Science!

This entry’s title: Shout it out as if you’re singing along with Thomas Dolby, OK? Science!

The last few days our son’s been playing with several of the sites from Zooniverse, which calls itself the the “home to the internet’s largest, most popular and most successful citizen science projects…projects that use the efforts and ability of volunteers to help scientists and researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them.”

Most particularly he’s been playing with Snapshot Serengeti, which has millions of camera trap images, like the one below, and asks visitors to the site to review the images online and identify animals in them.

mooI’ve been interested in his interest, wondering what’s fired him up about this site. First, he’s a kid that likes animals and so identifying them feeds that interest. Second, there are both familiar and unfamiliar animals here, providing mystery and learning to this process. OK, I know a wildebeest, but an eland? What the heck’s an eland, which is below? You’ll also see that the pictures frame animals from any which way – whatever pose they strike when the camera trap goes off. There’s a spontaneity to the pictures and the site – and a reality. Animals just standing around. Animals walking. Animals next to other animals just standing around. No Nat Geo glamor shots here.

moo cowSnapshot Serengeti has also given us the chance to talk about real science – about what it means to identify animals in image after image, developing a huge database from which new ideas can emerge. Repetitive work. Not very glamorous. Many years ago, I had the lucky chance to do an Earthwatch trip over the summer, as part of that organization’s program for school teachers, and I and a group of volunteers accompanied an Indonesian scientist to the Togian Islands, off the coast of Sulawesi. We went to help him research a macaque that was endemic to the islands, and so each day we’d set off, before light, to go out and look for these primates.

mmm hyenaTwo weeks there and we never saw one. Heard them. But never saw one – and yet, no matter, we’d get up each morning, flip on our headlamps, and head off into the jungle with a local guide. During some of these jungle jaunts, we’d stop, our guide would divide up several plots of the rain forest, and each one of us would take one of these plots and count different plants, insects, and other stuff found within our plot and record all that we found in notebooks, to share with our scientist leader when back in camp. And it was hot and buggy and muddy. Yup, not at all glamorous.

porkI’ve written about science before and the need to muck around – that it’s not neat and tidy – and Snapshot Serengeti makes quite real the enormous amount of data that’s collected and sorted through and thought about, as part of scientific exploration. Look at thousands and thousands of images, identify animals in them, and develop a database of info from those images, in order to develop a hypothesis about what’s out there. Hmm: There seem to be many more elands now than there were after the last count. How come? Has something happened to the predator/prey dynamic? Hmm: OK, can we test that idea?

M2E72L215-215R365B327I know that this data collection and identification – and the repetition and the potential for tedium that accompanies them – are not ideal ways to sell science to kids, but Snapshot Serengeti and its sister sites – Seafloor Explorer, Bat Detective, Cyclone Center, and others – all internet-based citizen science projects run by the non-profit Citizen Science Alliance – are one way to share how real science is done. And they do it in a simple manner, the sites have visual appeal, and I’ve not yet tired of categorizing animals. It’s kinda fun – and now I know what an eland is!

monksI wonder how teachers and schools can use these sites in existing units to give their students some sense of scientific exploration. Or how enterprising teachers can build units from them, asking students to develop their own research projects using the images and what they discover from those images. All very cool. Yup, shout it out, Thomas Dolby: Science!

All the above images I got from Snapshot Serengeti – from its Facebook page, its site, and its blog.

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