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Cure summer boredom with citizen science

June 24, 2019 GMT

Astronomical summer began Friday with the June Solstice. Though only a little more than a week into the other definition of summer, the last day of school, are your kids already complaining that there is nothing to do? You can help cure early onset summer boredom with citizen science.

Citizen science is real, hands-on science that leverages the brains, experience and insights of people, providing real data that helps researchers answer big questions about the world around us. Citizen science projects have proved particularly effective at addressing problems that computers aren’t very good at solving. It’s also a great way to spur an interest in science in people of all ages.

If you’ve got a budding meteorologist in your home, a good place to start is NASA’s Globe Observer app available in the iOS and Android app stores.

One of my favorite projects in the app is the Students’ Cloud Observations On-Line Project (S’COOL), where participants gather information about clouds. It is open to all and a great way to learn more about clouds.

The app also alerts you when spacecraft in the Afternoon Constellation of Earth observing satellites, also known as the A-Train, will be passing over. You won’t be able to see them in the daylight, but your observations will provide valuable information that will help improve observations from space. One of the more important projects to North Carolina is the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, or CoCoRaHS, where volunteers measure and map rain, hail and snow. There are over 3500 CoCoRaHS sites across the state, with nearly 300 in Wake county alone, but more volunteers are always needed.

Precipitation is highly variable, especially during the summer. While one area might experience a downpour, the next neighborhood over might not see a drop of rain. The higher data resolution provided fills in the gaps between NWS stations at airports and other locations and is trusted by a number of users.

NASA uses CoCoRaHS to calibrate satellite data studying rainfall and soil moisture. Observations are also important to assessing drought conditions, and fisheries look to the data for indications of runoff into bays and other waterways that can impact shellfish harvesting.

Snowfall observations from CoCoRaHS observations have meant the difference in a county receiving federal disaster assistance from FEMA. The North Carolina Climate Office imports observations into their database each day for ongoing study. You may have also seen WRAL meteorologists reference CoCoRaHS rain or snow fall amounts.

Space explorers can help the OSIRIS-REx mission team map asteroid Bennu in the CosmoQuest Mapper project. Participants view real photos of the asteroid marking craters and measuring boulders. You can help astronomers search for muons -- small, unstable, charged particles created in our atmosphere during cosmic ray storms in the Muon Hunter project.

For the animal lover, N.C. State and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission in collaboration with the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and Smithsonian Institute are looking for volunteers for the Candid Critters camera trap survey of North Carolina. Participants setup cameras on public land or their own property for three weeks, review the photos, identifying the animals and uploading the results.

The program focuses on understanding changes in the deer and coyote population in North Carolina. Images of bear, elk, weasels, squirrels, armadillos, feral pigs and skunks are also being studied. You can use your own camera or borrow one from one of 57 public and university libraries around state that offer them for check out.

That same Globe Observer app can also help get the family out into nature, even just the park down the street, to help NASA measure trees (and the USGS calibrate satellite images) from your smart phone. The Adopt-a-Pixel has citizen scientists taking photos of trees and ground cover with a smart phone. Photos are tagged with time and location for correlation with satellite images.

You can also contribute mosquito research. “Satellites don’t see mosquitoes,” according to Dr. Assaf Anyamba, a scientist using satellite data to study mosquitoes at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. “However, satellites provide us observation platforms from which to monitor the environmental variables that indicate where mosquito populations can flourish. This helps us identify areas where disease can emerge.”

These are just a few examples of more than a thousand projects. Visit citizenscience.org, citizenscience.gov, and zooniverse.org to find the one that will help get the kids and you off the couch and out doing science.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @rtphokie.