As a specialist in e-learning, I work with organisations, universities and schools to find new ways for learning to be designed for, delivered to and experienced by learners. Along the way, my daily forages on the internet have led me to identify particularly interesting and valuable sites in terms of both sheer enjoyment and educational potential.
In this series of posts, I outline my top picks for the start of 2013. My first post last week was about Google Maps and Streetview.
Crowdsourced projects are on the increase: the internet provides the opportunity. Crowdsourcing refers to a process of engaging the public to assist with solving a problem or achieving a goal. Any endeavour which is data-heavy and requires many man-hours to chug through that data is a potential candidate for crowd-sourcing, and, naturally, many scientific research projects fall into the category.
Zooniverse is an umbrella site for a range of crowd-sourced university-led science projects that ask for the public’s help to sort through photos and data. The researchers gain valuable assistance and the ability to solve problems and find answers much sooner and more thoroughly than they otherwise could, and we the public can enjoy the experience and learn a lot about the particular subject along the way. They call it “Citizen Science”.
“The Zooniverse began with a single project, Galaxy Zoo , which was launched in July 2007. The Galaxy Zoo team had expected a fairly quiet life, but were overwhelmed and overawed by the response to the project…. Galaxy Zoo was important because not only was it incredibly popular, but it produced many unique scientific results…. This commitment to producing real research – so that you know that we’re not wasting your time – is at the heart of everything we do.”
The opportunity for Citizen Scientists to get directly involved in scientific research, regardless of our prior knowledge of the subject or level of education, is both empowering and rewarding. Not surprisingly, there are many ways the Zooniverse projects can be used in schools and educational settings to enhance more formal learning (Zooniverse in Education).
It’s also fun!
My two favourite Zoo projects are Galazy Zoo and Snapshot Serengeti, and I’ll say a few words about each to explain why.
The Galaxy Zoo project takes literally millions of images of galaxies and makes them available to Citizen Scientists to classify according to type, shape and other features, including mergers, like the photo above. This is a real photo from the project that I personally classified. I’ve always been passively interested in astronomy, but now I know more about the subject than I ever expected and there’s the added kick of knowing I might be the first person ever to see a particular image.
Roughly one hundred billion galaxies are scattered throughout our observable Universe, each a glorious system that might contain billions of stars. Many are remarkably beautiful, and the aim of Galaxy Zoo is to study them, assisting astronomers in attempting to understand how the galaxies we see around us formed, and what their stories can tell us about the past, present and future of our Universe as a whole.
As the site entices, “Few have witnessed what you’re about to see. Experience a privileged glimpse of the distant universe, observed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and Hubble Space Telescope.” Many of the images are spectacular (though not all), the activity of classifying is not hard (although it makes you think), and there are ways to collect favourite images and discuss what you see. It’s a very popular project, with a large dedicated participant base, and a sense of community. The project blog shares information and a number of academic papers have been published, which not only use the crowdsourced classifications, but also cite individuals.
Snapshot Serengeti works in similar ways. You see photos and simply input what animals you see, how many and what they’re doing. The gorgeous image of the adult male lion above is one I personally classified. As the site explains, “Hundreds of camera traps in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, are providing a powerful new window into the dynamics of Africa’s most elusive wildlife species. We need your help to classify all the different animals caught in millions of camera trap images.” The purpose for this is simple:
“Much of our current research focuses on how carnivores coexist with carnivores, herbivores with herbivores, and the joint dynamics of predators and their prey. These insights will guide strategies for species reintroduction, conservation, and ecosystem management around the world.”
For the Citizen Scientist, there’s obviously the thrill of getting close-up views of African animals, but the simple, repetitive task of looking at images and making general analyses of behaviours leads to greater understanding: I can now identify a wide range of animals (and differentiate, say, a Thomson’s Gazelle from a Grant’s Gazelle); I know that hippos are camera shy during the day but come out at night; and I have also learned by observation that certain animals are gregarious not only with their own species, but with others (Zebras often hang around with Wildebeests).
Like Galaxy Zoo, Snapshot Serengeti lets you collect favourite images and discuss what you see. Researchers are on hand to answer questions. I recently classified the image of a cheetah, which could only be seen from the side. It had a large, pregnant-looking, belly but also male genitalia. I asked for clarification and was told that cheetahs never look pregnant. However, after they’ve gorged, they get distended bellies and have to go sleep it off. This young male was on his way to a shady spot to digest his dinner!
There are at least 13 other fascinating projects under the Zooniverse Umbrella:
- Explore the surface of the Moon
- Study explosions on the Sun
- Find planets around stars
- Discover how stars form
- Explore Martian weather
- Model Earth’s climate using wartime ship logs
- Classify over 30 years of tropical cyclone data
- Study the lives of ancient Greeks
- Hear whales communicate
- Help explore the ocean floor
- Help scientists characterise bat calls
- Classify archived cancer cell samples
- Describe the Bodleian Libraries’ digitised music collections
Learn something. Enjoy yourself. Make a difference.
Previous posts in this series:
- Top Picks for fun and learning: 1. Google Maps
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