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You Can Do It

LOOK! A citizen scientist gathers data on light pollution. She’s using a tool called a sky quality meter. EMILY MALETZ

Go to the window. Look outside. Are there clouds in the sky? How many? Are they puffy? Are they wispy? Are they blocking sunlight? Or are they letting it through?

NASA scientists are interested in your answers. They’re using the power of “citizen science” to gather information about clouds from people all over the world. Amateur scientists contribute to professional research by making observations and sorting data.

DIY Research

Often, citizen scientists don’t need special training or equipment. It may not even matter where they live. Many participants are kids.

“This is a fundamental, real way for young people to engage in science that is useful and important,” Darlene Cavalier says. She founded a website. It’s called SciStarter. It helps people find projects to participate in.

For NASA’s GLOBE Observer program, volunteers submit cloud observations. Satellites photograph clouds from above. But volunteers study them from below. “By combining the two, we get a more complete picture,” says Jessica Taylor, of NASA. Researchers use the data to learn about climate change.

There are thousands of citizen science projects to choose from. You can measure light pollution, study the diet of ants, or locate bees. Sometimes, volunteers gather data from their own backyard. Other projects happen online.

The COVID Effect

COVID-19 has halted or slowed some scientific research. Many scientists have not been able to travel to do their work. Citizen science helps fill in the gaps. Volunteers can submit data gathered wherever they live.

With more people at home because of the pandemic, there are more volunteer scientists. In April, SciStarter saw five times more engagement than the year before. Cavalier hopes the increased interest continues.

“There are so many questions out there, and scientists do not yet have all the answers,” she says. “They need your help.”

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