Citizen scientist: Avocation for the perpetually curious

PHOTO BY R. GARY RAHAM Les taking a moment to view the eclipse.

By R. Gary Raham
North Forty News

Les Goldman and his long-time partner Sue Ellen Alishouse like to roam the country and learn about stuff. They periodically pack up their homemade van/camper and wander to places or events that spark their habitual curiosity about the natural world. It was not surprising to me or my wife that Les scouted out a location well in advance to view this year’s total solar eclipse and invited his friends to tag along.

We clustered together in a circle of tents and cars at the Walker Ranch near Douglas, Wyoming—roughly orbiting Les’s collection of telescopes. “Here are some things to watch for before, during and after the eclipse,” he said, and we immediately became his citizen science pupils in a classroom with no walls, fueled by our own curiosity and the excitement he generated with his passion for the subject.

PHOTO BY R. GARY RAHAM Les’s guide as to what to look for before, during and after totality, taped to the side of his van.

In some ways, Les makes an unlikely teacher. He dropped out of Colorado State University before getting a degree, because he didn’t like the structure of exams and formal assignments. “I’ve always been a procrastinator,” he admitted. One term, he used tuition money from his parents to buy a small mobile home. He taught himself how to keep that in repair—along with anything else he needed—and studied native edible plants, just in case groceries ran low. Sue Ellen did finish college and became an occupational therapist, a skill that proved useful as her parents aged.

Both Les and Sue Ellen honed their talents as teachers while volunteering for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. They staffed learning stations and roamed the exhibits with the general public, explaining the culture of ancient Egyptians and the wonders of distant planets in Space Odyssey, and revealing the secrets of fossil creatures in Prehistoric Journey.

Citizen scientists don’t need formal degrees, not as teachers or even as field researchers. All they need is curiosity and a desire to learn—attributes Les and Sue Ellen have in abundance.

Do you have the curiosity to become a citizen scientist?

You can make your own contributions or become part of other, organized projects already under way. If the teaching aspect associated with learning appeals to you, the city of Fort Collins has a robust volunteer Master Naturalist Program. They offer six weeks of training, after which you can introduce kids from the local schools to natural areas, present programs of your own design to adults or families, and/or work on science research topics in a variety of fields. See http://fcgov.com/naturalareas/volunteers.php

A nationwide organization called Nature’s Notebook enlists people to track the comings and goings of plants and animals to chronicle seasonal events and note changes over the long term. They strive to “Connect People with Nature to Benefit Our Changing Planet.” Check them out at https://usanpn.org/natures_notebook

Collin Eagles-Smith, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is enlisting people nationwide to test dragonfly larvae for mercury poisoning. Participants get to do some fieldwork in national parks and learn more about these fascinating insects—holdovers from the Paleozoic. Contact Eagles-Smith by email at ceagles-smith@usgs.gov, or visit https://nature.nps.gov/air/studies/air_toxics/dragonfly/index.cfm

You can even use the downtime on your computer to help cure diseases, study global warming, discover pulsars, and perform many other kinds of scientific research in a safe and secure way. Visit http://boinc.berkeley.edu/

The next total solar eclipse in the U.S. is in 2024. I’m sure Les is starting to plan—even with his long history of procrastination.

Beautiful 2017 eclipse sequence taken by Ralph Smith, retired CSU microbiologist and photographer.

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