Summer Science Fun: Help the Bees!

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Any science experiment can be fun and educational, but what if you could also be participating in a real study to help our world? I believe science comes alive when you don’t know the outcome, when you are part of a community, and when your effort really makes a difference. For those who live in North America, your family can be part of the Bumble Bee Watch.

We need bees to pollinate our world, but their populations are in decline. At the moment, scientists don’t have enough data and need your help! All you need is a camera and the internet. From the Bumble Bee Watch website:

This citizen science project allows for individuals to:

  • Upload photos of bumble bees to start a virtual bumble bee collection;
  • Identify the bumble bees in your photos and have your identifications verified by experts;
  • Help researchers determine the status and conservation needs of bumble bees;
  • Help locate rare or endangered populations of bumble bees;
  • Learn about bumble bees, their ecology, and ongoing conservation efforts; and
  • Connect with other citizen scientists.

This is a great summer project the whole family can participate in, and is good for all ages. Sign up and make science come alive!

Vanished: An Alternate Reality Game for Middle Schoolers

An environmental disaster has taken place on Planet Earth and we need your help.

The Smithsonian Institution and the MIT Education Arcade invite all scientists-in-training ages 10½ to 14 to log onto VANISHED and help decipher clues that unravel one of the world’s biggest mysteries.  An online/offline interactive event, VANISHED is an eight-week episodic quest that will transform you into principal scientific investigators who must collaborate to find the answers.  You will race against time as you solve games, puzzles, and other online challenges; visit real museums; collect samples from in and around your homes; and even partner with some of the Smithsonian’s world renowned scientists and investigators, to help unlock the  true secrets of this catastrophe—before it’s too late.

The rabbithole introduction to MIT’s alternate reality game “Vanished.”

A couple of weeks back I wrote about “citizen scientist projects” that get kids and families having fun while acting like scientists. For those who might like their science with a side of gaming, however, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Education Arcade has recently created a new science-fiction-themed alternate reality game for middle schoolers aged 10.5-14 that is free and set to go live on April 4.

Alternate reality games bring people together both online and in the real world in order to play together while collaboratively solving puzzles. The ARG “Vanished” will take place over eight weeks and will involve:

  • Weekly video conferences with scientists from the Smithsonian,
  • Online games that will help unlock clues and hidden messages,
  • Journal entries from in-game characters,
  • Opportunities for additional clue-gathering at Smithsonian-affiliated museums around the country (note: you can play the game even if you do not live near one of the participating museums),
  • Real-world exploration where players get out in their own neighborhoods answering questions like what’s blooming? and what animals do you see? in order to generate scientific data, and
  • Forum discussions moderated by MIT students.

Vanished is entirely funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and was created at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in tandem with scientists from the Smithsonian. Read more about the project by going to to ARGnet, a website devoted to discussing alternate reality gaming. Sign up to play the game by heading over to the Vanished website. Parents will be sent a contractual email when their children sign up and are allowed to create “watcher” accounts–however, the game is designed to put kids, not adults, in the decision-making driver seat.

The game begins on April 4, so head on over and sign up!

Citizen Science Projects

“Don’t worry ma’am, we’ve got it under control: we’re scientists.” Tagging horseshoe crabs for Project Limulus. Photo by Andrea Schwalm

It’s a dark and blurry but if you look closely you can see that this is a picture of my younger son holding a flashlight while my older son tags a horseshoe crab. The boys were participants two years ago in Sacred Heart University’s Project Limulus, an annual horseshoe-crab census that has used volunteer-generated numbers to try and solve an emerging environmental mystery: “Where are all the horseshoe crabs going?”

It turns out that horseshoe crabs are pretty amazing creatures. At over 350 million years on the planet, they are one of our oldest-surviving species. Their shells have been used to make sutures and their blue, copper-based blood is used by pharmaceutical companies to test the safety and purity of drugs, vaccines and medical devices–no other medium works as reliably.

It also turns out that, in recent decades, horseshoe crabs have been disappearing from our estuaries in alarming numbers and scientists want to figure out why.  The first step in solving this puzzle was to establish hard data on horseshoe crab populations. Researchers turned to “citizen scientists” to help them establish these baseline numbers–without a dedicated volunteer corps, it would have been prohibitively expensive to complete the initial phase of this study.

Now, in our region, horseshoe crabs are easiest to observe (and tag) at night during the full or new moons of May, June and July. This lead to a series of late-night beach runs for our family, all in the name of science. The end result was that the boys had a blast at the time and today we all still feel very protective of our friend limulus polyphemus.

I was reminded today of Project Limulus when I opened up this fantastic link: The Top Citizen Science Projects of 2010. I love how these “citizen science” projects empower kids and show them that science isn’t something that only happens in a classroom or lab. Additionally, as a big fan of project based learning, I admire how these projects get families outside and build on activities kids already do for fun–like counting fireflies, squirells or bees.

Many of the projects listed here are on-going, so if you missed out last year, don’t worry! Now might actually be a good time to do some research of your own (before the weather warms up again) to see if any of these projects appeal to your resident citizen-scientists…

And, hey: if your family has participated in other “citizen science” projects in the past, feel free to share your experiences in the “comments” section or upload photos to our GeekMom Flickr group!