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Be Trendy and Hip and Use That Smartphone for Science

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In my last blog, I wrote about some science that I found to be fascinating, but also a little on the weird side. Remember the curious case of green poop? Beginning to notice the science that exists in our daily lives is a great skill to have, and I hope I have piqued your interest to begin wondering and asking more questions. Now I would like to show you how you can use your cell phone to begin doing science of your own. What do I mean, using cell phones for science? This is an idea becoming more common in the world of citizen science, which is something that more and more researchers and science centers are beginning to utilize as we move into the future.

Citizen science as a concept has been around for centuries, as it got its roots from science hobbyists like Gregor Mendel, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Darwin. But what exactly is a citizen scientist? It has long been considered to be an amateur or nonprofessional scientist, and these types of scientists are proving to be quite useful with cutting edge research today. Without the typical training and science education that is required of university and other professional scientists, everyday people can foster the behavior of asking questions about the world around them, seeking out the answers to those questions, and documenting their own observations and conclusions.

This change in behavior to make wondering and asking questions a habitual experience is what I find to be the most important and beneficial aspect of this new age of citizen science. As opposed to just taking in the world around you, this form of science engagement encourages people to wonder the why and the how, and ultimately come to their own conclusions about how our world works. As another branch of hands-on learning, citizen science can have a greater impact on education by promoting the method of learning by doing. Through actually doing the science, people will feel more emotionally invested in the outcome of their project.

Now let's face it, we live in a generation of screens and ever-evolving technology. So how do we avoid the common scenario of disengagement caused by the often perpetual need to be glued to our smart phones and our tablets? We transform these devices into tools of engagement. And citizen science is doing just that. As we continue to move in the direction of advanced mobile technology, citizen science is utilizing this by encouraging programmers to develop new apps that provide the everyday person with the tools they need to contribute to current research. Since its inception, the internet has provided a platform for such a high level of information exchange, and these growing mobile technologies act somewhat as a catalyst for this type of exchange. While I love the ease and accessibility of the internet, one of the biggest issues we face is simply that not everything is accurate, fact-checked, or even the truth. With opposing views and agendas so apparent in our media, it often seems that science is portrayed in a sensationalized manner, which can cloud the public's understanding of necessary issues. This is where critical thinking skills truly come in to play. With hot topics like climate change, citizen scientists can participate in research and data collection, just by turning to their smart phones. Through their personal contributions with research, I strongly believe citizens will enhance and improve their ability to think critically about key issues, as opposed to making strong conjectures without seeking out all the necessary information.

In Phoenix, AZ, we have had and will continue to have projects focused on climate change. At Arizona State University, projects led by Dr. Kevin Gurney in the past have attempted to characterize fossil fuel CO2 emissions in North America through the use of crowdsourcing. And in our near future, the "Citizen Science to Forecast the Future of a Desert City" project is developing a citizen science and citizen engagement initiative called "MyFuturePhoenix". This initiative aims to break down the barrier that prevents engagement with key issues in our city such as water management. By encouraging students to document their personal water usage and input their data into an online simulation model, they will be able to visualize the impact their decisions will have on sustainability in Phoenix in 2050. This form of involvement is crucial in order to increase science literacy among our future policy decision makers, and I am eager to see how this project unfolds. For more information, click here.

Related to the impacts of climate change, citizen scientists can also help monitor the happenings and changes of the natural environment in their area. This can help researchers keep an eye on the status of global biodiversity, among other things. How can you use your cell phone or other mobile device to help with this? For certain apps, like SciSpy, mobile devices allow users to take pictures of what they observe, stamped with the time, date, and even GPS coordinates. This is incredibly useful for researchers that need to compile large amounts of data for things like bird migration patterns, species concentration, and seasonal trends. Who knows, you may even discover a new species in your own backyard! With cool programs like this, everyone wins. You get the opportunity to get outdoors, have some fun taking pictures, and know that you're making a contribution to the scientific community. For the scientists, it's as if they have a bunch of volunteers and interns sprinkled around the globe that can help them with field work for their ongoing projects.

There are so many projects out there that can benefit from your help. For a good starting point, I suggest you visit SciStarter for a list of current projects that you can be a part of. Now let's get you out there and put that smart phone of yours to good scientific use! Have fun, and as always, Never Stop Wondering.