On the Front Lines of Citizen Science

LAMakerspace

Ariel Levi Simons, a high school science teacher and founder of the Southern California community lab LA Makerspace, sees great benefit in taking students outside the “artificially constructed” curriculum of the classroom. And he’s looking to spread the message to other area teachers.

“LA Makerspace brings together researchers and teachers to work on projects, and only a small number of teachers who want to invest the time and energy do,” Simons says. “Most public teachers are overwhelmed with trying to maintain what they have in their classrooms, and the rule with most educators is to not give a lot of support to managing anything or connecting to anything larger.”

The community lab officially opened its doors in downtown LA earlier this year following a successful Kickstarter campaign. According to the group’s website, it offers lab space and classes for youth and adults interested in science, design and software, among other disciplines. “This space is an experiment to bridge the gap between academia and the community-at-large, establish a peer-to-peer mentorship network, and give members of all ages and abilities the chance to apprentice into a whole variety of fields ranging from industrial design to data analysis,” the site says.

Simons, who oversees the lab’s citizen science program, says the opportunity to learn science by doing research unconstrained by the bounds of grade levels “gives students the opportunity to learn things they would not learn at a high school or, even, college level.” Simons adds, “Science projects are hands on, which pushes the kids.” In some cases at the lab, ninth graders are working on material science and physical chemistry projects at an undergraduate or even graduate level, he says.

DECO, one of the newest research projects at the lab, is a physics outreach project that aims to connect high school and university students to current research in astroparticle physics—an emerging field that studies fundamental particles from outer space. DECO is also part of a larger global sensor web, a large-scale aggregation of data that include geo-tags that look at the correlation between phenomena across the planet.

The DECO project will set up a distributed cosmic-ray detector network using only android phones, which will monitor the incoming flux of high-energy radiation from space in real time. The aggregated data will be compiled in a database to be posted online and made accessible to researchers, students, citizen scientists and others under a creative commons license. The information will also enable members of the public to conduct their own research with the tools provided as a result of the project.

“The idea is to create a free app for people to download on their android phones and will run for eight or nine hours a night and send data back to the server,” Simons says.  At the moment, “There is no business model on that end, just that it will be a public good for researchers and outreach in general.”

While the app will measure the high-energy radiation from solar space, the bigger goal is to eventually track other kinds of environmental data in the global sensor web by pulling information off of accelerometers—a device that measures acceleration or vibration of structures and motions.

“The DECO flagship project is working on how far we can push our phone hardware to route the data,” Simons says. “We do this with all sorts of other data and aggregate in a distributive fashion.”

In addition to Simons and his Android phone, the program is being supported by a Java developer at the University of California-Irvine and a post-doctoral fellow at the Stanford Linear Accelerator. Simons says the idea has endless possibility, but needs to be fully funded to reach its true potential.

DECO is in the preliminary stages of development and the app is still being tested. To move the project forward, more teacher participation is necessary. “The main limitation is in terms of engagement with schools,” Simons says.  “It’s hard getting ahold of teachers and administrators.”

Another limitation is cost. LA Makerspace has grown via a steady flow of funding, but additional funding is needed to launch the DECO project. “We need a grant to buy all of the [server] space [to hold all of the aggregated data] or have someone donate it to us,” Simons says. “I’m actually trying to find someone to host our data pro bono.”

The goal is to have six android phones running in the background—not including the phones of participants—that will accumulate information at a rate of approximately 500 megabytes per week. Paying for a developer to manage the heaps of gathered data would cost upwards of $40,000-50,000 a year and a physical server would cost about $800 to build, Simons says. A virtual server would cost around $400 to use, he adds.

And the actual app is needed to garner public participation in the project and collect enough data—something that cannot be done until there is enough online space to hold all of the information. “We haven’t put it out to the public because if all of the sudden we release it, people would overwhelm the server,” he says.

Despite the challenges, Simons says DECO is a project that could change the way the public and scientists interact with one another to discover the world, a relationship he describes as symbiotic.

“The good thing about this citizen science project is that it is mutually beneficial,” Simons says.

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