Zooniverse is a (growing) repository of projects that aim to involve the general populace in data processing for a diverse range of fields (from galaxies to cyclones to bats).
Let me say, right now, that I don’t want to denigrate Zooniverse. It’s a wonderful idea and has helped to link people to the science that their taxes pay for.
But (and you might have guessed there was a ‘but’ coming), let’s not pretend that it is something that it is not. It’s not, as far as I’m concerned, “citizen science”. It is data crunching, plain and simple, and I think it could be so much more. I’ve had a go at a number of the different projects and they were entertaining for about five minutes, after which I was often left thinking “yes, but what does it mean if that galaxy is elliptical and that one is spiral?” or similar.
Zooniverse often seems to be touted (along with projects like Foldit) as a new paradigm of citizen engagement with science, where non-scientists can really “make a difference”.
The exoplanet hunting part of Zooniverse got a lot of attention last year when it was featured on Stargazing Live and Dara O’Briain and Brian Cox used a lot of very excited adjectives to describe the public response and result of finding (yes, folks!) a whole new planet, which was no doubt exaggerated for televisual effect.
This apparent success clearly meant that this year’s Stargazing Live had to have a new ‘interactive’ element. The result was Planet Four, where people can annotate and categorise orbital pictures of the martian surface, in search of ‘black fans’ that can apparently tell us a lot about what’s going on. Some of my colleagues had some… interesting things to say about the project, but I hate throwing out baseless criticism, so here’s my attempt to be a little constructive.
It was hailed on this year’s Stargazing Live as another huge success (though nothing was said other than “Well done folks, you’ve looked at an awful lots of pictures), in which the UK population had provided a massive help to Mars science. Ignoring the potential issues with the validity of the science behind the whole endeavour, what Planet Four offers is a massive stack of newly categorised HiRise images. We have thousands of these already, thousands still uncategorised, and untold thousands of other images from other Mars missions. There aren’t enough Mars scientists in the world, and the ones there are don’t have enough time, to look at all these images, so yes, the people that take part in Planet Four are performing a valuable service.
These categorised, itemised images, though, are what happens before the science starts. Looking at these images, clicking, sorting, categorising, isn’t the science. The science is in the interpretation that happens afterwards. Connecting people to the science behind their Zooniverse clicks is difficult, and requires careful thought, probably from people cleverer than I, but sometimes it can be something simple.
Planet Four is apparently aiming to map “features [that] indicate wind direction and speed”. So why not ask people to say what they think the wind direction is? Add a button to the side to add an arrow (or more than one) to the picture to show the wind direction. Better yet, let them compare two images and say which one has a stronger/faster wind. Yes, ‘scientists’ might balk and say that people can’t make these kind of inferences without all the necessary information and a background in planetary science, but it would have the potential to provide interesting results and lifts the activity from mere number crunching to people making real inference from real data.
This simple change, I feel, would elevate the whole exercise, making it real science and stopping what I think is somewhat patronising slave labour. I’m sure others could come up with better, more insightful ways of doing this, for the other Zooniverse projects as well, but let’s not lose sight of the aim of really connecting people to the actual science, not just the data collection bit at the beginning.
EDIT: I’ve open this post for comments. I’m interested to hear what you think.
I’ve had a plan for a long term project with a school for a while. It would involve designing space missions to give kids an idea of what the engineering process is really like. The prize money gave me a chance to put my plan into action.
The first step was to hold a “Rocket day” at the Radcliffe School in Wolverton. I was connected with the school through IOP, since they funded the Space Zone. Radcliffe is part of the IOP’s Stimulating Physics network. The rocket day was a chance for me to strut my stuff and get to know some of the kids. Some of the prize money helped to buy materials, including a bottle rocket kit, and prizes for the end of the day.
During the day, the kids went into teams to design a mission to Mars. We went through the process of creating a specification, thinking about what such a mission would need. You can see their final designs below.
After a very enjoyable day at the school, it was time to start planning a more long term activity. I specifically wanted to work with a small group of kids over a few weeks. Fortunately, the school has a VLH programme where all their pupils choose an activity to take part in on a Wednesday afternoon. It seemed like a perfect fit.
As part of the VLH, we had two half-term long (7 week) sessions, with an hour each week. The rest of the prize money bought materials, books to do research from, and some tools to make the sessions more exciting. I designed the first session (both times) to be nothing but coming up with ideas – no limitations, anything that the kids came up was fair game. After setting the scene and making clear that the only limits were their imaginations, the first group (of all boys) immediately… stared at me blankly. Still, over the next week fews we managed to get them to think slightly sideways compared to what they were used to, and they came up with some great ideas. The process was democratic, with the group voting for what they thought were the best ideas, whittling it down until we had a manageable number. Eventually the group chose between general outlines – Mars exploration vehicles and supply vehicles. As we went along, they built models and refined their designs. By the end of the time we had together they had a good set of projects.
Then, we did it again, with a different group. This time, the kids worked more cohesively, with a number of groups designing different parts of the same whole. Similar threads ran through both groups, with supply vehicles making an appearance, alongside spaceships sent to colonise other planets.
I had always wanted the project to be have a conclusion that was worth the effort. The idea was for the kids to present their designs to real professionals from the space industry. So, last week, we made the journey to the National Space Centre, where academics from Leicester university chatted to them about their work. The kind people at the space centre also allowed us to wander round the exhibits, meaning the kids got a chance to see the results of real space missions and the hardware involved. We also managed to catch the ‘We Are Astronomers’ planetarium show before heading home. The judges had nothing but praise for the kids and their work, but awarded a special prize to The Tortoise, a colony ship with great safety features.
A little evaluation form was passed out at the end of our trip. Although the questions were wholly retrospective (I would hand one out at the beginning of the project next time), they give some idea of the impact of the project. More than half of the kids involved said that their interesting in ‘physics’, ‘space’, and ‘design’ had increased, and nearly all of them said their interest in ‘engineering’ had increased. All but two said they would recommend talking part to their friends. The points that stuck in their heads seemed to be about rocket fuel, the costs of space travel, and the problems of living in space like recycling water and nasty food. To improve, they said the project should have more or more varied practical activities and make better use of computers. These are all things that I also thought while we were going through the project.
I have to thank a number of people for their help, input and patience through this project. Firstly, thanks to the Radcliffe School science department for agreeing to be my guinea pigs and letting me run with my (possibly) crazy ideas. Special thanks to Will Jakeman, Gill Callow, and Stuart Liggins for looking after me and putting up with incessant emails. Thanks to I’m A Scientist for letting me take part, and the IOP for the prize money. Additional funding for our final trip came from the UK Space Agency’s ‘Space For All’ scheme, and Jeremy Curtis from the UKSA put me in touch with Sarah Hill at the National Space Centre, who proved to be an invaluable resource and arranged a brilliant day for the kids, as well as finding some great judges (including herself) without whom the project would not have had such a great climax. Finally, and most importantly, thanks to the kids for keeping an open and making the project great fun and, I hope, a success.
Hopefully my little pilot project might be able to do some more in future…
We went about designing a mission to Mars, discussing what we would need and how we might go about it. Before we started, the pupils had to design and name their own space agency logo – meaning that for the rest of the day, they were officially Rad-a-nauts!
The groups tested water rockets to try and get the best launch, and learnt a little rocket science. Then they had to design a payload of their own to go on the rocket – you can see their designs and the finished models below.
I had a blast (ha ha) and the kids were all very smart and on the ball, surprising me with their intelligence (and obsession with taking celebrities on their rocket…). The feedback from them was generally good, most saying the only bad thing was that they didn’t learn enough about rockets!
Stay tuned for the next stage of the project…
The second part of my purchases for my I’m A Scientist project have just arrived. I can’t tell you how excited I am.
Of what’s happening with my I’m A Scientist Money…
Terrible photo, I know. Soz.
(This is a long post. Forgive me.)
I’m a Scientist is over.
The results haven’t been announced yet, but we have no more live chats, we’re unlikely to get any more questions, and who knows how many kids will vote at this point in the week?
It’s been emotional. It’s been fun. It’s been frustrating, interesting, mouth openingly astounding, downright odd, amusing and insane in almost equal measure. I’ve met (as much as you can really meet people on the internet) some awesome people, stolen some of their ideas, and maybe opened up some new ideas and projects.
I was genuinely surprised by how much fun being bombarded with questions constantly for two weeks could be.
In the end though, it’s those questions that were the best bits. So I thought I would collect some of the best ones here.
There were amazing questions…
Questions that were so simple that only a kid could think of but were actually the most insightful…
questions that made us think…
questions that made me feel ridiculously unintelligent…
some more personal questions, which was really the whole point of I’m a Scientist in the first place, I think…
some interesting themes…
but by far my favourite bits were where our answers, either to the offline questions or the live chats, inspired further questions, opening up a dialogue with the kids, something that I think the format of I’m a Scientist really lacks, and really made me feel like what I said was getting through
I wonder what I’ll do tomorrow, when I have no questions to answer. Maybe I’ll just start spouting random facts to my friends and strangers I meet. Maybe I’ll find another outlet for this enthusiasm that I want to get out. No matter what, I’ll miss you, I’m a Scientist. Sniff.
I signed up for I’m a Scientist… quite a while ago, not expecting it, like most of my projects, to go anywhere.
But go it did, and started today.
It was an interesting day. I started early, as I wanted to get some studying done before my first live chat. I had already answered a large batch of questions over the weekend, some in between giving diving lectures for USSAC. But none of those, no matter how random or strange, quite prepared me for the chats.
The three half hour sessions couldn’t have been more different.
The first was frenetic, full of spam, kids being stupid or trying to impress their friends (we get no impression of the classroom at the other end of the chat window). But between the dross and repeated entreaties about dubstep were some real gems. I managed to have a couple of (short) discussions about the geopolitical ramifications of the development of atomic weapons and how a society beginning life on a new planet could arrange its political structure.
Just before lunch we talked to a slightly younger group. Their questions were simpler, their spelling worse (on the whole) and it seemed as if they had been primed a bit more–lots of questions about how big/far away planets were.
Finally, hours after they should have been home from school, we talked to an after school club. “For the clever ones” as they put it. All three of them. They showed a remarkable breadth of knowledge and interest. A couple already seemed to have a good idea what they wanted to do at University and asked us the best way to get there.
A strange day, definitely, but fun. The best bits were getting follow ups to questions I had answered or comments I had made in the chats.
I think I’m hooked.