.

ImageCitizen scientists are volunteers who participate in science research by collecting and/or analyzing data for a specific science project. The concept of citizen science is quite old; and by the above definition, Charles Darwin was a citizen scientist. The Audubon Society has been using the concept for more than 100 years by getting average citizens involved in their annual bird counts. Today, numerous projects exist where citizen scientists are needed and this may be an excellent way to get online students involved in actual science projects.

Hanny’s Voorwerp

Some of these citizen science projects include “Galaxy Zoo,” where participants browse through SDSS (Sloan Digital Sky Survey) images and classify some of the millions of galaxies. A potential selling point of such projects is Hanny van Arkel’s experience. Hanny is a Dutch school teacher and project participant who discovered an enormous green gas cloud “floating like a ghost” in front of a minor spiral galaxy in the Leo Minor constellation. This unknown feature is thought to be a small galaxy that acts like a large reflection nebula which shows the reflected light of a bright quasar event. It is now called “Hanny’s Voorwerp” which means “Hanny’s Object.”

NASA’s “Be A Martian” program involves the examination of the vast amount of data on Mars that has been gathered by orbiting spacecraft and planetary rovers. Participants help catalogue craters and other formations seen from orbit or explore the surface and identify objects captured by the cameras of the various rovers: Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity.

Some students may be interested in getting involved in helping analyze tropical cyclone data by examining color-enhanced images from 30 years of tropical cyclones taken from the archives of NCDC’s Hurricane Satellite Data system.

Zooinverse” has a number of other interesting citizen science projects that need participants.

For more biologically oriented projects, there is Project “Budburst” where participants make observations about life-cycle characteristics (or “phenophases”) of plants in their local area – including trees, shrubs, flowers, and grass.

I also like project Cell Slider, where participants learn to identify various cell types and then classify digital images of cancer samples. A series of other citizen science projects can be found at http://www.scientificamerican.com/citizen-science.

With the abundance of such projects in most disciplines, any instructor interested in enhancing the science learning of their students should have no problem finding a project.

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