Inspiring Citizen Science

Returning to the Red Planet

True-color view of Mars seen through NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 1999.

Within a few days (August 6, 12:31 a.m. Central), a robotic representative of humanity will once again return to Mars. As the largest rover to date, the Curiosity‘s exploration mission will further help us understand the neighbor planet, including how it might once have been capable of supporting microscopic life. In addition to Mars’ potential history of life, Curiosity will continue past rovers’ efforts to characterize the climate and geology all in preparation for the ultimate goal: sending our species to the red planet. (Read more about the Mars Science goals.)

Stepping a human foot onto the surface of Mars may be several decades away, at least, but I intently hope that my lifetime will be long enough to witness the event. It was a technological marvel when we arrived on our Moon, but it will be a technological inevitability–mixed with an extreme amount of guts–when we arrive on Mars. 

Why should we go?
Do we think we can just be lazy and not care for our home planet, and then be ready to hop over to the next when this one runs dry? This, of course, is nonsensical and is not in the back of anyone’s mind who is seriously working toward Mars. Getting to Mars requires extreme technological advancements, so many of which will benefit humanity at home. The potential for discovering new natural resources can benefit future generations of future generations. Discovering life on Mars, the historical footprint of life, or the lack thereof can each have important implications for understanding our place in the Universe. And, ultimately, successfully inhabiting Mars creates the opportunity for our species to survive if a planetary crisis of an extinction-level event occurs here at home.

We are a species who has evolved in such a way that we are now developing the technology to seed our own survival on another planet. This is not an endeavor for one country or one culture alone, but it is an experience for everyone.

You, one step closer to Mars
And, the time to participate in this experience is already here. This first thing to do is to take a stroll outside after sunset on the evening of August 5, 2012. Look west and observe a beautiful celestial triangle comprising Mars, Saturn, and Spica, one of the brightest stars in the sky, which is actually a binary system located only 260 light years away. Then, head back home and prepare for the online webcast presented by NASA TV, starting at 10:30 pm Central.

The Curiosity rover is much larger than the previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, so landing this puppy will be a harrowing experience, for sure. However, with a successful touch-down, proof of our technological advancement for sending larger payloads for future missions will be in the bag.

Once the landing is completed, the exciting new data collection can begin. And is there data! And where there is a lot of data to sort through, there are interesting opportunities for citizen scientists. From previous rovers, there are over 250,000 surface images currently being sorted and cataloged to create a massive topological map of the Martian surface. NASA has opened up this mapping project to citizen scientists through the “Be a Martian” online interface. Using your desktop computer or even your mobile device, including Windows Phone, Android, and iPhone, you can individually review images actually taken by a Mars rover and identify characteristic ground and sky features, help stitch together multiple images, count craters, and learn much more about the wonderful new science underway on Mars.

:: Participate in NASA’s Science on Mars ::

This is certainly an exciting time in solar system exploration (especially with the two Voyager probes nearing the edge of our system right now), and it is important that you take part in these scientific efforts. NASA really does need help from the masses: you don’t require any Congressional budgetary approvals to begin work. Our personal greater appreciation for what is happening on Mars and what potentials exist deep in its red dirt will help bring our planets closer together and the benefits that will soon be discovered closer to reality.

 :: Find more Citizen Science opportunities from NASA ::

The 2012 Annular Solar Eclispe

 On Sunday, May 20, 2012, the Moon passed directly in front of the Sun offering a memorable view of an annular solar eclipse from southeast Asia into the western United States.

Path of Annular Solar Eclipse May 20, 2012 - Wolfram Alpha
Path of Annular Solar Eclipse May 20, 2012 - Wolfram Alpha

Here in Central Illinois, Dynamic Patterns Research was unable to witness the solar eclipse thanks to several nice pockets of severe thunderstorms, although we should have been able to see a sliver of eclipse just above the horizon at sunset. Fortunately, many others around the country did have memorable experiences with this special event with great photographs and informal educational experiences with their children. If you would like to re-live the full experience from your home computer, the team at CosmoQuest from SIUE provided a live three-and-one-half-hour feed with commentary and video covering the entire event:

The digital social world was filled with sharing of solar eclipse images, some quite aesthetically outstanding and awe-inspiring. Check out the album from and the album from to witness this great natural wonder of our solar system by talented citizen scientists and enthusiasts from all over the world.

Certainly, a solar eclipse can inspire adults into a greater appreciation of this wonderful universe, but an event like a solar eclipse can offer something a little more special to children. I seem to recall many years ago (well, not that many) during my pre-school days playing outside in the playground when the world grew a little darker and the teachers thoroughly reminded us to not look directly at the sun. The memory is mostly a haze, but I almost think I was a bit scared. Maybe I didn’t understand what was going on, or I was just afraid that I might go blind. What I didn’t have back then was a guided informal educational experience that I was certainly primed and ready for. Moments like these are brief, but critical, for exciting and intriguing young brains about science and helping them develop an appreciation for how everything around us works.

The Geesamans testing their home-made viewer before the eclipse - May 20, 2012Kate Cormeny Geesaman spent the afternoon experimenting with her children building a solar eclipse viewer and then giving it a try at their home in south-central Texas. 

“I think I may have seen a slight sliver “on” the sun, but it wasn’t the dramatic viewing I had imagined. But, Aaron was introduced to the idea and we had a great time in the beautiful Texas weather with our family and neighbors! After we went inside we got our SkyMap app open on our phone and observed how the moon was indeed in front of the sun…just below the horizon.”

Kate Geesaman and son observing the solar eclipse - May 20, 2012

Although Kate and her children were unsuccessful in creating a clear observable image of the eclipse, the experience was certainly invaluable for bringing a bit more curiosity to her young boys, and teaching them something about how to create tools to solve problems — an evolutionary essence of being a human. And, spending time with family, friends, and science makes for a perfect Sunday afternoon!

If you have any images that you would like to share, please post to the Dynamic Patterns Research Facebook page and we’ll be sure to feature your work to everyone.

Unfortunately, Dynamic Patterns Research missed out on making our own direct observations of the annular solar eclipse, but the next opportunity will be perfect, weather permitting of course. We’ve already set our calendars for Monday, August 21, 2017 when the path of the eclipse will be nearly directly overhead, so a “ring-of-fire” image should be possible.

The next annular solar eclipse over the United States, Monday, August 21, 2017 - Wolfram Alpha
The next annular solar eclipse over the United States, Monday, August 21, 2017 - Wolfram Alpha

Be sure to “Like” our Facebook page and subscribe to DPR to be the first to see our images of the eclipse in 2017!

Design Your Own Zooniverse Project

The extreme popularity and continuing scientific success of Galaxy Zoo and the subsequent explosion of the many Zooniverse projects have brought useful and important scientific research to the masses of interested citizens from around the world. Dynamic Patterns Research continues to support these awesome efforts, and is currently actively involved in the Planet Hunters program. Zooniverse has been adding new projects at an impressive rate–there are ten live projects now–and they apparently have no plans to slow down. In fact, they are now looking outward to the very group of people who processes their masses of data to brainstorm the next big citizen science project to be developed.

Citizen Science Alliance

Hosted through the Citizen Science Alliance and with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Adler Planetarium, Zooniverse has announced an open call for proposals for future scientific projects that would benefit from the collective, analytical efforts of hundreds of thousands of remote volunteers. The proposals would need to have a direct connection with a scientific or research group, but the ideas should also be able to flow from citizen scientists themselves.

The next selection round of ideas will occur in January 2012, so plan on completing your submission in December 2011. If you are not familiar with the great Zooniverse projects, take some time to directly experience how powerful they are and the potential that the platform can have for so many other serious scientific questions that can only be successfully answered with the critical help from citizen scientists around the world.

Begin Your Submission

NASA Collaborates with Citizen Scientists as a New Approach to Success

It’s a great thing to be able to do real science on your own, and this is exactly what we encourage here at Dynamic Patterns Research. But, it’s even another great thing to be able to help inspire the desire to do real science in someone else. This is where a great new partnership between NASA, Teachers in Space, and MAKE Magazine is focused to bring exciting scientific experience to young minds.

The goal of the new “NASA Make: Challenge” is to solicit the ingenuity of makers and amateurs to develop inexpensive kits that can be built by students and then sent off into suborbital flights to perform some scientific experiment.

The deadline for submission of ideas is fast approaching on April 30, 2011 and the rules and guidelines are posted online.

This program is planned to be a multi-year event, but the first winning kit designs will be initially assembled by teachers at a workshop at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center’s AERO Institute in Palmdale, CA in early August 2011. These kits will then fly aboard the Excelsior STEM mission, which is an unmanned suborbital flight scheduled to fly aboard a Masten Space Systems reusable launch vehicle later in 2011.

NASA Make: Challenge Webcast from MAKE magazine on Vimeo.

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This wonderful partnership is a great example of NASA’s new approach to finding success in the socially-connected and cash-strapped early 21st Century. As it becomes clear and ever more important that NASA must continue to evolve as a collaborative partner in space exploration and cutting-edge research (read the 2011 NASA 2011 Strategic Plan), they are also increasing their emphasis on partnerships with a broader base of academic institutions as well as directly approaching the exploding citizen science community. In particular, NASA’s new Open Government Initiative, just released last year and is now under development even though “openness” was part of their original 1958 founding legislation, is creating an updated culture of connection between their scientists and engineers and the rest of the country’s citizenry.

The Cover of the NASA Open Government Plan
Read the NASA Open Government Plan

This renewed energy from NASA should be a boon to those citizen scientists interested in finding more direct ways to collaborate with the exciting scientific resources and research fields that NASA is mandated to tackle. Although created by an academic middle-man from the UK, Chris Lintott, the exploding Zooniverse of citizen science projects is the greatest example right now of the successful connection between NASA-generated data (through the Hubble Space Telescope, the Kepler Mission, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the STEREO Space Observatories) and the important scientific analysis performed by volunteers from around the world. NASA is proud of these endeavorers, and readily brags about the progress (“Citizen Scientists Making Incredible Discoveries“, NASA Science News, April 22, 2011).

NASA wants to provide critical tools for citizen scientists. It is not only an aspect of their mandate to be an open source scientific resource, but the valuable role that citizen scientists now play in the advancement of science is becoming more clear each and every day. NASA wants to be successful, and they know that they must collaborate with the private sector and the private citizenry to help become what they want to be, especially since the US Congress struggles every year to fund this much needed success.

NASA's Tools for the Citizen Scientist
NASA's first-year progress toward their new plan of being an Open Government Scientific Resource.

As a seasoned citizen scientist, or if you are wanting to simply whet your appetite for scientific adventures and informal self-learning, the time is ripe now to connect with NASA and take a direct part in the rapid development of new technologies and exciting scientific discoveries that are happening right now and will happen in the near future.

Please let us know at Dynamic Patterns Research what sort of connections you have made or are in the process of developing so that we might learn more about the great new opportunities that could be out there for other citizen scientists.

We Are All Makers, a TED Talk by Dale Dougherty

The fundamental evolutionary advantage of human beings over all other species on this planet is our ability to make things. We make tools to make more complex tools to make end products that help us survive, thrive, and develop. Pre-humans may have started making simple tools over 2 1/2 millions years ago and serious complex tool-making took off during the Bronze Age just a brief 5,000 years ago.

Ever since those grand old days, humans have been exponentially improving our making abilities. Today, we’re extremely good at it, and there is a growing population of amateur “Makers” who are creating a serious hobby out of playing with technology and discovering personal skills to prove that they are the ultimate in human beings right from their own garage.

Dale Dougherty, the founder and publisher of MAKE: Magazine, recently presented a TED Talk on the growing presence of makers across the country. They tinker in their garages, at Maker Faires, and at hackerspaces, and Dale wants to convinces us all that each one of us is a maker at heart. He must be right — we are human beings, after all — we just need to tap into that core evolutionary skill and start making.

Watch Dale Dougherty’s TED Talk from the Motor City:

A New Model for Citizen Science in the Classroom

The scientific literacy of the American student has been dropping for quite some time now, and we often hear about this serious problem (here and here and, oh, over here). Our national educational system — from both the public and private sectors — are in place to do something about it, and many have great intentions to do so.

One institution of higher education, Bard College, launched a new program before classes started in January 2011 with the goal of instilling a new sense of appreciation for scientific understanding and process (read the press release, April 10, 2010). Citizen Science at Bard College (visit) is required for all incoming Freshman and includes faculty from across the country to engage with students in a new and exciting educational forum. (Read more: Citizen Science at Bard Article.)

The inaugural students’ responses from this largely “right-brained”-leaning school were mixed.  Some were annoyed that they lost time from their break while others approached the academic pursuit as something that could really broaden their outlook. This unsurprising span is certainly common in all classrooms, but with no grades nor credits at stake and only the requirement of guided scientific playing, this effort by Bard College is an outstanding idea to spark renewed excitement in science for the next generation of United States citizens.

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“An Infusion of Science Where the Arts Reign” :: The New York Times :: January 21, 2011 :: [ READ ]

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The Citizen Science course from Bard College should not directly create a new breed of professional scientists — this is the opposite goal of the program. More scientists in this country are always needed, but everyone doesn’t need to play that role. This country more desperately needs a broader base of its citizens to have an increased appreciation of science and technology.

We don’t need to be able to calculate the thermal emission and resulting temperature distribution in our living rooms when we just need to decide if we want to screw in a 60 W or 100 W light bulb in the lamp on the coffee table. However, we do need to be able to think about what we hear from the professionals and the politicians and the pundits. These “Three Ps” are supposed to be out there to help the rest of the world advance into a better future, but sometimes — and maybe more often than some of us would like — they claim ideas that really need to be shut down and sorted into File 13.

Forcing Physics 101 onto first-year college students has been the vehicle to drive science rigor into our daily brain activity. And while this should still be a important component to this effort, Physics 101 alone is proving to be inefficient in its results. Citizen Science is growing into a viable outlet for broad based scientific appreciation in informal education, and developing this approach in the classroom will be a critical advancement in academia’s responsibility to the future of scientific literacy in America.

Dynamic Patterns Research will be looking forward to watching Citizen Science in the Classroom explode through universities and high schools in the next few years. If you are involved in these sorts of efforts or are interested discussing how to make Citizen Science active at your academic institution, please contact Dynamic Patterns Research to see what fires we can start together.

Last updated October 26, 2021