Citizen Science Projects

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“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!