This article was reprinted from the Summer 2021 issue of Explorations, SEBS alumni magazine.
Do you have a smartphone or computer, and a love for science? Researchers at Rutgers are looking for you.
Why? Researchers can’t be everywhere. That’s why they rely on citizen scientists all over New Jersey and beyond to observe the world around them, log their data, and contribute to research. And thanks to smartphones, participation is easier than ever.
Step One: Get Outside
In many cases, all you need to do to start participating in citizen science is step outside.
Amateur weather watchers of any age may have fun participating in the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHs). All you need is a rain gauge, a little training, and a computer or smartphone. Then, look outside: Is it raining? Snowing? Neither? Just enter what you see in the rain gauge or your snow collection method of choice (this is all covered in the brief training).
Are creepy crawlers more your thing? National Moth Week may be just the right fit. The 2021 event took place July 17 through 25, and followed the format of previous years, asking citizen scientists all over the world to observe and log the moths they see. Observing moths is very easy—just let them come to you! Shine a porch light on a white sheet and wait for them to arrive. Observe, photograph, and upload. And, getting kids in on the action is easy: the website is chock full of family-friendly resources from scavenger hunts and coloring books to creative games and ideas for all ages. (Find out how local Moth Nights transformed into an international citizen science phenomenon.)
If you’re ready to observe the vast diversity in your own backyard, consider signing up for the Personal Bioblitz. The event runs yearly in the spring and is open to Rutgers alumni and friends. Simply download the iNaturalist app, and step outside. Take pics of what you see, from animals to insects to plants. Then, tag your location. You can take a guess of what you captured or leave it to the community to identify. The important part is that you’re learning about nature wherever you are.
Step Two: Researchers use your data
Every citizen scientist is critical to a broader research goal.
Some goals are for the scientific community, as is the case with National Moth Week. The ultimate goal for this project is to collect enough reliable observations that they can be used in ecological research, but it’s not there quite yet. With the help of citizen scientists, researchers may ultimately use this data to understand moth activity and populations in a certain location at a certain date. Climate scientists, for example, might want to know if certain species are moving north, or if moths are coming out earlier in the spring than in previous years.
The work of Personal Bioblitz participants informs research at Rutgers and beyond. On campus, Personal Bioblitz and Chrysler Herbarium director Lena Struwe first utilized the data for research on how to engage people in a project like this. Next, she and her team will examine any biases people bring to their observations (are they more likely to photograph cute animals?) as well as changes certain species are experiencing with regards to climate.
The data entered by CoCoRaHs citizen scientists goes straight to the National Weather Service and has very practical applications affecting all Americans. It not only helps generate more accurate weather forecasts for everyone, but it helps the forest service determine moisture conditions and fire danger, and assists engineers in constructing community infrastructure like drainage pipes, water retention basins, and more. It also provides much-needed climate data to a variety of researchers.
Step Three: Have fun!
Getting outside into nature is just one benefit of being a citizen scientist. For all they contribute to research, participants reap some benefits of their own. They…
- Learn something new. Bioblitz photos can reveal allergens, poisonous and edible plants, and species of animals you’ve never seen before.
- Understand the importance of conservation. Being in nature helps us appreciate nature.
- Involve the kids. Many projects are appropriate for people of all ages, and families can collect data together.
- Get creative! Bake a moth-shaped cake for Moth Week or gather friends for a neighborhood Bioblitz.