Interning with Zooniverse Education

Today we have a blog post comes from our awesome summer intern, Julie A. Feldt, who is finishing up a graduate certificate in museum studies at the University of Michigan. Julie has a background in astronomy and space physics research with experience in education and public outreach. She is looking into a career as an informal science educator, and after this summer she will continue to volunteer with us on the project she has written about.

To finish up my Museum Studies Certificate from the University of Michigan, I have been interning with the Zooniverse Educators by working on developing their Skype in the Classroom program. Skype in the Classroom is an extension to Skype that allows teachers to network with other teachers and professionals of various fields to create unique experiences for their students. In addition to working on my main project, I have enjoyed participating in school visits around Chicago, assisting in organizing the Zooniverse Teacher Ambassador workshop, and in a workshop on developing ZooTools tutorials.

Julie in front of the Adler Planetarium during her internship.
Julie in front of the Adler Planetarium during her internship.

To develop this program for Zooniverse Education I researched Skype in the Classroom and Google+ to understand:

  • How do other Museums use Skype in the Classroom or Google+ to provide lessons?

  • What is the best way to connect with Teachers?

  • What kind of experience are Teachers looking for?

Other museums typically provide lessons that are formatted to start with a brief lecture on background with activities to teach the main lesson. The end of the lesson is followed up with a question and answer session between the students and museum educator or professional. There seems to be many more museums using Google+, but their audience for activities using Google Hangouts is open to more than just teachers and their classrooms. Skype in the Classroom offers the choice of selecting teachers based on the age groups they teach, subjects they cover, and that speak a common language. Teachers have advertised on Skype in the Classroom with interest in meeting a classroom from another area of the world, a professional from the field they teach in, and to network with other teachers on strategies for teaching certain concepts.

After talking over ideas with the Zooniverse Educators, we came up with a “Meet the Scientist” series and virtual Zooniverse school visits. The “Meet the Scientist” Series is starting off with Dr. Karen Masters from the Galaxy Zoo project. The lesson focuses on giving kids a deeper understanding of classification which then leads to classifying galaxies on Galaxy Zoo using a Navigator group. This lesson is followed up with a question and answer session between the scientist and students. The school visit lesson has been done around the Chicago area, but since Zooniverse is a multi-institutional organization that spans different countries there should be the option to talk with classrooms anywhere that are interested in Zooniverse projects. For this first test I chose to develop an activity for the Planet Four project. There has been a lot of attention on Mars in the news and with the recent deployment of Curiosity. This activity helps demonstrate the patterns that Planet Four project scientists are looking for on the Martian surface, by replicating the gas geysers. Students can test out the different situations that cause either blotches or fans to occur, as well as talk through how unique patterns may form. When the main activity of this lesson was tested on the museum floor during the 1 year anniversary of Curiosity on Mars, visitors enjoyed the experience and felt motivated to use the Planet Four project.

SAMSUNG

SAMSUNG

These images are from testing out the Project Four activity, Julie tried using powdered sugar, cornstarch, baby powder, and powdered chalk. Baby Powder came out of the squeeze bottles the easiest and made for a great geyser!
These images are from testing out the Project Four activity, Julie tried using powdered sugar, cornstarch, baby powder, and powdered chalk. Baby Powder came out of the squeeze bottles the easiest and made for a great geyser!

The first test of “Meet the Scientist” was conducted at our Zooniverse Teacher Ambassadors workshop where the teachers were our middle school class for Karen and I to present to. They provided us with some very helpful feedback to improve our lesson and presentation. Now we are preparing to work with a classroom. Testing has helped identify possible issues; such as ability to screen share, teachers possibly not able to get all the materials together, and other technical problems with connection. As technology advances some of these issues will get better and lessons can always be slightly altered to accommodate the individual teacher’s situation.

Overall, this seems like it will be a great way to reach more schools around the world with the educational opportunities Zooniverse has to offer. Also, with the idea of these two types of lessons being series, Zooniverse educators are open to develop lessons for other Zooniverse projects to bring different types of experiences to the classroom. There will still need to be more testing to smooth out the lesson plans. I will continue to work on this project as a volunteer during the testing phase. Soon, I will post these two lessons on Zooniverse’s partner page on Skype in the Classroom. There will be advertisements about it on here and the Skype in the Classroom Twitter account. If you are interested in providing this experience for your students, it is easy to sign up on Skype in the Classroom (https://education.skype.com/), especially if you already have a Skype account, and you will be able to find this and many other types of opportunities for your class or to share with your fellow teachers!

 

 

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Zooniverse: Live

Yesterday we pushed Zooniverse Live to be… er… live. Zooniverse Live is a constantly updated screen, showing live updates from most of our projects. You’ll see a map displaying the location of recent Zooniverse volunteer’s classifications and a fast-moving list of recently classified images. Zooniverse Live is on display in our Chicago and Oxford offices, but we thought it would be cool to share it with everyone.

At the time this screenshot was taken, the USA was very active and Snapshot Serengeti was busy.
At the time this screenshot was taken, the USA was very active and Snapshot Serengeti was busy.

The Zooniverse is a very busy place these days and we’ve been looking for ways to visualize activity across all the projects. Zooniverse Live is a fairly simple web application. Its backend is written in Clojure (pronounced Closure) and the front end is written in JavaScript using a library for data visualization called D3. The Zooniverse Live server listens to a stream of classification information provided by the Zooniverse projects – via a database technology called Redis. Zooniverse Live then updates its own internal database of classifications on the backend, with the front end periodically asking for updates.

The secret sauce is figuring out where users are classifying from. Zooniverse Live does that using IP Addresses. Everyone connected to the internet is assigned an IP Address by their Internet Service Provider (ISP). While the IP address assigned may change each time a computer connects to the internet, each address is unique and can be tied to a rough geographical area. When Zooniverse projects send their classifications to Zooniverse Live, they include the IP Address the user was classifying from, letting Zooniverse Live do a lookup for the user’s location to plot on the map. The locations obtained in this way are approximate, and in most cases represent your local Internet exchange.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy having a look at Zooniverse Live, and we’d love to hear ideas for other Zooniverse data visualizations you’d like to see.

Our Elusive Milky Way

In the coming months the Zooniverse Education Blog will feature guest posts from participants in the Zooniverse Teacher Ambassadors Workshop. Today’s guest blogger William H. Waller is author of The Milky Way — An Insider’s Guide and co-editor of The Galactic Inquirer — an e-journal and forum on the topics of galactic and extragalactic astronomy, cosmochemistry and astrobiology, and interstellar communications.  Bill’s day job involves teaching courses in physics and astronomy at Rockport High School.

For most of human history, the night sky demanded our attention.  The shape-shifting Moon, wandering planets, pointillist stars, and occasional comet enchanted our sensibilities while inspiring diverse tales of origin.  The Milky Way, in particular, exerted a powerful presence on our distant ancestors.  Rippling across the firmament, this irregular band of ghostly light evoked myriad myths of life and death among the stars.  In 1609, Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope heavenward and discovered that the Milky Way is “nothing but a congeries of innumerable stars grouped together in clusters.”  Fast forward 400 years to the present day, and we find that the Milky Way has all but disappeared from our collective consciousness.  Where did it go?

For 25 years as an astronomy educator, I have informally polled hundreds of students, teachers, and the general public regarding their awareness of the night sky.  Invariably, no more than 25 percent have ever seen the Milky Way with their own eyes.  For city dwellers, this is completely understandable.  Unless properly shielded, the artificial lighting from municipal, commercial, and residential sources will spill into the sky and overwhelm the diffuse band of luminescence that is the hallmark of our home galaxy.  The recent video “The City Dark” produced by POV underscores the disruptive aspects that artificial lighting can produce on the life cycles of certain animals – and even upon ourselves.

View from Goodwood, Ontario before and after a power blackout (Courtesy Todd Carlson)
View from Goodwood, Ontario before and after a power blackout (Courtesy Todd Carlson

For residents of small towns well away from large cities (such as my own hometown of Rockport, MA), it is much easier to find dark “sanctuaries” where the Milky Way can be spied in all its exquisite beauty.  Yet when I poll Rockport’s sundry inhabitants about having ever seen the Milky Way, I still get a measly 25% positive response.  What’s going on here?

Is it that they don’t care about astronomy and the night sky?  I would have to say that such astronomical indifference is not typical.  Most people in conversations with me will volunteer their fascination for the planets, stars, and the exotica that our universe provides in abundance – from exoplanets to pulsars, black holes, dark matter, and dark energy.  Images from our great space telescopes have also revealed to the casual viewer many marvels of the Milky Way Galaxy, other nearby galaxies, and the remote galaxian cosmos.  Recently, stunning composite images of X-ray, visible, and infrared emission from regions of cosmic tumult have vivified the many powerful dramas that continue to unfold upon the galactic stage.

Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, as observed 325 years after a massive star exploded.   (X-ray: blue), (Visible: green), (Infrared: red) – NASA
Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, as observed 325 years after a massive star exploded.
(X-ray: blue), (Visible: green), (Infrared: red) – NASA

Yet, despite popular enthusiasm for the wonders of space, most people still do not bother to find a dark site and witness the source of these wonders for themselves.  Otherwise, my informal polling would have indicated that they knew about the Milky Way as a naked-eye marvel.  I suppose it comes down to the delivery of experiences.  We have grown accustomed to having our experiences conveyed to us in familiar, safe, and readily-accessible packages – be they books, magazines, television programs, planetarium shows, or interactive websites.

Regarding the latter, consider the Zooniverse online portal where anybody with an internet connection can contribute to authentic scientific research.  With just your eyes and hands, you can search for exoplanets around distant suns, trace out star-blown bubbles in our galaxy’s interstellar medium, and categorize the types of galaxies that dwell in deep space.  To date, close to a million people have contributed to  these and sundry other online scientific investigations.

Then there are the mobile apps.  One popular type of app, in particular, has brought millions more people closer to the night sky.  Google Sky Map, Droid Sky View, The Night Sky, and other interactive planetarium simulators enable a smartphone user to point the phone in any direction and see what stars and constellations are located there.  Most of these simulators show the Milky Way as a hazy band, thus cueing the viewer to its existence.  But does that mean that more people are making the effort to find dark sites for smartphone-aided star gazing?  Is participation in amateur astronomy clubs on the rise as a result?  And are star parties at our national parks surging with attendees?  My very limited research on these questions suggests that – yes – ever more people are seeking the sublime wonders of dark skies.  Whether such interactive apps are responsible for these trends remains unknown.  Still, I remain optimistic.

Perhaps our electronic addictions and virtual realities will ultimately re-introduce ourselves to the unembellished Milky Way – and to other direct experiences that Nature so generously provides.  We may be plugged-in as never before, but still we hunger for authentic interactions with the mysterious ways of Nature.  Towards these ends, I urge that we re-double our efforts to preserve the dark night sky through the advocacy of properly-shielded lighting and the establishment of dark-sky sanctuaries.  To help in these regards, please visit the International Dark Sky Society’s webpage.

Not the Premier League : How Zooniverse got blocked by the courts

Anyone browsing the BBC News Technology section last night might have seen an unexpected appearance of a couple of our projects in this story about illegal streaming of Premier League football games. The story started on Saturday with an email from a volunteer pointing out that Virgin Media, a major Internet Service Provider in the UK, were blocking access to Notes From Nature. All is well now, but if you do experience problems please let us know. If you’d like the background, then read on.

Continue reading Not the Premier League : How Zooniverse got blocked by the courts

Zooniverse, GitHub and the future

In case you haven’t noticed I’ve had a pretty busy five years at the Zooniverse. With more than 25 projects launched in fields from astronomy to biodiversity and from climataology all the way to zoology, it’s been an incredible experience to work with so many new science teams hungry for answers to research questions that can only be answered by enlisting the help of a large number of volunteers. This model of citizen science, one where we boil down the often complex analysis task brought to us by a science team to the ‘simplest thing that will work’, build a rich user experience and then ask a bunch of people to help, seems to work pretty well.

For me, one of the best aspects of what I get to do is that I work in a domain that is an inherently open way of doing research. Having joined Zooniverse when we were still ‘just’ Galaxy Zoo, to see the range of projects we host broaden and to watch our community mature has been a remarkable experience. With our latest endeavour – the Galaxy Zoo Quench project – it’s clear that the line between the activites of the ‘science’ team and the ‘volunteers’ is becoming less defined by the day. Citizen-led science in the Zooniverse began with a group of people in the Galaxy Zoo Forum, ‘The Peas Corp’ when they discovered a new class of galaxy, and it continues today with volunteers discovering new types of worms, exotic exoplanets and even, through Quench, analysing and writing a new paper as a group. These of course are just examples I’ve taken from the Zooniverse and there are many more in other projects run by other people, but in each case the result is the same: by enagaing the public in a meaningful way Citizen Science is challenging the centuries old practices of academia and that has to be a good thing.

The opportunity to change the way science is done, whether it’s building software to increase efficiency or developing new collaboration models, is what brought me to the Zooniverse and now it’s what is leading me away. At the end of September this year I’m going to be hanging up my hat as Technical Lead of the Zooniverse and joining GitHub as their ‘science guy’.

As with all big decisions in life this wasn’t an easy one. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to give technical direction to an incredible team of scientists, developers, educators and designers here at the Adler and the wider Zooniverse. But over the past couple of years I’ve also got to know a number of the GitHub folks and I’ve been hugely impressed by their focus on building the very best platform possible for online collaboration. Starting with the very simple idea that ‘it should be easier to work together than alone’ they’ve clearly nailed what it looks like to work on a problem with others in code. But software isn’t the only thing people are sharing on GitHub – legislators are publishing drafts of state law, technicians are documenting scientific laboratory protocols and with tools like the IPython Notebook researchers have defined formats and means of sharing entire research workflows.

The mantra of ‘collaborative versioned science’ has been rattling around my head now for a couple of years. I believe there’s an opportunity for GitHub to be the platform for capturing the process of scientific discovery and I want to help make that happen.

So what does this mean for the Zooniverse? Well, I’m leaving at a pretty good time as the Zooniverse has never been healthier – there’s a first-class web and education team of twelve people I’m going to be leaving behind at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and we’ve just secured several large grants to expand our sister team at The University of Oxford to ten people (watch this space for job ads).

With all of these people and a number of major development projects in the pipeline we’re going to need a new Technical Lead. If this sounds fun, like you might be a good fit (and you’re able to work in the UK or US) then drop myself and Chris Lintott a line (we’re arfon@zooniverse.org and chris@zooniverse.org) – we’d love to talk. Our software is a mixture of Ruby, Rails and Javascript and we like using technologies like MongoDB, Redis, Amazon Web Services and Hadoop. We get to work on hard data science problems, build custom software for solving crowdsourcing at scale and work with some incredibly smart and creative collaborators.  Whoever takes over is going to have a lot of fun.

Arfon

PS If you’d like to know more about what work looks like as a Technical Lead of the Zooniverse then I’ve written recently about some of the problems we’ve addressed over the past few years herehere and here.

The Zooniverse Teacher Ambassadors Workshop – A Recap

Two days ago the Zooniverse Teacher Ambassadors Workshop concluded. It’s been an exhilarating, challenging, exciting and utterly exhausting couple of days, but in that good and really satisfying way. Fifteen classroom teachers and five informal educators from around the United States (and one from Ireland!) gathered at the Adler Planetarium for what I like to call “Zooniverse Bootcamp”. 

Getting Organized:

Planning this two-day event took a lot of time and energy but fortunately Laura and I had plenty of help. This summer we’ve had the great fortune to be working with Julie Feldt. Julie is interning with Zooniverse as she’s finishing up her certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Michigan.  Jennifer Gupta, the Outreach Officer for the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at The University of Portsmouth, also joined us for the workshop and the week leading up to it. Four pairs of hands are so much better than two!

Getting organized CSI style, by writing on the glass walls of our office at the Adler Planetarium.
Getting organized CSI style, by writing on the glass walls of our office at the Adler Planetarium.

Last week began with a scramble to make sure all of our ducks were in a row.  Internal and external catering arranged?  Check!  Workshop spaces booked at the Adler Planetarium? Check! Workshop participant hotel and flight Last week began with a scramble to make sure all of our ducks were in a row.  Internal and external catering arranged?  Check!  Workshop spaces booked at the Adler Planetarium? Check! Workshop participant hotel and flight reservations finalized? Check! Agenda having to be completely redone to fit everything in?  Double check! By Thursday morning we were ready to roll.

Day One Highlights

Laura kicked off the workshop by outlining the general landscape of citizen science and Zooniverse’s place within that landscape.

Citizen science is not a new idea, it’s been around for a long time.
Citizen science is not a new idea, it’s been around for a long time.
Arfon outlines how one project has grown to more than 15 in six short years.
Arfon outlines how one project has grown to more than fifteen in six short years.

Arfon Smith, Zooniverse Technical Lead and Director of Citizen Science at the Adler Planetarium, then overviewed the rise of a little project called Galaxy Zoo and the development of the Zooniverse as a collect of online citizen science projects from across a wide variety of scientific disciplines. 

Next using Snapshot Serengeti as an example, I led workshop participants through the process of creating a Zooniverse project from submitting a proposal to the the Citizen Science Alliance to collaborating with Zooniverse developers and designers to build the website.

Talk 3

Throughout the first day workshop participants heard from science teams from several Zooniverse projects.   Scott Stevens from Cyclone Center, William Keel from Galaxy Zoo, Chris Lintott from Planet Hunters, and Jessica Luo from an upcoming project about plankton all discussed the science behind their projects.

A slide from Scott Steven’s talk about Cyclone Center explaining limitations behind historic measurements of tropical cyclones and how Zooniverse volunteers can help.
A slide from Scott Steven’s talk about Cyclone Center explaining limitations behind historic measurements of tropical cyclones and how Zooniverse volunteers can help.

 

A sea drifter from Jessica Luo’s talk about a soon to be launched project about plankton.
A sea drifter from Jessica Luo’s talk about a soon to be launched project about plankton. 

In addition to learning about the history of the Zooniverse and hearing the stories behind a selection of projects, we also took the opportunity to introduce some of the new educational resources we’ve been busy developing.  Jen Gupta introduced ZooTeach and demoed a lesson from the upcoming Planet Hunters Educators Guide.  Laura led an interactive activity using the Galaxy Zoo Navigator.  This tool allows students the ability to classify galaxies as a group and then probe the data a bit further with some simple graphing tools.

A plot of the distribution of  absolute radius among classified by workshop participants using Galaxy Zoo Navigator.
A plot of the distribution of absolute radius among classified by workshop participants using Galaxy Zoo Navigator

Day 2 Highlights

After an evening of Mexican food we were ready to move into the final day of the workshop. Day two was a whirlwind of continuing discussion about tools to bring Zooniverse projects into the classroom and more behind the scenes looks at projects.  Julie Feldt, Zooniverse education intern, and Karen Masters, Galaxy Zoo project scientist ran a prototype program aimed at giving students a chance to interact with a Zooniverse scientist through structured activities and discussions through Google Hangouts.

Teachers create their own galaxy classification schemes during Julie and Karen’s Google Hangout.
Teachers create their own galaxy classification schemes during Julie and Karen’s Google Hangout.

Aprajita Verma from the Spacewarps (http://spacewarps.org/) science team gave a terrific talk all about how Zooniverse volunteers are searching for gravitational lenses.

Adler Planetarium educator Andi Nelson led teachers through an amazing session of constructing lesson ideas using Zooniverse projects that map to the recently finalized Next Generation Science Standards. 

One group’s plan to use Cell Slider (http://www.cellslider.net/) as the focus of lessons structured around the NGSS framework.
One group’s plan to use Cell Slider as the focus of lessons structured around the NGSS framework.

By the end of day two, workshop participants were brimming with ideas to share!  As homework, each person will create an educational lesson or resource aimed at using a Zooniverse project with students. We will post these in ZooTeach. The teachers will also each be writing a blog post, so you can hear directly from them about their experiences with citizen science.

Some Lessons Learned

Of course, we can’t help but share a few valuable lessons that we learned…

  • Science teams scattered around the globe make for some agenda setting nightmares.  But totally worth it! 
  • Don’t get cocky and let your guard down after a smooth day one.   
  • Think of technology like a small child, it acts-up or gets cranky at the most inopportune times
  • Coffee available all day, every day is always the way to go!
  • 8:30am-5:30pm – too long of a day.
  • Teachers are always early, be prepared!
  • Two days isn’t enough, a little longer is better.

We’d like to thanks everybody involved in the Zooniverse Teacher Ambassadors Workshop!  We were so lucky to spend two days with such talented and passionate educators. The science team members all gave stellar talks and we’re grateful to all who participated.  Also a special thanks to all of the staff at the Adler Planetarium that made this workshop possible. We’re hoping to do this again!

(Many) Zooniverse Papers Now Open Access

You don’t have to hang around the Zooniverse very long to find out that we’re rather proud of our growing list of publications. We think it’s essential that these papers are available to everyone which is why, for example, we’ve been posting versions of the astronomical papers on arXiv’s Astro-Ph. This is where I get papers I want to read, anyway, but there are advantages to occasionally being able to access the ‘real thing’ – the journal’s own version of the paper.

The doors to the Bodelian library in Oxford are labelled by subject. The one on the left here serves both astronomy and rhetoric. Credit : Jim Linwood

I’m delighted, therefore, to say that Oxford University Press, publishers of the journal we most frequently submit papers to have agreed to make all Zooniverse papers completely free to access. This applies to any Zooniverse paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (which is neither monthly nor contains notices of the Royal Astronomical Society), so whether you want to read about bulgeless galaxies, the Solar System’s dust, the supernovae we discovered, Planet Hunters results or Milky Way Project bubbles you can now do so from the journal itself.