“Science fairs are for the privileged”, science writer Carl Zimmer wrote after his daughter’s experience this last year. In 2016? Really? Back in the days of shoulder pads and big hair when I did science fair projects – YES. Kids needed teachers, parents, and maybe university or other professionals to give students access to equipment and bound journal articles. So although I was from a middle-class, working family in a small, rural town in North Alabama, I was extremely privileged to have people in my community help and support my interest in all things microscopic. Today, with only a smart phone and Internet access, students can do great science fair projects AND contribute to larger research programs.


Middle School girl in the 1980's standing by science fair project display board with big glasses, big hair, and big science words.
Anne with her Middle School science project about using microscopic algae (diatoms) to determine the water quality of local streams. Certainly, couldn’t have done this without parents willing to buy reagent kits and drive me all to several streams and teachers providing microscope access.

Big Data + Citizens = SCIENCE!

Citizen science programs and Internet access make science fairs open to more people. In today’s world of “Big Data,” scientists can generate data faster than they can analyze it. This is especially true with the field of genomics where sequencing costs have declined as rapidly as sequencing speed has increased. There’s more data than there are people and resources (both computers and time) to analyze. Additionally, many citizen science programs bring together data from different museum, university, and amateur observations that can be sorted through to answer ecological questions. Anyone with smart phone apps and cell phone camera can take photos, add these to growing international databases, and ID organisms they find. Such technologies have actually led to a new species of a bumblebee and an orchid being described. Links to help you find such projects are at the end of the post. Microbiology citizen science projects are also available.

Citizen Science and active learning research projects provide students the opportunity to learn how to think like a scientist. Students make their own discoveries to advance science instead of regurgitating information from a textbook. Samples and data collected by the students are part of established and long-term research projects in academic labs. A “win-win” for all involved. Microbiology provides so many excellent opportunities and different levels of engagement for citizen science projects. Swab and Send run through Dr. Adam Roberts‘ lab at University College London, participants help researchers find novel antibiotic compounds by sending in microbes they swab from different surfaces. Swab and Send updates participants regularly on their Facebook page with the findings that the lab makes from your samples. Another citizen science project to identify novel antibiotics is the Small World Initiative, out of Dr. Jo Handelsman’s lab at Yale University. Here, students in classrooms from high school to undergraduate are given well-tested protocols to conduct their own search for novel antibiotics.

Microbiology Citizen Science Featured

The Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education dedicated their March 2016 issue to citizen science projects. This fabulous issue pulls together successful projects and resources for a variety of ages (K-12, university, and general public) and levels of expertise. Each study provides educators insights into why and how the studies are done, adaptations and extensions, and the resources from power point presentations, to sampling directions, and media recipes. All of the information is open access, so anyone can read the papers and get the procedures. Authors stress connecting the relevance of their projects to society.
Three projects were profiled. The first focused on Lyme disease prevention. Students developed different techniques for collecting ticks near their schools in Minnesota. Ticks collected were sent to a university laboratory for identification and detection of the bacterium Borrelia that causes Lyme disease. Activities such as this not only teach students facts, such as how to distinguish between wood and deer ticks but also teach students how to solve a problem. At first glance, collecting ticks may seem obvious since walking in the woods or high grass often seems to bring ticks to people. However, collecting large numbers requires some planning. Students developed different techniques for collecting. It was bringing this creative process to the project that seemed to most engage students and help them feel like part of a larger project and contributing to science in general. A second project examined environmental water samples for bacteria that produce a purple antimicrobial toxin. This toxin, violacein, kills the chytrid fungus that is killing off frogs. Scientists wondered if frogs that didn’t have the fungus were found in waters where the toxin-producing bacteria were found. Again, students are part of a real-world, larger project with a testable hypothesis. In the third project “Symbiosis in the Soil”, students cultured bacteria and fungi from plant roots, surrounding soil, and soil away from the plant. Students learn first hand about microscopic diversity and microbe-plant interactions by comparing bacterial and fungal diversity between plant roots and surrounding soils. These and other similar projects used in undergraduate classrooms engage and empower student learning by providing hands-on experiences to contribute to science.

Images of petri dishes with purple pigmented bacteria growing
Students screened environmental water samples for a purple-toxin producing bacterium.

Citizen science projects, such as these, are one way that classrooms, but also individual students can learn about science through doing. Science fairs are yet another. Combining the two seems only natural and could be a way to “democratize” science fairs. I’m currently at the American Society for Microbiology’s Conference for Undergraduate Educators (ASMCUE) in Bethesda, MD. It’s thrilling to learn first-hand about the many different kinds of microbiology citizen science that is being done around the country. I’ll be featuring some of these projects with you in future posts.

Other citizen science projects

Microbe focused: microBEnet list,  Wild Life of Our HomesWolbachia project

Macro-organism focused: iNaturalisteButterflyOcean ObservatoryInvasive MosquitoThe Dragonfly Swarm Project

Database of Citizen Science projects: SciStarterFederal Crowdsourcing Database

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