Bringing the Unknown to Students

Next up in our series of Zooniverse Teacher Ambassador Workshop participants,  we have a guest post from Dave Pinkus.  Dave is a Science Teacher at the Biotechnology High School in Freehold, New Jersey.  Dave has been teaching High School science courses for 13 years and is the 2013-2014 Monmouth County Teacher of the Year.

I often forget what made me fall in love with science, decide to major in geology and later teach children physical science.  I don’t particularly enjoy Newton’s Laws, or Stoichiometry, or measuring Strikes and Dips.  What I fell in love with as a teenager was that there are tangible things that are unknown and I could be the one to describe them.  Through most of my career as a physics teacher, I have given very few opportunities to my students to be intimate with the truly unknown.

Last year, I created a few opportunities, including a research project and engineering design challenges.  It is very difficult to fit these activities into our busy curriculum and it is sometimes just as difficult to have the materials that are necessary.  These projects also lacked the authenticity factor of doing real research to answer something that the broader science community currently doesn’t know.

The Zooniverse sites are fabulous platforms that can deliver authentic data to our students and do not require lab equipment or much time out of our normal lessons.  The data is presented in a format that should be digestible for most grade levels.  In addition to utilizing the sites for class projects this year, I am also planning on introducing one or two of the sites at Back to School Night for my student’s parents.  I will be sure to introduce the same sites to my students on the days leading up to Back to School Night.  This can really afford an opportunity for my students and their parents to have a meaningful STEM experience, together.

New Project: Plankton Portal

It’s always great to launch a new project! Plankton Portal allows you to explore the open ocean from the comfort of your own home. You can dive hundreds of feet deep, and observe the unperturbed ocean and the myriad animals that inhabit the earth’s last frontier.

Plankton Portal Screenshot

The goal of the site is to classify underwater images in order to study plankton. We’ve teamed up with researchers at the University of Miami and Oregon State University who want to understand the distribution and behaviour of plankton in the open ocean.

The site shows you one of millions of plankton images taken by the In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS), a unique underwater robot engineered at the University of Miami. ISIIS operates as an ocean scanner that casts the shadow of tiny and transparent oceanic creatures onto a very high resolution digital sensor at very high frequency. So far, ISIIS has been used in several oceans around the world to detect the presence of larval fish, small crustaceans and jellyfish in ways never before possible. This new technology can help answer important questions ranging from how do plankton disperse, interact and survive in the marine environment, to predicting the physical and biological factors could influence the plankton community.

The dataset used for Plankton Portal comes a period of just three days in Fall 2010. In three days, they collected so much data that would take more than three years to analyze it themselves. That’s why they need your help! A computer will probably be able to tell the difference between major classes of organisms, such as a shrimp versus a jellyfish, but to distinguish different species within an order or family, that is still best done by the human eye.

If you want to help, you can visit A field guide is provided, and there is a simple tutorial. The science team will be on Plankton Portal Talk to answer any questions, and the project is also on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

One Teacher’s Zooniverse Experience


Today’s guest blogger Ricardo Pollo was a Zooniverse Teacher Ambassadors Workshop participant.  He is a teacher, sailor, and musician originally from Miami, FL. He has degrees in Environmental Studies and Sociology & Anthropology, and an MA in Comparative Sociology. He lives with his wonderful wife and amazing baby boy–in the house of their dreams–in Harwich, MA.

I first discovered Galaxy Zoo when I was a teacher in need. I was in my second year, and in a very challenging situation. I was responsible for 200 students, and I only had 90 minutes of planning time every other day, which I had to use to plan for three separate subjects. I bring this up because, back then, I simply did not have that much time to look for new and amazing ways to hook my students into our lessons.

I was teaching a course called earth/space science which, although burdened with a clunky name, was actually pretty great. The biggest problem was that about 80 percent of my students spoke English as a second language, and I needed something besides words to get them excited about our lessons. We had reached a section where we were learning about different types of galaxies, which lends itself to being wowed by. After all, I certainly was when I first learned how many of these things there were out there, and the baffling number of stars they contained. The textbook had relatively interesting pictures, but the treatment was pretty dry. So I did what I always did, and what I continue to do today: I went online and looked for lessons to loot!

In my piratical forays into the world of space education, I came across Galaxy Zoo. I think the keywords I typed were “galaxy classifications,” so it’s no wonder I stumbled across the site. But a “stumble” is not how I would have described it at the time. It shocked me like a peal of thunder on a quiet night, like the light that hits you when you leave a cave after hours of exploring in darkness. Sometimes I imagine what it would have been like to be alive during a cataclysmic meteor strike, calmly loafing on a hillside, staring at the clouds, when suddenly a giant, fiery boulder comes streaking through the atmosphere to lead us all into another geologic age. This is the effect Galaxy Zoo had on me back then, sitting in the staff room, with no other place to plan, and just trying to do something different with my kids.

The rest is honestly kind of anticlimactic. I logged on and classified a few galaxies, and fell in love, hard. I was really struck by the idea that I was looking at pictures that no one else had looked at before. It appealed to the same part of me that likes to pick up trash when I’m out for a walk in the woods: “Nobody’s gotten around to this one yet, I might as well do it.” But instead of keeping things tidy, I felt like I was helping other tired grad students (for I had been there) do something wonderful.

 I couldn’t wait to show my kids. I was so excited! The day came and I nonchalantly put the site up on the projector, and explained to them how it worked. These were pictures of actual galaxies, trillions and trillions of miles away, and we were helping scientists paint a picture of what was out there! The result was an astounding sigh. I couldn’t understand it really. This was absolutely, out of this world, cool. Why weren’t they getting into it? I know the answer now, of course. I stood up there, flipped through pictures, and showed them how to classify them. I showed them how it coincided with what we had just learned about the major types of galaxies. Then I let volunteers come up and touch the magic board themselves. Surprise, surprise, it wasn’t a huge hit.

At the time I thought it might be because some of the pictures were grainy, or maybe they weren’t really able to wrap their heads around the science. So I found another site, a collaboration between NASA and Microsoft, that was designed in part to categorize pictures sent back by Martian rovers. Here was a chance for them to see pictures of the Martian surface, and just look around. I especially loved the pictures that had a part of the rover in frame. And as a bonus, the whole site is very well designed, modeled after a combination computer game/space port. When that site didn’t go over well either, I started to think there might be something wrong with my kids. Since then, I’ve continued to use Zooniverse sites in my classes, particularly Snapshot Serengeti, Seafloor Explorer, and most recently, SpaceWarps. But I’ve always approached this as an added bonus, never as an integral part of our lesson. Some kids have responded really well to it, and I’ve heard quite a few stories of families getting into classifying together. But I never felt like I was using these websites very effectively. 

Obviously, I jumped on the chance to apply for the first Zooniverse Teacher Ambassadors Workshop. I was giddy when I found out I could go, and the experience was a remarkable one. But more than anything, I’m excited to have actual tools, not to mention tons of lesson plans, that I can use in my science classes. I wrote a plan myself, to use with the whale call classifying site, and I’m getting antsy to use it. Unfortunately, I don’t get to acoustics until April or May, so I’m definitely going to have to try someone else’s plan in the meantime. Lucky for me, the ZooTeach site is filled with great ideas and lessons to use. But really, I’m just thrilled that, after 5 years, that nagging feeling that this amazing tool was being totally underutilized, has finally left me. Good riddance!

Reaching Out With Skype Education

Are you looking to bring a unique experience to your classroom? Interested in citizen science and providing the opportunity for your students to talk to a research scientist?

Zooniverse education has been developing Skype in the Classroom lessons to reach classrooms around the world. Skype Education is a free resource for teachers looking to connect their students with educators, other classes, and experts across the globe. You can read more about the development of this program from our August 29th blog post.

Zooniverse will be testing a Skype in the Classroom lesson with about 5 classes between now and mid October. This lesson focuses on the Zooniverse project, Galaxy Zoo. Your students will learn about the role of classification in science and how it is used by Galaxy Zoo scientists. Dr. Karen Masters from the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation from the University of Portsmouth, UK will be our guest speaker. This lesson is best suited for students ages 11-16.

If you’re interested in participating in these test sessions please sign-up be interested either through the Skype in the Classroom or by filling out this Google form


My Classroom Experience with Snapshot Serengeti

This post is from Debbie Soltis, a 2013 Zooniverse Teacher Ambassadors Workshop participant.  She teaches 9th grade Integrated Science and Astronomy at Chugiak High School in Chugiak, Alaska.  A 19-year classroom veteran, Mrs. Soltis enjoys presenting a variety of activities and hands-on experiences because she believes students learn best if they have fun and are motivated by authentic experiences. 

I recently uploaded my first Zooniverse lesson plan, Serengeti Ecology.  Since posting the lesson, I actually completed the lesson with my 9th grade Integrated Science students.  I also had a colleague do the lesson with his 9th graders for a total of about 80 students participating.  Two other colleagues are now also planning on using this lesson with their IS9 students. What follows are my reflections on my lesson and our students’ reactions.

My Zooniverse lesson was a supplement to the lessons I have done many times in my ecology unit.  My ecology unit always begins by trying to write a definition for life.  My students brainstorm characteristics of life and are then presented with a hands-on activity examining and testing three sand samples.  The sand samples are made using sand and salt; sand, sugar and yeast; and sand and crushed effervescent tablet.  Since the overall scientific question in the ecology unit is how do the biotic and abiotic factors interact to obtain matter and energy, another short lesson is a mini-field trip outside to observe, collect, and sort biotic and abiotic examples.

I created a worksheet for the students to complete in the computer lab while they explored Snapshot Serengeti.  Before going to the lab, I presented a modified powerpoint introduction to Zooniverse, the Serengeti project, and what they could expect. (Thanks, Kelly—good timing!)  The students loved the project!  They had no difficulties getting on the site, they were fascinated by the variety of unique pictures each of them had to explore, and they enthusiastically wanted to share with their friends or myself some of their more interesting snapshots.  One girl found a rainbow arcing over a wildebeest, another saw the butt ends of two young warthogs, and a third student replayed multiple times the three-frame sequence of a small herd of wildebeest and zebras. My colleague reported similar experiences with his students.  It was a very busy and productive period for all the students.  Several students even said they wanted to continue exploring the site at home! (And I did not even mention extra credit!)

Aside from the animals, I directed the students to look at the other biotic features in the snapshots—the grass, trees, and brush.  Observations led to inferences about the kind of climate the Serengeti has.  Overall, the students really liked the authentic scientific nature of the research being done as well as the fact they were contributing to that effort.  As I continue with predator-prey relationships, limiting factors, carrying capacity and other ecological concepts, I feel this lab has provided a real personal experience that will give them a solid foundation on which to scaffold these concepts. In summary, anyone who teaches a biology or ecology unit can use this site—it was fun, generated excitement, and provided a wonderful learning experience for all!

A Teacher’s Thoughts on Zooniverse

This is the second post in our series from educators who participated in the Zooniverse Teacher Ambassadors Workshop on August 8-9 at the Adler Planetarium.  Today’s blog post comes from Chris Brown middle school science teacher at St. Patrick of Heatherdowns school in Toledo Ohio. This is his fourth year teaching middle school and enjoys introducing students to many areas of science so they can take more interest specific classes when they go on to high school.

I recently attended “Zooniverse Teacher Boot Camp” it was an interesting and enjoyable experience. I met a lot of great teachers from all over the country and really got a feel for how much we all agree that preparing students as the next generation of scientists is of the utmost importance as they will be the ones to help save our planet. Citizen science is a way to get them started and understand that they can make a difference.

Every summer our school district gets together and has a few technology conferences where teachers present to teachers ideas and ways they can use technology in the classroom. I got some great ideas from our two days together on how I want to do that in my community. I plan on having my audience sign up for a Zooniverse account and show them some of the basic features of Zooniverse (the various projects, zooteach lesson plans, and the discussion forums). Then I really want to give them time to dive into projects that interest them or they can use in their classes. I encourage everyone to do this if they can in their area as I find it a great means to share such a great resource as Zooniverse with as many people as possible.

These projects are a great way for your students to get primary resources as many of the scientists who’s data the projects are using are willing to video chat with classes you just have to contact them. The Zooniverse educators, developers, interns, etc. are also willing to help anyway they can and appreciate any feedback or questions you have.