Striding into the future

By on April 21, 2016 in

“You just received $11.5 million! Now what are you going to do?”

Go to Disney World.

(No, seriously, I went to Disney World. I had vacation days I had to use.)

All humor aside, CosmoQuest just received significant governmental funding, and one of the most common questions I’ve received is “So, now what?”

When we designed CosmoQuest, it was with a vision toward creating a place where members of the public could meaningfully engage in learning and doing science in an environment that parallels that of an academic research center. We don’t just want to be another citizen science site. We want to be a virtual research facility that welcomes the public.

Over our first 3 years, we tested various ideas in citizen science design and engagement through online classes and seminars. We were learning and exploring, and we invited all of you along for the ride as we figured out how to build something entirely new.

We learned some big lessons in those first 3 years. From our scientists we learned that there is a real need for funding that will allow them to transform data into research papers as part of their “day job.” From teachers we learned, there are a lot of specialized user interfaces they need to more effectively introduce our programs into their classrooms (for instance, the ability to have a group of people all go through the same images as a training set). From citizen scientists, we learned that people want more examples, more feedback, and more understanding of how their data gets used. And from talking to the people who didn’t even know we existed, we’ve identified holes in our media strategy, and places that we can help fill people’s needs while also getting word out about our programs. For instance, there are a lot of small planetariums out there that are hungry for free content, and if we can produce shows and shorts for them, we can help solve their content problems while also helping get out the word about CosmoQuest.

For three and a half years we did a lot of listening. For one year, we did a hell of a lot of grant writing while working to keep things up and running. (And then six months got eaten by paperwork.) Now, in year 5, we’re gearing up to transform this place based on what we learned.

This post is going to be long. It’s probably going to be a bit rambling. It’s laid out here to help you understand where we’re going. This is our story – it’s your story. Go grab a cocoa or a coffee (or an adult beverage) and settle in for a read.

You have to get the word out

For people to get involved in citizen science projects and other online programs, they have to know what we’re doing and that it has value.

Citizen science isn’t new. Project after project, century after century, have shown that everyday people will help in science if only they are given a chance. Citizen science really had it’s roots in the American Revolution, with several founding fathers and more than several farmers all carefully documenting their local weather in hopes that someday their careful observations could be used to understand and predict the weather. Today, that network they started has evolved into the Smithsonian Meteorological Project (1849) and  today’s National Weather Service (1890) under the U.S. Weather Bureau. This is a project that is easy to sell: collect data, send it in, and scientists will improve the weather forecasts so we know when April showers will bring the spring flowers.


Image credit: D. Van Ravenswaay/Science Photo Library

Getting people to help us explore space should also be easy. As kids, pretty much all of us loved astronomy and loved dinosaurs, and since an asteroid killed the dinosaurs, I declare astronomy the winner. We have cool science. We have amazing images. We answer fundamental questions ranging from the practical (“Is an asteroid likely to kill us?”) to the most philosophical (“How is the universe going to end?”)

But people won’t help us do citizen science if they don’t know about what we’re doing.

Our biggest hurdle is getting people to know about CosmoQuest and its science.

Social media is a start, but it’s only a start. Team members can give all the talks in the world (and it sometimes feels it feels like we’re doing just that!), but that will only reach people who are already in the room. These actions, which we group with our forum and blog under “Community Building” bring our community together. To reach new audiences, we need to reach people where they are and surprise them with tasty information they’ll want to consume.

With the goal of getting CosmoQuest in front of as many eyes, ears, and brains as possible, we have pulled together a suite of media projects that will produce online and museum-based content. These projects are Projected Science and 365 Days of Astronomy.

New Program: Projected Science

When Fraser Cain and I brainstormed CosmoQuest back in 2011, we knew we wanted to include planetarium content. Every year, millions of people attend planetarium shows around the world. Some of these folks are crawling into inflatable domes, and others are taking in views in huge domed rooms in museums and science centers. Where ever they go, they expect to learn, and it is our hope that at least some of them will learn about CosmoQuest.

Projected Science is growing out of our existing Science on the Halfsphere program, which produced Cosmic Castaways as well as stock imagery for use in planetarium shows. Moving forward, Projected Science has three goals: 1) to help communicate CosmoQuest’s citizen science programs to the public through short films (trailers) that can be played before the main show on both planetariums and Science on the Sphere™ (SotS) installations, 2) to build a repository of open content, including data visualizations, that can be used to build new shows, and 3) we will keep creating creative commons licensed shows, like Cosmic Castaways.

Our free shows and content repository go beyond spreading CosmoQuest to also serving the needs of planetariums and Science on the Sphere content creators. There are a lot of places out there which have saved and saved and saved to get video projection systems, but now they just can’t afford to buy the big planetarium shows that you might see at the Hayden Planetarium, or other big city science centers. Many of the vendors have catalogues of shows that people who own their systems can use, but if you just want to create or show something that hasn’t been seen a million times, it can be difficult. We can’t single handedly solve this problem (yet?), but we can make things easier by adding to the free content that is out there to use and re-mix.

Ongoing Program: 365 Days of Astronomy

365DaysofAstronomy-LeapYear_headerAs a legacy project of 2009 International Year of Astronomy, 365 Days Of Astronomy will continue to broadcast podcasts and YouTube videos which are written, recorded and produced by people around the world. This community production gives voice to astronomers and astronomy lovers from around the world. Through these voices, we learn science, hear new stories of exploration, and get to share in people’s passion for our Universe. For seven years we have delivered daily content discussing all the varied topics of the constantly changing realm of astronomy, and we plan to keep producing this show for as long as these technologies are relevant.

Engaging an Educated Mob in Science

You don’t have to have a PhD degree to do science. In fact, my first job in high school was working at Haystack Observatory, looking at T Tauri stars – I was doing research while prepping for prom. I didn’t get that job because I knew anything about T Tauri stars. I got it the same way students all over get jobs; I showed interest, I knew how to listen to instructions, and I wanted to learn. Today, as a researcher, when I look for people to work with, one of the top things I look for is a curiosity that drives the person to want to learn new things. Personally, my greatest frustration is not having all the time I wish to mentor and teach people the things that will enable them to do more and to do more better.

This dynamic of students doing research for advisors (who often wish they had time to be more attentive), is similar to the dynamic we have around here. We have a bunch of volunteers who want to help our team scientists with their research, and we have a bunch of scientists hungry for the results who often wish they could spend more time working with our volunteers and helping folks learn all they can about our science.

We have a two-fold problem: we want to figure out how to teach our community members the same way we teach our students, and we want to find a way carve out more time to work with people on our research. The first problem was fairly easy to solve: we create lessons for our Educators’ Zone that teachers can use and we teach our own classes for adults through CosmoAcademy. We start with a grounding of classes and lessons that teach the science behind the CosmoQuest citizen science programs. From there we add in the things that interest people (the classes on black holes and dark energy and lesson on Astronomy v. Astrology) What is harder is carving out the time for scientists to work with this community, but we think NASA gave us a solution: a small grants program. Moving forward, we’ll be able to provide funds to CosmoQuest team scientists to give them that time they need to mentor this community.

Ongoing Program: Educators’ Zone

This one is short and sweet to explain. We want kids to know they can be part of discovering our universe.

We could say, “Go to CosmoQuest right now! Come pattern match and click on things!” but that seems…  boring.

Instead we say, “Here is the science. Isn’t the science cool? Come do the science with us!” Through our lesson plans, we help kids understand the science behind our citizen science programs before we ask them to come to our site. Our lessons are all inquiry-based, and designed and tested in concert with classroom teachers.

We also know that teachers are going to get asked questions, and are going to need all the help they can get to stay 10 steps ahead of their kids. To help them out, we also provide teacher professional development on the science and on how to use the lesson plans. To help them more, we will be setting up new educator forums, offering educator scholarships for CosmoAcademy, and working to keep improving Learning Space to better help teachers.

(Ok, maybe that wasn’t short. I hope you did find it sweet.)

Renovated Program: CosmoAcademy

We took CosmoAcademy off-line last year so that we could migrant the program to a university where we can offer educator’s continuing educator credits and offer certificates (not the same as university credit, but programs like Swinburne University Online have you covered for that). We’re going to bring it back in time for the Fall Semester (hopefully trialling classes this summer). Moving forward we’re going to be created series of classes that when completed will lead to certificates in science communications, basic astronomy and planetary science, and, well, we’re still brainstorming ideas so leave us your idea in the comments and we’ll see what we can make real.

And one more thing. We are not and never will be a MOOC. All of our classes will be capped at no more than 20, with some classes being capped even smaller if we know a lot of interaction is required. To make sure things go as smoothly online as they would in a good face-to-face class, we also take the time to train every instructor. It’s our goal to bring you a quality, small classroom experience.

And then there is science

CosmoQuest’s success, like the success of every research facility, rests on our ability to generate science; to transform data points into published research.

The thing is, doing science well is hard and it takes money. The research papers we’ve been part of so far are largely the result of Stuart Robbins having a postdoctoral research fellowship to work on Moon Mappers and the New Horizons team having a mandate (that came with funding) to find Kuiper Belt Objects.

To move forward and turn more of your contributions into science papers, we had to find a way to fund scientists to work on research here at CosmoQuest. That small grants program we mentioned? Yeah, it helps here too (but more on that later).

Also, while it’s awesome (and necessary!) to have professional scientists working to make sure the work here lands in peer-reviewed science journals, we also know that a ton of kids are kind of forced to do science projects every year through the Science Fair and Science-Fair-like competitions. A lot of us here at CosmoQuest have judged one too many “electricity from veg” projects, and want to see if we can somehow get these kids doing more authentic research using CosmoQuest’s data products when they’re released, and using more NASA data products in general (data products is a fancy phrase for images, maps, spectra, and all the other kinds of data that are published). To make this a reality, we need to create regional training and content that can support kids as well as their parents and teachers. In some cases, it will also help to have professional scientists ready to help out as mentors, and we’re working to help there as well.

New Program: Small Grants for Citizen Science Research

Each year, nominally in June, we will be releasing a request for proposals (due in September) that we’ll use to competitively select 3 or more projects to receive up to $120,000 over two years. This funding will support the researchers using CosmoQuest to do science they otherwise couldn’t accomplish. These proposals will look a lot like observatory proposals, but we’re going to expect people to apply for both their science and EPO funds together. We’re going to ask reviewers to rank proposals based on the quality of the science (intellectual merit in NSF speak) and the quality of the science engagement plan (a more restricted broader impacts). We are expecting this funding to solve both the “I want to mentor citizen scientists, but don’t have the time because funding” and the “I can’t find the spare time to write papers because funding” problems.

We have already pre-selected as part of our original proposal a few key projects to fund. This year and next, we’ll be providing partial funding to both Mercury Mappers and Mars Mappers, and fully funding a new Earth imaging project using ISS astronaut images, as well as an astrobiology simulator project. (We’ll get the science teams to blog their goals in the coming months.)

This small grants program is in many ways a paradigm changer. In the past, when teams came to us with citizen science projects, they had to provide funding to support our servers and the time needed for our software developers to do any needed specialty coding. Now, we’re in a position to instead fund the scientists who use our facility. This puts us inline (but not in the same category!) as facilities like Hubble and Chandra that have always supported their observers.

New Program: S-ROSES and the IDEASS Repository

We’re a (mostly) NASA-funded project, yet somehow I got most of the way through this project without using acronyms. To make up for that, our final set of programs have the kind of acronyms where even I can’t consistently remember what they stand for!

To get kids doing better science fair projects and using real science data in their projects, two different things need to happen. First, their parents and teachers need training on how to mentor the kids in doing authentic research. Second, everyone involved needs someplace to turn to look for both research ideas and information on how to access and use data.

Our S-ROSES program will take care of that first part: helping parents and teachers better mentor kids through their projects. S-ROSES stands for Student Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science (S-ROSES). This acronym builds on NASA’s existing ROSES funding opportunities for professional researchers; a program that funded the beginning of CosmoQuest and which we celebrate with this particular acronym.

S-ROSES will competitively select two regions a year to receive training and financial support for their science fair programs. We are looking to engage school systems and districts so that we can seed systemic change that lasts beyond the one year of funded assistance. During that one year of support, we’ll be sending team members to these regions to train the local science fair network (this could be a university or school system that runs the regional competitions) on strategies to better support their teachers, helping them design and implement regional teacher PD, and providing funding for those educators to use on improving the projects their kids are doing. This year, we’re going to trial our programs in the Southern Arizona and Southern Illinois regions where we have staff physically located. With this experience under out belts, we’ll be putting out a call for applicants in roughly May of each following year.

Supporting S-ROSES is the Investigating Data in Earth And Space Sciences (IDEASS) repository. This suite of webpages should launch in late 2016, and will house information on how to access and use an ever growing variety of datasets. It will also include ideas for research projects. These aren’t “canned” projects that tell you everything to do and expect while completing the research. Rather they are seeds for kids (or adults – adults can do these too) to use as starting points for their own inquiry. The kinds of projects I’m looking forward to are things like finding variable stars, looking for asteroids, and other projects that will allow anyone with curiosity, persistence, and care to create publishable results. I know these kinds of projects aren’t perfect for everyone – especially not for the elementary school kids doing science fair while still learning to read! Don’t worry – we’ll have a variety of projects appropriate for all ages.

The sidecar to both these projects is our Mentor Bureau, which will help match classrooms and projects with professional researchers who’ve received training on how to work with students.

The Gorilla in the Room


The thing is, no matter how hard everyone doing science outreach tries to reach everyone, there are going to be people who go to museums or science centers, and never stumble into the parts of the internet where science hangs out. To reach these people, we’re going to keep heading out, iPads and telescopes in hand, and bring science to unexpected places using guerrilla outreach strategies. Georgia and I have had the chance to meet a bunch of you at custard stands for Yuri’s Night and International Observe the Moon Night. Jake and I have met a lot of you in pubs, and talked science over fries and beer. Cory and Dawn have spent hours at booths at Science Fiction conventions, spreading the good word of CosmoQuest to stormtroopers and stone angels. This is where we’ve met a lot of you, as event after event, you showed up first to ask “What’s this?” and then came back to tell us how you participated in mapping worlds, and how you now even want to volunteer. This public outreach currently isn’t funded through NASA due to restrictions on how we can use our funds (we have to do formal and informal education), but where we can, we’re going to keep doing these activities (thank you sponsors!) and keep meeting new people who become new community members, and sometimes new friends.

Now we just have to build it!

So, um, yeah… we’re going to be massively growing CosmoQuest in the next 5 years.

To make this growth possible we’re going to be making a lot of cyberinfrastructure improvements, and bringing in a lot of new staff. In the coming months, you’ll begin to meet people through this blog and our new and social media. We’re also aiming to have a private beta site ready in May that we’ll have people like you test out. Stay tuned for more information on how you can get involved. (I’m watching the artist we hired work on the graphics and I can’t wait for you to see what’s coming!)

While I’m the one writing this, and I’m the one who is in charge of herding paperwork, I want to make it clear that I’m just one person out of many many people who are making CosmoQuest happen. Due to the varying nature of our jobs, you’re going to see and hear from some of us much more often, but their are folks behind the scenes, like our lead programmer Cory, who are absolutely vital but rarely in our social spaces. As I get ready to close out this long rambling post, I’m going to write out the names of all of our core team members (e.g. everyone but the team scientists & advisors).

Georgia Bracey, Kathleen Bethel, Sanlyn Buxner, Thea Canizo, Marti Canipe, Whitney Cobb, Tara Donahue, Richard Drumm, Patrick Durrell, Matthew Francis, Keely Finkelstein, Pamela L. Gay, Jennifer Grier, Suzy Gurton, Brian Kruse, Theresa Summer, Sean Fitzgerald, Paige Graff, Austin Hinderliter, James A. Iwayemi, Andrea Jones, Toshi Komatsu, Larry Lebofsky, Cory Lehan, Erin Moore, Susie Murph, Jake Noel-Storr, Dawn Olive, Cia Romano, Susan Runco, Katie Seery, Curtis Spivey, Bill Schmidtt, Katie Stringer, Lisa Walsh, Marc Wetzel, Annie Wilson, Avivah Yamani,
and you.

When we first created CosmoQuest, we said “It takes a village to raise a child, and a global community to raise our understanding of the universe.” You are part of this global community, and while your specific name may not be listed here (just like the science teams aren’t listed), know that you too are vitally important.


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One Response to Striding into the future

  1. Richard Gay April 21, 2016 at 4:43 pm #

    …a small, quiet, 59-year-old voice said, “I want to be involved somehow…”