Overview: Over the last five years we have worked to develop citizen science projects that reach out to the public but also that, more specifically, reach into classrooms and engage students. The core of this work has been funded by a National Science Foundation MSP grant to North Carolina State University, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and the school systems of Wake County, Alamance County and Pender County, North Carolina. In the ideal scenario, students do real science, their learning outcomes improve, new discoveries are made, and all while fitting within ever changing state and federal standards and their associated calendars. In practice, we sometimes achieve all of these goals and in other cases some of them (And, of course, we also sometimes fail entirely. These failures have proven key to improving what we do). One of our key insights in carrying out this work has been the need to recognize that each project has a different context in which it is likely to work best. Some projects are ideally suited to middle school, can be tested in middle school and then spread middle school to middle school. Other projects seem to work best when tested in university classrooms and then, only later, in high school or middle school. Still other projects, such as ant picnic, seem (with different contextualization) to work in just about any K-12 grade as well as upper level university classes. Here you will find an update of where we are with various projects, projects that span the range from belly buttons to backyard beavers to microbes able to precipitate gold. We have included 1) summaries of various projects, 2) general notes about our ongoing efforts, and 3) a calendar of upcoming events. Enjoy.


1. Project Summaries

What Determines the Biology of a Sourdough Starter? Sourdough starters, used to make traditional bread around the world, vary in the microbes they contain, in how fast they leaven bread and in the flavors and aromas they contribute to bread. Here we seek to understand why.  We have worked with over 500 people from 18 countries to sample sourdough starters varying in age, origin, cultural context and nearly everything else (see map below or interactive map). World map with purple dots indicating locations of sourdough samples. These starters (and what we are learning about them) frame the backdrop for a series of new projects aimed at making food part of science curricula. In collaboration with the Puratos Sourdough Library, we have an experiment underway with bakers to assess the importance of hand and body microbes to starters. In collaboration with bread guru Peter Reinhart and Johnson and Wales University we are working with students to bake bread from sourdoughs that differ in their microbial composition (but are identical in their other ingredients) to assess the influence of microbial melange on bread flavor and other attributes. Finally, we are now looking for participants to help test and improve the methods of our K-12 classroom sourdough project (g). Our sourdough work is led by Erin McKenney and Anne Madden. Already, we have made exciting new discoveries with participants, including a kind of filamentous fungus that is common in the sourdough starters of Australia but seemingly rare everywhere else in the world. A unique element of our sourdough project is the ease with which it enables the intergenerational and intercultural transfer of oral history and scientific insights.

How do the Plants used in Fermentations Influence their Microbes? Tens, perhaps hundreds, of different kinds of plants are used in fermentations globally. How does the identity and biology of these plants influence which microbes are involved in their fermentation? We don’t know, but we hope to soon. Christina Roche and Julie Horvath-Roth at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences are leading a new effort to work with students and the public to make fermentations using both traditional and novel plant ingredients to understand the links between plant leaves and fruits and the microbes in those fermentations. Participants will help make these novel fermentations at a series of events at the museum (and then watch as these fermentations bubble and live at the museum). We are looking for botanic gardens and restaurants interested in partnering in this effort. [1]

Where do we go to discover microbes that make gold? The microbes around us often have fascinating understudied properties. We are searching for Delftia acidovorans, a unique microbe with genes that help it precipitate gold and survive the chemicals in mouthwashes. This spring, citizen scientists and NC State students will collect samples from around North Carolina in habitats where Delftia might be found. Students in Biotechnology will then work with Carlos Goller to determine which of these samples has Delftia and, especially, which might have strains of Delfita with new and exciting genes. This project is part of a broader effort to engage the public in the study of water systems. In a project with Noah Fierer we have worked with nearly a thousand homeowners to sample the microbes living in the biofilms (a kind of house that microbes build) of their showerheads. In another effort, we have worked with Pernille Hjort, the Danish Natural History Museum and students from two dozen schools to identify the bacteria and eukaryotes living in the water systems of their schools. [2]

Map of continental United States with orange dots to indicate where Delftia live in showerheads.

A map of showerheads with (orange) and without Delftia bacteria (white).

Where are the Forgotten Pollinators (and poorly understood pests) of Our Crops? Much has been said about the decline of the world’s pollinators, less has been done. Squash plants are one of the crops that depend on specialized pollinators (the delightful squash bees). Classroom modules are now available for projects aimed at documenting the distribution and activity of these forgotten pollinators of squash, as well as new emerging pathogens of squash. These modules are led by Dr. Squash, Lori Shapiro, our resident expert in all things cucurbit. So go, plant your squash, watch its leaves and flowers and take pictures of what you see. It is nearly that simple.

Another set of modules (The Chili Project) are available to help document the largely unknown pollinators of chilies and kin thanks to the work of Dr. Kaberi Kar Gupta. Kaberi is testing these modules in Wake County Schools and with the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina.  

Students can also work with Dr. Sean Ryan to help understand what is probably the most dangerous butterfly in the world, the cabbage white, through the Pieris Project. This year the project will expand include monitoring of parasitoids (the wasps that hunt these cabbage white caterpillars by laying eggs in their bodies).

🗓Farm and Garden Event: In February 2018, Sean, Lori and Liz Driscoll will host a two day working group focused on advancing (and consolidating) garden based citizen science projects happening around the world. If you want to know more about this event, contact Sean.

What Secrets Can We Retrieve from the Dead? Your gut microbiome, you may have heard, influences your health, well-being and even personality. But the house for those microbes  is the gut itself and we understand surprisingly little about how the shape and biology of the gut varies within species (even within humans) or among Sasquatch holding a ukulele standing next to a pig with parts of body identified.species. Erin McKenney, Colleen Grant, and Amanda Hale have set out to change that. Working in K-12 classrooms, the three have developed a protocol that allows students to take real data when they dissect animals in classrooms (A Diversity of Guts). Working in university classrooms, Amanda and Colleen have shown this works well with older students too, such that all of the cats and fetal pigs dissected each year might be measured before being thrown away. [3] Finally, Erin and Amanda, through a partnership with Dr. Roxanne Larsen at Duke University, have begun to work with medical school students to take real data on human cadavers. In all of these cases students have shown (and follow up data verify) that the bodies being dissected in classes, be they of cats or cartographers, vary more than has been reported in the literature. If you are a teacher, instructor, or med. school professor and would like to partner on this project please contact Erin or Amanda.

What Determines the Distribution of Ants and their Activities? Ants are everywhere, and yet the species of ants and their activities are different in different regions and climates. In some places ants seem to prefer protein, in others sugar (for example). Differences in what ants do from region to region have enormous consequences for how ecosystems work. In the United States, Magdalena Sorger is working with schools to understand what ants do where, and why. Magdalena Sorger has compiled a single resource (Discover Ants) that compiles classroom ant activities and resources from around the world.

Julie Sheard is asking similar questions in Denmark. Participants around Denmark have now worked to gather ant picnic data from nearly four hundred sites across Denmark. These efforts are from just the first year of the Danish Ant Picnic (Ant Hunt in Danish). Yet, they already suggest ways in which the Danish ant fauna has changed, under many a Danish nose, without notice. Julie will be working on the first paper on these results during the Danish winter (which gives her quite a bit of time). Stay tuned. Julie is also working to link her efforts with the ongoing work of Koos Boomsma, Jon Shik and the Center for Social Evolution at the University of Copenhagen. [4]

In Australia, Nigel Andrew (University of New England, AU) is working to understand how a change in Australia’s conditions–climate warming–will affect ants. Through an ARC funded project called “The Future Keepers,” Nigel has visitors at Environmental Education Centres, Botanic Gardens, Wilderness Sanctuary’s, Schools and Universities around Australia experimentally warming the conditions outdoors (using warming chambers)  and then studying the ants. Current results seem to suggest that ants much prefer the current climate (compared to that produced in warming chambers). Also while ants normally seem to prefer sugar (or honeydew), when it gets warmer they seem to begin prefer fats. You can see some high school students carrying out Future Keepers sampling here. [5]

Meanwhile, the version of or our project in which students both study ants and collect them and send them to the University of Florida for identification, School of Ants, [6] also continues. Through this project Andrea Lucky has shown that the use of the ant materials in university classrooms can improve learning outcomes, so too a sister project on ambrosia beetles, Backyard Beetles. [7]

A new book series was released in September 2017 by the University of Chicago Press, based on our School of Ants dataset. The “Dr. Eleanor’s Books of Common Ants” series, by entomologist Eleanor Spicer-Rice and Rob Dunn, introduces readers to the lifestyles of the species of ants we are most likely to encounter, from the seed planting winnow ant to the sneaky thief ant. Celebrated myrmecologists Brian Fisher, Corrie Morreau, and E. O. Wilson add their own beautiful stories to the volumes from their respective regions.  

🗓Ant Event: Magda and Jason Painter from The Science House will host a professional development event in February 2018 to better enable teachers to use the diverse ant lessons in their classrooms. If you want to know more about this, contact Magda

Shark Teeth:  The Shark Tooth Forensics project continues to be used in NC public schools. After a few years of data efficacy testing, Terry Gates and Lindsay Zanno have now begun collecting shark tooth data from sites across North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland dating between 25-5 million years ago. Students from a fossil club at Exploris Middle School have produced the first ecological data from a site in Maryland that has scarcely been studied. For a second year, two additional fossil clubs have formed in Wake County schools under the supervision of Juliana Thomas. Also, students from North Carolina State University have taken Shark Tooth Forensics into Raleigh, NC high schools, a Goldsboro, NC high school called the Wayne School of Engineering, and they participated in several public outreach events, all in an effort to inspire a greater diversity in STEM. Four additional undergraduates at NCSU are working to process sediment returned from schools, the results of which are being included in a paper formally describing the project. We also have new partners in addition to the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and NC State University, including the Virginia Museum of Natural History and the Calvert Cliffs Museum. These institutions are offering field assistance and new localities for sampling ancient ecosystems.

What Do Face Mites (yes, you have them) Have to Say about the Evolutionary History of Humans? A lot, it turns out. The Oakland Museum of California and the inimitable Sarah Seiter, have helped us to launch a Image of a vending machine containing citizen science kits.kit, now for sale in a vending machine at the Oakland Museum of California and soon available much more broadly (thanks to a partnership with SciStarter) that will allow you to sample your own face mites. If you want to see this project spread, be sure to let Sarah know (copied above). Michelle Trautwein at the California Academy of Sciences (who leads the mite work) is writing proposals now to expand these and other mitey efforts. Data collected by teachers in North Carolina classrooms already helped to document amazing new features of the evolution of these mites in one paper from last year as well as another soon to be submitted soon by Michelle. Below, as a teaser, is an evolutionary tree of one of the most common species of face mites, a tree that closely resembles that of our kind, its human hosts.

Where do Trees Grow Fastest and Why?  A Tree’s Life is a citizen-science project that asks participants for a few minutes of their time per year to monitor the growth of a tree (currently red maples) in their yard with a measuring tool that we provide. We are interested in tree growth because trees provide many ecosystem services that benefit human and environmental health. However, many suburban and urban trees are subject to enhanced environmental stressors, including increased temperatures and drought, which reduce these services and make tree more susceptible to pests. Although this monitoring seems simple, it provides valuable data to determine how different altitudes, latitudes, and urban conditions affect tree pests, tree growth, and tree-provided services.  We now have over 200 citizen scientists enrolled in A Tree’s Life, with participants from 36 US states and 3 Canadian provinces. We have received recruiting help from many people and organizations, including state master gardener coordinators and other extension staff, SciStarter, The Habitat Network, A Tree’s Life participants, municipalities, and others. We are still enrolling volunteers and we will have another recruitment push this upcoming winter.

eMammal: Human development is noted for having negative effect on wildlife, yet there are many species that can thrive in altered ecosystems. By deploying camera traps on school grounds, students can collect valuable data on mammal populations. Students will help researchers answer important scientific questions, such as “How do animal communities change along an urban-wild gradient?” and “How do different human activities affect wildlife?”Students across the world have collectively detected 83 native mammal species including 12 of vulnerable or higher status on the IUCN redlist such as the critically endangered black rhino and endangered Bengal tiger. Photos are stored indefinitely in a Smithsonian digital repository and data are available open access on the eMammal website for students to conduct their own analyses.

2) General Updates

TransitionsLea Shell will begin work with Caren Cooper at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in January with a focus on taking the 30 to 50 Citizen Science classroom modules (each of them aligned to state and national standards) and incorporate them into the SciStarter platform to provide both an additional way to access these resources and added assurance that they will last on into the future.

Dealing with data: A core set of goals in middle and high schools around the world relate to dealing with data. More generally, a public able to understand how to interpret scientific data is central to the function of a just, democratic and civil society. Here we have begun to help toward these goals, big and small, by developing data modules for citizen science projects. Magdalena Sorger has developed a series of lesson modules that are built around the ant picnic citizen science project. The Spirit Ant Activity, Pipe Cleaner Ant Activity and Tree Of Life Activity are modules designed to provide a general introduction to ants, differences between species, their anatomy and where they fall in the phylogenetic tree of life. After students complete the ant picnic lesson which includes data collection for the citizen science project, they can analyze their data using CODAP (Common Data Analysis Platform). The Ant Picnic Data Analysis lesson module guides them through the process of comparing their ant picnic data collected to data collected around the world. Lastly, students can also learn how to identify ant species and how to start their own ant collection with the Ant ID lesson module.  

Additionally, we have partnered with the Phinch team, where the microbial data collected from both The Sourdough Project and The Showerhead Microbiome Project will serve as model datasets. Students will be able to explore the data in a straightforward and meaningful way, where the user can select variables of interest (e.g. age of the sourdough starter or origin of the sample) and create interactive visualizations. [8]

Integration into schools: The Alamance County school system in North Carolina will hire a full time staff person to integrate citizen science projects (particularly eMammal, Ant Picnic and The Sourdough Project) throughout the school system. In Wake County in North Carolina, Moore Square Magnet Middle School and The Exploris School have committed to figuring out how best to embed many citizen science projects throughout the curriculum, not just in science classes. These conversations are just beginning, but are exciting.

The study of learning in citizen science: As part of her dissertation, Kristin Bedell from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education will be researching whether and how citizen science can support students’ engagement in science practices, including analyzing and interpreting data (such as through the CODAP lessons in our Ant Picnic projects, or the Phinch interface in our sourdough or home projects). In particular, she will be examining how students use data to make sense of science.  Similarly, Lincoln Larson and Kathryn Stevenson are heading up efforts to assess how participating in wildlife-based citizen science (through Candid Critters, an NC-based version of eMammal) might influence how kids and adults view wildlife in their backyards.

Girl Scouts: We have partnered with SciStarter 2.0 and the project Ant Picnic is included in a suite of citizen science projects that are eligible for the Girl Scouts to participate in and earn credit towards a badge. As of writing, 107 girl scout troops have run Ant Picnic and entered data through the SciStarter portal.

3) Upcoming Events

🗓Farm and Garden Event: In February 2018, Sean, Lori and Liz Driscoll will host a two day working group focused on advancing (and consolidating) garden based citizen science projects happening around the world. If you want to know more about this event, contact Sean.

🗓Ant Event: Magda and Jason Painter from The Science House will host a professional development event in February 2018 to better enable teachers to use the diverse ant lessons in their classrooms. If you want to know more about this, contact contact Magda.

[1] Of note. Liz Landis and Ben Wolfe at Tufts University are key collaborators on all of our bubbly, stinky, wondrous, fermenty work.

[2] This project was a success scientifically, but a struggle in terms of its effectiveness with students. From it we learned key lessons about working in Danish schools, but also practical insights about water sampling (and which steps in identifying the organisms in water are robust to involving many participants and which are not).

[3] Dunn, R. R., Urban, J., Cavalier, D., & Cooper, C. B. (2016). The Tragedy of the Unexamined Cat: Why K–12 and University Education Are Still in the Dark Ages and How Citizen Science Allows for a Renaissance. Journal of microbiology & biology education, 17(1), 4.

[4] Funded by 15. Juni Fonden, Knud Højgaards Fond, Augustinus Fonden, Beckett Fonden and Danish National Research Foundation

[5] Funded by ARC Discovery Project DP160101561 to Nigel Andrews, Alan Anderson, Nate Sanders and Robert R. Dunn.

[6] Lucky, A., Savage, A. M., Nichols, L. M., Castracani, C., Shell, L., Grasso, D. A., … & Dunn, R. R. (2014). Ecologists, educators, and writers collaborate with the public to assess backyard diversity in The School of Ants Project. Ecosphere, 5(7), 1-23.

[7] Vitone, T., Stofer, K. A., Steininger, M. S., Hulcr, J., Dunn, R., & Lucky, A. (2016). School of ants goes to college: integrating citizen science into the general education classroom increases engagement with science. J. Sci. Commun., 15, 1-24.

[8] Lentz, T. B., Ott, L. E., Robertson, S. D., Windsor, S. C., Kelley, J. B., Wollenberg, M. S., … & Goller, C. C. (2017). Unique Down to Our Microbes—Assessment of an Inquiry-Based Metagenomics Activity. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 18(2).