WHAT IS CITIZEN SCIENCE? These days, educators (professors and school teachers) are trying to engage students and the public in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. One way to do that is to get them involved in research projects. There’s a big problem, though. Most people don’t have access to a well equipped science lab, so most people would be too far away to participate in STEM projects. The solution is to create research projects in which people from many different places can collect and share data.
Example: The Beetle Project. Professors at SUNY Empire State College designed a project that involves identifying and counting invasive Japanese beetles which can seriously damage native plant species. They teach students how to operate monitoring equipment to take various measurements, and they provide training to the public on identifying, counting, and reporting the beetles. The information is collected throughout the state of New York and put into a GIS (geographic information system--basically a high tech map program). The researchers gather more data from more locations than they would be able to do on their own, and a lot of people get a taste of data collection in scientific research.
I have six citizen science projects related to forensic science and climate science that I will describe below. Some of these projects require a very minimal amount of supplies to complete.
Project 1: Fingerprint Patterns: There are a number of factors that determine the types of fingerprints that a person has. These may include place of birth, place of parents’ births, environmental factors, nutritional factors, national origin, and maternal health. While examining fingerprints across the country, I’ve noticed that people in some locations have specific patterns (which types of prints are on which fingers) that repeat much more often than they do in the general public. One of my online students is working on this issue, and we will have homeschooled students collect, classify, and report fingerprints, along with data about the factors that may affect the patterns. For this project, students will need to purchase a fingerprint pad and make copies (or print) copies of a fingerprint chart.
Project 2: Blood Detection: First, let me say that this project uses synthetic training blood, so there is no risk of any bloodborne pathogens. In forensic settings, there is often a bit of blood that has been cleaned up. Investigators can find this blood with chemicals such as BlueStar (a relatively new, powerful luminol-based compound). Previous research has shown that BlueStar can detect blood that has been diluted to a strength of 1:1,000,000. However, there are still questions about detecting blood that has been cleaned, covered up, frozen, heated, or otherwise altered. Students will start with a series of standard tests to see if they can detect blood with BlueStar, and then they will move on to brainstorming new tests on their own. Ideally, photos will be shared on this project’s page. For this project, students will need a small quantity of synthetic blood and BlueStar. The amount of each will be determined by how many activities the student does.
Project 3: Blood in the Soil. This is based on a research project that I am currently conducting. Let’s say we have a small amount of blood that we pour on the ground. We can spray BlueStar and get a positive reaction. However, some of the blood seeps into the ground. We can dig down an inch or so and get a reaction there as well. But, what happens if we leave it and then it rains? Does the blood keep moving downward? Does the BlueStar reaction (it gives off a bright, blue light) get weaker as you go downward? Does this ever change--for instance, what if we leave it for a month? Does the blood spread out as it moves downward? What effect does soil type have on this process? Students will start by analyzing their soil and then set up their controlled experiment. They will be able to repeat the experiment with different conditions as many times as they choose. For this project, students will need synthetic blood and BlueStar.
Project 4: Ink Analysis. Forensic investigators can examine the ink in a written document to help identify the pen or marker that was used. Students will learn to do a simple paper chromatography experiment, but they will also learn to see this type of test all the way through to its conclusion, to record and report their results, and to analyze repeated tests to determine why any differences arise. For this project, students will need coffee filters and a variety of pens and markers.
Project 5: Climate Data. Climate change is, in my opinion, the greatest threat to our world. We’ve seen wild weather and dramatic effects of warming in some parts of the world already. Glaciers are melting, oceans are warming and getting more acidic, droughts are intensifying, storms are strengthening, and so on. Climate is complex, and there may be many specific effects that we cannot foresee at the moment. One thing is clear, though. Warming is here. In one recent year, climate scientists noted that there were four times as many record highs in the US as record lows. On average, there should be roughly the same amount of record highs and lows. For this project, students will temperatures at their homes each day. We will discuss how the measurements should be taken and where they should be taken. Students who want to get more involved can set up a rain gauge and record all rainfall during the test period as well. We will gather all of these data sets and put them onto our Climate Change Project website that is being created as part of my online Climate Change Project class.
Project 6: Research Design Project. This one is a bit different. Students will think about the world around them and dream up an experiment. They will submit their experiments which will then be put on the site without their names. Other students can comment on the experiment designs so that there is a discussion of the issues that may need to be re-examined. This project will allow students to think more deeply about research design.