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'Citizen scientists' watch for signs of climate change

People with no formal training are helping scientists track and record birds, fish, stars, and plants in their neighborhoods online.

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The SAS is now developing Labrats, a science education program for children ages 11 to 18. The after-school club would enable kids to learn the ethics of good science and conduct their own scientific research. Its motto is "Do the experiment," that is, go find the truth yourself, Carlson says. He hopes to roll out the program in the Chicago area within the next year and nationwide after that.

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A sampling of other citizen science projects includes:

•Project REEF (the Reef Environ­mental Education Foundation, www.reef.org). REEF enlists amateur scuba divers and snorkelers to collect and report on the marine life they encounter as they dive along the US and Canadian coasts.

•Monarch Watch (monarchwatch.org), based at the University of Kansas, engages citizen scientists in collecting and reporting data on migrating butterflies, including tagging and measuring individuals and observing their flight paths. An estimated 100,000 students and adults participate in the program.

•Frogwatch USA (www.frogwatch.org), a decade-old frog- and toad-monitoring program managed by the National Wildlife Federation and the US Geological Survey, draws on citizen scientists to collect data vital to protecting frogs and toads. On May 3, "Record the Ribbit 2008" volunteers will watch and listen for frogs and toads in their areas and report their findings online.

•"The Great Worldwide Star Count" (starcount.org) asks participants to look skyward after dark, count the stars in certain constellations, and report what they've seen online. The count gives scientists data on the amount of light pollution present in various locations.

Amateurs have distinguished record

Amateurs have a long tradition of success as astronomers, Carlson says. Citizen scientists squinting through telescopes have been the first to discover supernovas and distant galaxies, comets and asteroids.

"The universe is a big place," Carlson says. "The total number of questions out there to be asked and answered is far beyond what the professionals have time to answer.... All of this is really ripe ground for amateur scientists."

Scientific research is simply "organized curiosity," Dickinson says. She hopes citizen scientists will become more confident about their own ability to understand science and that they'll become more inquisitive about science issues in the news. When they hear about a new drug or other discovery, they'll know to ask "What's the evidence? It can cross into all kinds of areas," she says.

What's more, "It's fun," Henderson says. As part of Project BudBurst, she's watching and reporting on lilac, aspen, and chokecherry trees that grow on her property east of Boulder. "I go out every morning ... and I do my little round of [checking] my trees," she says. "It's almost like a little treasure hunt."