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You can do science too! Learn how you can make a difference by doing real science to help solve our planet's most pressing problems.

Bring out your inner iNaturalist

What will you discover? (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Grand Teton National Park Service, via Wikimedia Commons)
What will you discover? (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Grand Teton National Park Service, via Wikimedia Commons)

Project: iNaturalist.org

When we were children, we naturally spent a great deal of time exploring the world around us. Everything was a delight. The robins in our backyard were new to us; the spiders in the houseplants were fascinating; the squirrels at the park were endlessly entertaining.

Over time, of course, we became accustomed to such sights, and other things distracted us. Luckily, there is now a way to recapture the wonder of our youth and contribute to the scientific understanding of our planet to boot: we can become amateur naturalists.

iNaturalist.org bills itself as a global community for naturalists. Think of it as Facebook meets the BBC’s Planet Earth series (the latter, incidentally, I highly recommend!). It’s a website where you can you can upload your observations in nature, meet other nature lovers, and learn more about the natural world.

You can begin your journey by registering here using your email or any social media account. You can then dive right in by adding observations from where you live, or get an informal education by browsing the Learn! section. Want to see what people near you have observed? You can do that too by browsing the observations section.

If you want something more structured, there’s an entire area of the site devoted to specific projects. For example, National Geographic is running a Great Nature Project, while AfriBats focuses on bats in Africa. Texan naturalists are particularly active on the site, with a Herps project and a bird project. Of course, you can always start your own project, perhaps to track the biodiversity in your own area.

Finally, computer geeks and web developers can get in on the act, as the software running iNaturalist is open source.

According to the site’s founders, Nate Agrin, Jessica Kline, and Ken-ichi Ueda, “if enough people recorded their observations, it would be like a living record of life on Earth that scientists and land managers could use to monitor changes in biodiversity, and that anyone could use to learn more about nature. That’s the vision behind iNaturalist.org.”

Build Your Own Robot Submarine

What will you discover underwater? (Photo Credit: Gunter Küchler, via Wikimedia Commons)
What will you discover underwater? (Photo Credit: Gunter Küchler, via Wikimedia Commons)

Project: OpenROV

It’s a project that would make MacGyver proud: a do-it-yourself underwater exploration vehicle.

OpenROV stands for Open Remotely Operated Vehicle, and it is an open-source, underwater robot. Founded by Eric Stackpole, David Lang, and Matteo Borri, OpenROV was originally designed to explore an underwater cave. Following a very successful Kickstarter campaign, the project is now a large community of exploration enthusiasts, makers, DIY experts, and tinkerers who are using the bitty submarine to explore waterways around the world.

The OpenROV can dive to a depth of 75 meters (246 feet), and has a run time of about two hours. Currently at version 2.7, you can drive it using a simple gamepad. The brains of the submarine are located in a Beaglebone onboard computer.

You can buy a kit to build your own robot submarine for around $800 USD. If you’re all thumbs in the some-assembly-required department, no problem: you can also buy a fully assembled version for roughly $1500.

Once you start exploring, you can join a community of OpenROV enthusiasts from 50 countries around the world to talk about your discoveries, your hacks, and your upgrades. Have fun!

Is there a doctor in the house?

Photo Credit: Opensource Handbook of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology
Photo Credit: Opensource Handbook of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology

Project: NanoDoc

Some video games want you to kill invaders from space. Others want you to blow up gems or fruit. NanoDoc wants you to help kill tumors.

As the name implies, NanoDoc is a game designed to have members of the public help design new “nanoparticle” strategies to treat cancer. A nanoparticle is a teeny-tiny particle, anywhere from 1 to 100 nanometers in size, and a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Nanomedicine is a newer branch of medicine that focuses on using nanotechnology to deliver drugs in a super-targeted way. A very rough analogy for nanomedicine might be this: instead of spraying your entire lawn with gallons of weedkiller and hoping for the best, you would use microscopic devices to seek out and individually destroy weed seeds.

NanoDoc is a nanoparticle simulator. In the first few levels of the game, you earn your “nanodoc licence”; that is, you get trained on how to play. After that, you’ll be given specific challenges to try. Current challenges include detecting a rare event and working on tumor imaging.

According to Sangeeta Bhatia, who runs a lab at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, “we don’t know what the best treatments are for these challenges, or even if there are any good solutions at all! We hope your drive to help in the fight against cancer and learn about nanomedicine will empower you to discover original, creative and efficient nanoparticle strategies we haven’t thought of in the lab.”

To get started, you can register at the site using your email, Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ account. You’ll then be able to take the training and have a go at the game. You can also learn more about nanomedicine and follow the new NanoDoc blog.