Grace Wolf-Chase
 on May 09, 2021

Serving God and Neighbor through Citizen Science

Think you have to be a scientist to do science? Think again! This is a brief introduction into citizen science, the citizen science platform Zooniverse, and how you can get involved today.

kid with binoculars

Citizen Science is a way that people of all ages and from all walks of life can make valuable contributions to different fields of study by participating in research along with professionals in these fields. The “citizen” part means that you don’t need any special qualifications to participate. By participating in activities like counting animals and identifying their behaviors by inspecting photographs or videos from around the world, citizen scientists help professional scientists carry out research projects that would simply be too big for scientists to complete by themselves. Sometimes citizen scientists even make new discoveries!

Zooniverse is the largest and most popular online platform for citizen science, where anyone can participate in research in many areas of science and the humanities. Zooniverse projects are led by teams at over 120 educational and research institutions around the world. More than 2 million adults and children around the world participate in Zooniverse projects, individually as well as in classrooms.

Why Should Christians Participate in Citizen Science?

There are many reasons people choose to participate, but most often they say that they want to contribute to increasing human knowledge. Christians might also be interested in participating in citizen science because we believe God has entrusted us with care of the Earth, and science helps us learn more about our world so we can be more responsible caretakers. There are many projects available that relate to caring for the environment and each other. People who live in poor communities are often the first to suffer the harmful effects of things like environmental disasters, so participating in citizen science can be one way to care for the poor.

child with magnifying glass crouches outside

Many Christians also feel that God’s pronouncement of creation as “very good” in Genesis means that studying creation is worthwhile and can be one way of honoring God. The ability to experience awe and wonder is part of being human. Thousands of years ago, people gazed up at the dark night sky and stood in awe of creation. Most people today, particularly those in cities, don’t experience nature in quite the same way people did long ago; however, modern technology brings us marvelous views of nature like awesome galaxies or spectacular photographs and videos of wildlife in remote areas around the world. When participating in citizen science, anyone and everyone with a computer or mobile device can explore these marvels of creation—you may even be the first person to discover something no one else has noticed before, like the infant star clusters described in this Zooniverse blog!

Citizen science also helps everyone to see that science is an ongoing process, not a collection of facts. This is true of research in general. We can learn about how the process of research works by participating, especially when we can share our ideas and understanding with other people—for example, with other students, teachers, and family members. The best part of Zooniverse is that you don’t need any experience to participate, and since there are many different research projects available, we hope everyone can find something that appeals to their interests and values. Many organizations also welcome and encourage Zooniverse participation as a way to fulfill service hour requirements.

…we believe God has entrusted us with care of the Earth, and science helps us learn more about our world so we can be more responsible caretakers.

Grace Wolf-Chase

Is it Hard to Get Started? What if I Make a Mistake?

After you create a Zooniverse account, you can start participating in a project within minutes. Participation is a great family activity! Even very young children can participate with their parents on their parents’ account(s). It’s up to you to decide how deeply you want to become involved with a project. Some people only spend minutes working on a project, while others participate over weeks or even longer. Each project has its own tutorial that shows you how to participate. Depending upon the type of research project, you’ll be asked to help identify or measure things in different kinds of “subjects.” Subjects can be images, photographs, texts, graphs, or even sound recordings.

Many people ask, “What if I make a mistake?” Don’t worry—just do the best you can! In all of the projects, a number of people examine each individual subject. On average, participants do an excellent job, and occasionally even make new discoveries! Through “Talk” discussion boards, you can ask general questions, learn more about individual research projects directly from project team members, and interact with other citizen scientists.

Zooniverse can be used equally well with individuals or groups. For example, it’s perfect for retirees, families, homeschoolers, youth groups or summer camp activities, Christian school science classrooms, and other educational programs for children or adults. There are many great resources for educators, with suggestions on how Zooniverse can be used in classrooms from elementary school through college. Many of the “camera trap” projects that ask participants to identify different species of animals work especially well with younger children (for example, see Penguin Watch in the classroom), while some of the physics and space science projects may be more appropriate for high school students (for example, see Galaxy Zoo for Education).

If you’re using Zooniverse for a class project, it’s good to check the “project statistics” on the project’s home page to see how close the project is to being finished. This is important if you need a project to stay active over a certain period of time. When in doubt, you can always ask project team members through the project’s discussion board.

Can I Crowdsource My Own Project?

It’s possible for anyone to create their own citizen science project using a tool called the Zooniverse Project Builder. Projects that are developed for the main Zooniverse website—which is accessible to people around the world—must go through several reviews and beta testing. However, smaller projects can be created by individuals who are interested in sharing the project with a specific community. For example, suppose your church has a lot of digitized historic records and you’d like to be able to gather certain types of information from these records, but it’s too big of a job for just a few people. It’s possible to build a citizen science project that could be shared just with your faith community––a hundred people can accomplish what a few can’t, given a limited amount of time!

two people looking and pointing at a phone screen

Christians often invite others to see what their faith communities are like by participating in worship services or other church events. As both a person of faith and a scientist, I’m very excited about helping others learn more about what it’s like to be a scientist by participating in science, and, just maybe, making some new discoveries along the way!


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About the author

Grace Wolf-Chase

Grace Wolf-Chase

Grace Wolf-Chase has a Bachelor’s degree in Physics from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Arizona. She is a Senior Scientist and Senior Education & Communication Specialist at the Planetary Science Institute. Her latest research publication was made possible by a discovery made by citizen scientists who worked on one of many projects that have been featured on a platform known as Zooniverse. Dr. Wolf-Chase loves helping others to engage with science, and particularly enjoys speaking with pastors and educators. She currently leads an effort to engage faith-based communities in research experiences using Zooniverse. She can be reached by email or through this website.