Science can seem distant from normal people, an activity done by a select few far removed from the real world. However, there are several ways ordinary people can help us learn more about the world around us.
Phenology is the timing of events such as leaf-out in the spring, the date of flowering, the timing of fruiting, and leaf-fall in the autumn. The timing of such events is specific to each species of plants and doesn't change much over time. It takes large amounts of data observed over decades to detect changes. Collecting that data isn't hard and doesn't require fancy equipment—all you really need is a pad of paper, a pencil, and the willingness to record natural events around you. Now, you don't even need the paper and pencil—Nature's Notebook has a mobile app that allows you to quickly record the timing of natural events on your smartphone and iPad. Best of all, the app solves the biggest problem with doing phenology research—finding and compiling phenology data in old diaries, notes, papers, etc—by connecting your data with a central database so researchers can quickly access and analyze your observations and those of other phenology observers around the world. So get out there and start recording. You'll be amazed at the things you'll notice once you start looking.
Project FeederWatch, run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is the perfect way for birders to participate in scientific research. Counts of birds at feeders help track everything from population sizes to the range of species to migration patterns. And it's a great excuse for installing bird feeders and learning more about the birds around you.
If you're more a computer geek, then check out climateprediction.net. This project uses the BOINC platform to run climate models on home computers. Each climate model differs from the rest of their models—slightly different starting points for physical processes, different equations, and/or assumptions. The researchers then take the results of literally thousands of completed models and average them together, which then gives them a very robust estimate of what climate will be like in the future. And while your model is running, you can watch the results in real-time via the BOINC screensaver.
Project Noah participants use their mobile phones to snap photos documenting the wildlife they encounter. The app collects date, time, and location data and uploads the photos to a central database. That data is then used for range maps, biodiversity surveys, calculate species richness and other metrics.
Similar to Project Noah is a new project for North American insects, designed to identify and catalog insect songs across North America. Just record your insect song and upload it to the project.
Concerned about the decline in bee populations but not sure how you can help? The Great Sunflower Project allows you to help monitor your local bee population. Just plant flowers, then count the number of bees that visit your flowers. The data then allows researchers to determine where bee populations are failing or thriving across the US.
One of the hidden environmental problems is the loss of the dark at night. This causes multiple problems for species as diverse as short-day flowering plants to sea turtles to migrating birds, as summarized by November 2008 National Geographic article Our Vanishing Night. The Loss of the Night app quantifies just how much light pollution you have in your sky by counting the stars visible in the sky over your head.
Those are just a few ways you can participate in science, even if you're not a scientist. Know of any other projects of this nature? Let me know of your favorites in the comments section.