Demonstrating Citizen Science at Adler Planetarium

Today’s guest post comes from Jesse Feddersen and Rachel Wolf about their experience developing a citizen science themed floor experience at the Adler Planetarium as part of the summer school sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. 

Jesse Feddersen is a PhD student in the Astronomy department at Yale University. He is especially interested in observational studies of galaxy evolution. He believes scientists have a responsibility to actively engage in public outreach, and it’s fun too! When he’s not doing science or outreach, Jesse enjoys hiking, baking, and singing songs from Frozen. Do you want to build a snowman with him?

It doesn’t have to be a snowman…

Rachel Wolf is a PhD student in the Physics and Astronomy department at the University of Pennsylvania.  Her research focuses on observational cosmology using Type Ia supernovae.  She loves sharing science with the public and is especially passionate about getting kids excited about science! In her spare time, she loves to cook, host game nights, and cheer for her UCLA Bruins!

“I don’t need to help scientists, I’m already a scientist!”

The sentiment of one precocious little girl perfectly reflects our philosophy: everyone can be a scientist, and through Zooniverse and other citizen science projects, contribute to research projects in the fields they find most exciting.

We came to Chicago for a summer school sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. This two week program was designed for graduate students in astronomy and physics who are interested in education and public outreach and partnered them with teams at the University and Adler Planetarium. We chose to work with the Zooniverse team at Adler.

On our first day at the planetarium, we met with Laura and the citizen science team and situated ourselves in Zooniverse HQ. This felt a little like meeting the Wizard of Oz, or getting a backstage pass to a Queen concert. We soon realized that to planetarium guests, the Zooniverse presence at Adler was confined to a room hidden away in a dark corner at the end of a hallway. There were few exhibits or demonstrations explaining what the Zooniverse is and how to get involved. It seemed like a great starting point for increasing exposure was to create an interactive activity introducing planetarium guests to the Zooniverse.

Early on, we decided to tailor our demonstration to elementary school kids and their families. We spent some time looking through the various Zooniverse projects and thought, “We could teach about galaxy formation!  We could teach about magnetic fields and solar activity! We could look for cute pictures of baby elephants all week!” The more we brainstormed the more we realized why we were so excited. Sure, images of space are mesmerizing and everyone loves baby elephants, but we were also just really curious about these things. As astronomers, it’s our job to be curious and to figure out new things. But science is certainly not limited to people like us – it’s for everyone! That’s when we decided our activity should get at the core of the Zooniverse and demonstrate just how everyone can be a scientist.

We knew we wanted to emphasize key components of citizen science projects, like observation and collaboration, but we weren’t sure how to integrate these ideas into an activity that would attract a sugar-buzzed eight year old. Our hook had to be exciting and offer guests a unique “I’m in a space museum” experience. After much thought, an idea finally hit us: how cool would it be if we had a meteorite small enough for guests to hold?  From there, our activity almost designed itself(even though we had yet to confirm the existence of said meteorite). After discussing our first draft with Laura and Julie and making a few changes, we had a solid outline of what we wanted to do. “Mystery Rocks” was born!

Step 1: Present the guests with a problem. We incorporate the meteorite into the activity by having guests compare it to Earth rocks (found in the flowerbeds outside the planetarium). Our opening line sounds something like, “We have some rocks we know nothing about. Can you help us?”

Step 2: Make some observations. At this point, we offer our rocks to the guests and encourage them to make observations using the tools available (magnifying glass, magnet, etc). After a few minutes, we ask guests to shout out their observations as we write them on a whiteboard for everyone to see.

Step 3: Classify the objects and vote. We then group the rocks based on the observations (e.g. rough v. smooth, heavy v. light, magnetic v. non-magnetic) and have guests vote on the classifications. Our goal was to make this part of the activity tactile.  After rummaging through the supply cabinets of the public programs department, we found some clear plastic graduated cylinders and large, colorful, fuzzy pom-poms that we thought would do the trick. For each classification, we use the pom-poms as our “ballots” and the graduated cylinders as our “ballot boxes” and have each participant cast his or her vote in a different box. After determining the group consensus, we write the classifications of the rocks on the whiteboard.

Step 4: We just did science! Here is our chance to emphasize how everything we just did in the activity is precisely how science works. We then introduce the idea of citizen science and talk about the Zooniverse.

Step 5: Use the voting results to learn about the rocks. Hopefully we still have the group’s attention and can discuss how to use our classifications to learn about the rocks.  We ask the group if they can tell us where the rocks came from and then blow them away with the fact that they are actually holding a rock from space!

Having cobbled together a prototype of our activity, we headed upstairs to try it out with visitors. Our first trial run was in the Planet Explorers area, with a group of kids:

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 Here’s the initial set-up of “Mystery Rocks” (first image) and a mid-activity shot of the whiteboard full of observations (second image). We tried to write down everything the crowd observed!

We took two big lessons from this first demo. The first was that kids love distractions, and we provided them many by having lots of clutter on the activity cart. The second was that kids love pom-poms and stickers, and having these props helps to keep their interest. Surprisingly for us, most kids were not very impressed when we told them they were holding a meteorite, but were more interested in making observations about the rocks. We would never have come to these realizations ourselves, and we learned just how invaluable it is to actually test an activity, even if it is still rough around the edges.

Using our experience on the floor as a guide, we changed our procedure to make “Mystery Rocks” more effective. We tested the activity with Adler’s Education and Public Programs department, as well as their teen interns. We got some excellent critiques about our hook and how best to communicate concepts of citizen science. We also learned the requirements for floor programs and documented “Mystery Rocks” for future use at Adler and beyond. Keeping all the feedback in mind, we took the floor again, ready to excite planetarium visitors about citizen science!

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“Mystery Rocks” by the beautiful Milky Way panorama just around the corner from Zooniverse HQ.  This gave us an excellent opportunity to talk about Galaxy Zoo! 

The philosophy of citizen science, and of “Mystery Rocks”, is that everyone can participate in science. Of course, our little visitor already knew this and we’d like to inspire this same enthusiasm in others by showing how everyone can be a part of the scientific community. Our activity not only demonstrates how science works, but also how much learning thrives through teamwork. Many people we interacted with during our time at the planetarium had never thought of themselves as scientists and we hope we changed that! This little girl, however, was clearly excited about a life in science:

Us: “What kind of science do you do?”

Girl: “I’m an inventor! I’m going to invent wings that people can wear, and a way to go to the places you see on TV. […] I’m going to work in a lab!”

Us:  “Well you know, we’re scientists, but we don’t work in a lab.”

Girl: “Well then you can’t be scientists!”

We’ll just have to work on that another time.

We would like to thank Laura and Julie for all of their guidance and support as we developed our activity! We learned so much from you and had such a great team working with the Zooniverse team!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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