Astronomy is a citizen’s science. Its foundation is ordinary people who help answer serious scientific questions by providing vital data to the astronomical community. Nebulas, supernovas, and gamma ray sightings.
The availability of smartphones make collecting and sharing scientific data easier, faster, and more accurate.
These days former astronomy teacher Robert Pastel isn’t as interested in the stars, but he is serious about environmental science and using computer science—and smartphones—to capture more data from citizen scientists.
The availability of smartphones make collecting and sharing scientific data easier, faster, and more accurate. Pastel works with Alex Mayer, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Tech, students in both computer science and humanities, and scientists around the world to build mobile apps that feed real-world projects.
It starts in the summer, with scientists. “We reach out to them, or they find us. They share an idea and how citizen science can be used,” Pastel explains. “Then the app building begins; it’s about a two-year process.”
When the academic year rolls around, Pastel challenges his Human-Computer Interactions class to build the initial app prototype. In the following year, during Pastel’s Senior Design course, the app undergoes a makeover—from mobile app to a web-based tool. “By this time the scientists have likely changed their minds or solidified their ideas, and more changes are made,” Pastel adds.
An interactive mushroom mapper is the group’s most successful accomplishment to date. Hikers, bikers, or climbers—anyone with a smartphone and an affinity for fungi—capture a photo of the fungus, specify the type, describe the location, and hit submit. All via the app. The mushroom observation data reaches Eric Lilleskoz, a research ecologist with the United States Department of Agriculture. Mushroom Mapper has more than 250 observations from around the country. The app is also used for natural science education in local middle schools.
In addition to creating apps for citizen science, this NSF-supported effort has spawned student-initiated software development and offline apps.