HOUGHTON - Technological advances have always opened the door for new opportunities for scientists and educators, and a new local National Science Foundation-funded program is a prime example.
Michigan Technological University is teaming up with the Western U.P. Center for Science, Math and Environmental Education on a new "Environmental Cyber-Citizens Program."
Scientists and undergraduate students at Tech will be creating smartphone applications that can collect environmental information, and putting those apps in the hands of "citizen scientists." Local high school and middle school students, along with members of the general public, will serve as the citizen scientists for the program, which is in its infancy.
"Myself and my colleagues are always interested in citizens collecting data that is scientifically useful," said Tech professor of geological and environmental engineering Alex Mayer, director of the Michigan Tech Center for Water and Society and principal investigator (project leader) on the $250,000 demonstration grant. "People have their phones around them all the time, and it seemed like we could take the amount of attention that people put in their phones and have people help collect data.
"If we can unleash the power of citizens collecting data, we can have dozens, hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands collecting data for us," Mayer said, which can otherwise be an expensive, time-consuming process.
Students from two Michigan Tech computer science classes will be working on developing the apps and the interactive website.
"The students will be designing and writing the applications, and they'll have specific clients to work with," said Robert Pastel, assistant professor of computer science. "They'll have multiple people to consider: scientists and their needs, and end users and their needs."
One challenge of the project will be validating data and ensuring citizen scientists follow a structured protocol to collect accurate and valid data.
"We have to worry about human factors and develop these applications to consider that," Mayer said. "We can train them, or have the computer look at things that are surprising."
While surprising data can be exciting for scientists, it can also raise red flags. That's why project coordinators will be working with IBM, which is "very good at detecting when data is showing you something real or not," said Mayer.
"It's a real challenge, and it's always a risk with citizen science that protocols won't be followed as well as by professional scientists," said associate professor Charles Wallace, whose Michigan Tech computer science class will be working on the interactive website.
Not only will the website effectively display a wealth of helpful scientific and environmental data, but it will also include narratives from people who have lived in the area for a while.
"We can also provide narrative and photos, which will help bring in the human perspective," Wallace said.
By displaying relevant data in "visually meaningful ways," according to Wallace, in addition to related first-hand accounts, science can be made more interesting for students in middle and high school, as well.
"Once the app is created, it is my job to work with local teachers and students to pilot the program," said Shawn Oppliger, co-principal investigator representing the Copper Country Intermediate School District. "It involves students in cutting-edge scientific research, and by getting involved, students may really be motivated to get involved in math, science and engineering."
In addition to local middle and high school students, students from the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College will be involved in testing.
The project will also involve the Keweenaw Land Trust, which has played a key role in local environmental protection through purchasing land for conservancy.
"They're (KLT) always looking for ways to get people more engaged," Mayer said. "They were enthusiastic because this would be another cool way to use technology to interact with places and assess environmental issues."
The applications for the two-year project will be developed by spring 2012. Testing is tentatively planned for next summer with KBOCC and local middle and high school students. Feedback will be collected and adjustments made next school year.
"If we've done a good job at producing the apps and show a positive effect on students, we can go back to NSF and apply for larger grant," Mayer said. "If people can get involved and excited about it, and realize it's useful to a scientist, they'll become more interested in science. ... The more everyone knows about the environment, the more people are aware about how their own actions affect the environment."