Citizen Science: How You Can Get Involved

Reading about science is fun, but there are surprisingly many ways to get involved in scientific research projects and help further our understanding of the world around us. Some of them don’t even require you to get off the couch! Here’s a selection of some of the more interesting ones I’ve found, along with other ways to get involved.

Stick figure holding a beaker. Caption reads "Stand back, I'm going to try science."
This can be you! Image from a shirt in the xkcd store.

Plants, Animals, and Microbes

  • Are you cool with creepy-crawlies? Your Wild Life has ongoing projects to catalog the spread of different species of ants and camel crickets and to see what microbes are living in your house. They’re most famous for a project to look at the unique microbial life of people’s belly buttons, and they’ll be doing the same for armpits soon!
  • Citizen Sort is great for people who want to do science from the comfort of their homes while looking at pictures of animals. Okay, moths aren’t the cutest animals around, but the Happy Match game lets you sort pictures by characteristics like wing shape, color, and pattern to help scientists classify new species. Most of the pictures haven’t yet been ID’d, but a couple known species are thrown in so they can test how well you do, and correctly classifying them earns points! There’s also a Forbidden Island game that’s a bit cheesy, but might be more fun for kids.
  • Whale FM lets you listen to and group together similar orca calls in the hopes of one day decoding what they’re saying.
  • If you know your Thomson’s Gazelles from your okapis, Serengeti Live is the project for you. Analyze photos from remote cameras across the Serengeti to identify the species spotted at each location. You have to pass a pop quiz to participate.

Astronomy

  • Amateur astronomers can help NASA track asteroids and better understand near-Earth objects through the Target Asteroids! project in coordination with the OSIRIS-REx mission and the University of Arizona. You need access to an 8″ or larger telescope (or be willing to pay to access private telescopes remotely) to participate.
  • Zooniverse has several astronomy projects that can be done from your computer. In Planet Hunters, you look at light coming from distant stars to figure out if there are any irregular dips in output consistent with planets briefly blocking some of the light reaching Earth. Who knows, you might find a planet that could support life! Galaxy Zoo lets you identify the shape of new galaxies spotted by the Hubble Telescope; you might be the first person to ever see them! You can also look at and help classify photos of the moon, storms on the surface of the sun, and areas of star formation in the Milky Way.

Earth Science and Weather

  • Feel an earthquake? Help the USGS determine the range of the affected area by filing a report online. I did this last year after the 5.8 magnitude Virginia earthquake.
  • SKYWARN® links volunteers with their local National Weather Service office to report severe weather as it happens. No, this doesn’t mean you have to go tornado-chasing. (Though if you spot a funnel cloud or tornado on the ground, they certainly want to know!) You report in when certain weather conditions are met so that they can get a better idea of what’s going on during storms than can be gained through satellite imagery alone, and this info helps them issue severe weather warnings as fast as possible.
  • Have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch with a camera? You can download the free SatCam app and take pictures of the sky and conditions on the ground as satellites pass overhead so researchers can see how accurate their cloud pictures are. As a bonus, the app sends you the satellite imagery of your location! I’m a sucker for aerial photography, so I’m all over this.

Health and Behavior

  • Have a kid under the age of two and a half? The Baby Laughter project wants to know what makes them giggle; in a mere 15-20 minutes, you can fill out their survey to help researchers better understand how babies’ brains work. You can also send them videos of your giggly kiddo. Who doesn’t love showing off their funny kid?
  • Cell Slider allows you to help classify cancer cells from the comfort of your computer. You’ll be shown slides of tissue cells and asked to identify the irregular cells and describe their characteristics. You need good eyes, because it can be kinda tricky to pick out the cancer cells.

None of these catch your eye? Don’t worry, there are plenty more to choose from!

  • SciStarter has the most comprehensive listing of citizen science projects that I found. You can sort by the type of activity involved (ex: At the Beach, Online) or the scientific field (ex: Astronomy, Birds).
  • Scientific American has another good list of research projects.
  • In addition to the astronomy, whalesong, and cancer projects described above, Zooniverse has a number of other ongoing projects in climate science, nature, and the humanities.
  • Many universities have ongoing science or psychology projects, some of which even pay a nominal amount. Check your local schools to see what’s available.
  • PetriDish.org allows you to donate to scientific research and get rewards if the funding goals are reached.

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

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