A Grant for Citizen Science

How can students observe high energy cosmic events that are invisible to the naked eye? From a cell phone of course! It might be a tad more complicated than that, but students in Levi Simons’ Advanced Topics in Math and Science class are more than up for the challenge.

Levi is the recent recipient of and principal investigator for a grant from the American Physics Society (APS). He will use this grant to fund “The DECO Project”—a new initiative with Wildwood students.

Levi’s project DECO stands for Distributed Electronic Cosmic Ray Observatory. In a flurry of excitement, Levi explained a little bit about cosmic rays, “they’re mostly charged particles that hit the Earth’s atmosphere which then creates an electromagnetic shower of particles that falls to the ground.”

Cosmic ray diagram provided by Levi.

Apparently a cell phone camera can do more than snap a photo. The underlying camera sensor is sensitive to radiation that isn’t visible to humans. Because of this sensitivity, the DECO app was created by Levi and some others in his ongoing partnership with Stanford University to detect and measure the sort of high energy events that cause particle showers.

Levi shows me the DECO app running on one of the project's test phones!

The project will, through this new app, upload and store real data observations to a central system server for post-processing analysis. It is Levi’s hope as the DECO project progresses, that Wildwood students won’t be the only ones analyzing the incoming data. That’s where “citizen science” comes into play.

Citizen science is a relatively new term for volunteer or non-professional scientists involvement in collecting and/or analyzing data and that is distributed to the scientific community. Under Levi’s guidance, his classes are not only learning how to be a citizen scientist and what it means, but they are actually becoming citizen scientists!

“It’s really important to get students involved in gathering and organizing scientific data because by taking on these roles, we free up time for the grad students and professional scientists to analyze the data in ways we’re not yet qualified to do,” Wildwood senior Steven W. said. “It’s also great because we gain more experience for our resumes and find out if these sorts of sciences are paths we want to pursue down the road.”

For those of us whose high school science classes are long gone, it’s likely our experiences involved a teacher lecturing from a text book followed by an experiment they’d been teaching for years. In Levi’s classroom the tables are pushed together and students are working in small groups constantly bouncing ideas off of Levi and one another. There’s palpable energy as brainstorming and exploration abounds. It’s a room filled with peers—a gathering of citizen scientists guided by Levi—their enthusiastic coach.

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