Citizen Science Musings: An Easy Way In

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By Sheldon Greaves

If you're looking for a way to get started doing science, a pair of naturalists in Canada, Aleta Karstad and Fred Schueler, pointed out to me recently that there is a great need for amateur naturalists.

The role of the naturalist has a long and storied tradition, going all the way back the Pre-socratic philosophers such as Thales, and Aristotle who suggested the wild notion that if you want to learn about nature, just go out and observe what she's doing rather than trying to theorize it all in your head.

My anecdotal experience (and professionals or anyone else who knows better is more than invited to weigh in here) is that fewer and fewer scientists who study nature pay as much attention to good, old-fashioned observational data as was done in the past, but there is still a tremendous amount of original work that one could do.

How do you get started?  Go outside, look around. Find something to look at, and look at it closely, for a long time. Bring a notebook and write down everything you see, with your name, the date, time, and location. (I've written a little about this process here). This isn't just random logging of stuff; try to think about the "why" and "how" of what you are seeing. Formulate hypotheses about what you see, and then try to eliminate them until you have a conclusion that makes sense.

The point is that getting started in nature study is very easy to start. Books about nature are easy to find, as are field guides. Check your local used bookstore. Read widely. And of course the web is full of information, but personally I find field guides easier than futzing with a mobile device, but that's just me.

In addition to your notebook, a hand lens, binoculars, and a digital camera give you a fine set of tools that can take you quite a ways. It also doesn't cost much to acquire these items, and even an inexpensive hand lens or pair of binoculars can enhance your enjoyment. The trick is in learning how to use them in the service of well-considered questions based on careful, patient observations.

Take care in making clear, detailed, well-organized notes. Whether you take notes on paper or electronically, take steps to protect them. Use good paper for your notes, and make copies. Back up your electronic notes and digital photos. There are museums and libraries that will accept field notes from amateurs and archive them. These notes can be extremely valuable years later--the world changes over time and your notes can tell you how and how much.

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