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Become a (citizen) scientist

Speed read
  • Citizen science enlists everybody to contribute to our store of knowledge.
  • Taking part in the scientific process inspires children to become scientists.
  • The NSF has an opportunity to satisfy every interest.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) supports citizen science and crowdsourcing efforts across all areas of science, whether your passion is scanning the night sky, exploring your backyard, or playing video games. Citizen science not only opens new research avenues, but also brings diverse perspectives and skill sets to research, helping all of us deepen our understanding and appreciation for science.

Here’s how you can participate:

<strong> Science is for the birds</strong>. Long-running citizen science project eBird relies on birdwatchers to collect data on bird population and habitat. In May 2015, there were 9.5 million records uploaded to eBird's database. These are two male house finches in Montana. Courtesy Jeanette Tasey, Cornell Lab.
  • Join a flock of birders

eBird is an online platform that allows bird-watchers to go online and record their sightings — both unusual visitors and the regular ones — to a database. With more than 100,000 active users, eBird's system is a rich trove of information on bird population distribution and habitat, which users can explore in real time. In May 2015, there were 9.5 million records uploaded. eBird is a joint project between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society

(See our feature on Cornell’s Merlin Bird Photo ID app here.)

  • Count every drop

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network — founded at Colorado State University — is the largest provider of daily precipitation observations in the United States. Volunteers set up rain gauges and record data every time a rain, snow, or hail storm passes over. Data is organized and shared on the network's website, and used by the National Weather Service, scientists, farmers, and more.

  • Search for stars with your computer

Einstein@Home uses your computer's idle time to search for astrophysical signals. This extra computing power helps astronomers learn more about star formation, gravity, and our universe. The project has already celebrated major successes: Volunteers discovered young gamma-ray pulsars and about 50 neutron stars, using data from Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory and Australia's Parkes Observatory. Einstein@Home also searches for gravitational-wave signals using data from NSF's Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO). By demonstrating the rippling fabric of space and time, gravitational waves confirm Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

  • Solve puzzles in the name of science

FoldIt is an online game where players collaborate and compete to predict protein molecule structure. Proteins play many crucial roles in the body — everything from breaking down food to sending messages to the brain. Understanding the variety of complex, twisted shapes they take is crucial for predicting what each protein molecule does and how it can be targeted with drugs. In 2011, FoldIt users found the structure of an enzyme involved in the reproduction of HIV, a puzzle scientists were unable to solve. The game is also being used to study the Ebola virus.

<strong>Plankton Portal</strong>. Phytoplankton like this are the foundation of the oceanic food chain. Plankton Portal enlists citizen scientists to identify images of plankton, which helps researchers understand plankton diversity, habitat, and behavior. Courtesy NOAA MESA Project.

  • Join the plankton party

Without plankton, life in the ocean would not exist. These tiny (for the most part) organisms form the base of the food chain, and play an important role in the global carbon cycle. Plankton Portal enlists citizen scientists to identify images of plankton, snapped by the In Situ Icthyoplankton Imaging System, an underwater robot engineered at the University of Miami and funded by NSF and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. The robot has taken millions of images in oceans around the world; classifying the images helps researchers understand plankton diversity, habitat, and behavior. 

Whatever your interest, if you want to be a citizen scientist, the NSF has got you covered.

Citizen science opportunities abound: Interested in preserving wildlife? Earn your stripes with the Wildsense tiger-tagging id app. Want to help the Kinsey Institute advance sex research in developing nations? Check out the Kinsey Reporter app, available in 25 languages. By giving you control of 13 telescopes from around the world, the GLORIA project (GLObal Robotic telescope Intelligent Array for e-science) lets you explore the cosmos from the comfort of your own home.

Search for ‘citizen science’ in the Science Node archive to find a science project up your alley.

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