As the school year winds down and students look forward to a little time off, I often get parents and teachers asking me what there is to keep young minds actively thinking like scientists. While there is a plethora of academic, science-themed camps available, they mean a bit of schedule juggling and, usually, a bit of budget juggling. There is another option for people of all ages to engage their scientific selves and help NASA out. We call these opportunities Citizen Science and NASA’s Science Mission Directorate has a whole page dedicated to ongoing projects (https://science.nasa.gov/citizenscientists) that you and your kids might find interesting. They also have an e-mail listserve called NASA Solve to keep you up to date with new opportunities (https://lists.hq.nasa.gov/mailman/listinfo/nasa-solve).
As I am writing this, there are fifteen active and one archived citizen science opportunities on the page broken into four main categories of the Sun, the Solar System, the Universe and Earth.
What goes with summer vacation better than the Sun? There are two citizen scientist opportunities related directly to the Sun and the Earth’s interaction with it. Aurorasaurus allows you to help scientists understand the effect of the Sun on Earth’s atmosphere by reporting aurora sightings using social media giving scientists a method of ground proving the data collected from Earth observing satellites. Sunspotter is a Zooniverse project allowing you to help classify sun spots from data collected periodically from NASA’s helio-physics satellites. When I checked, Sunspotter did not have any data available, but they do have a blog which lets you know what is being done with the data and when new data sets will go active for analysis.
The Solar System
On those days when the backyard is not an option, why not help NASA find a new planet as a part of Backyard Worlds. In this Zooniverse project, people can help scan the realm beyond Neptune for brown dwarfs and maybe even discover planet nine. Fireballs in the Sky is an app based opportunity to get involved with the Desert Fireball Network tracking the paths of meteors from space to where they land on Earth. Target Asteroids is a similar project helping us understand near-Earth asteroids using your own telescopes and cameras connected to the internet. Stardust at home is an opportunity to help analyze scans of the sample return foils from the Stardust mission that flew through the tail of a comet using a virtual microscope that works within your browser. Planet Four: Terrains focuses in on our next target for human exploration giving you a chance to analyze images and identify channels called “spiders”, “baby Spiders”, “Channel Networks” and “Swiss Cheese” to help locate craters in the polar regions of Mars. Moon Zoo is an archived citizen science project from Zooniverse which studied millions of images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Moving out a bit farther than our local neighborhood, citizen scientists can help us identify objects and understand the universe we are part of. Galaxy Zoo is another of the Zooniverse projects, this time, allowing citizen scientists to classify galaxies according to their shapes. There is even the possibility of being the first person to see a galaxy in the images provided. A related Zooniverse project called Galaxy Zoo Radio focuses in on evidence from two clusters of radio telescopes, the KG Jansky Very Large Array and the Australia Compact Array, to discover supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies. If you want to stay closer to home, the Milky Way Project allows you to study infrared images from the Spitzer Space Telescope of our galaxy to understand the formation of massive stars. If you are more interested in finding planets, the Planet Hunters from the Zooniverse project suite gives you access to light graphs from the Kepler spacecraft. If you find a drop in the light coming from a distant star, you might have just identified a new planet!
Since you are going to be spending some time outside, you might as well help us understand our home planet and how it is changing. The Global Observations to Benefit the Environment or GLOBE Program is a suite of environmental measurement protocols. Maximum participation in this project does require a GLOBE trained teacher, but trainings are now available in online modules for each of the sets of measurements. Once a teacher is trained in a protocol, they train students to take measurements and enter them into a worldwide database giving access to any GLOBE student for analyzing and using data in their own projects. GLOBE has expanded out of the schools with an additional app called GLOBE Observer which allows any citizen scientist to make cloud observations and upload them to the database by following a set of in-app directions and taking images with their phone. GLOBE Observer will be adding new modules in the near future including one aimed at helping scientists track the spread of mosquitoes. Another opportunity to help scientists by looking up is the Students’ Cloud Observations On-Line or S’COOL project. S’COOL has recently added a citizen scientist category of observers called Rovers. Rover observation reports are sent in and used by scientists to confirm satellite observations.
So, when you hear that “There is nothing to do”, “Its too hot out”, or “We’re bored”. Remember, you do have options that will engage their brains, remind them of the science that exists in everyday life and help NASA at the same time!
John F. Weis
Educator Professional Development Specialist, NASA STEM EPDC
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center