by J. A. Ginsburg
on the inspirations of childhood, why many heads are better than one; the nature / tech connection; & visual learning and science
When Project Noah’s, “Chief Leaf,” Yassar Ansari was a boy, he was fascinated by reptiles and amphibians, keeping many in his room—much to his mom’s dismay. “It kept her out,” he recalls with a laugh. Although wise enough to humor her nature-loving son’s penchant for the scaled, spined, slimy and cold-blooded, she never could have guessed where his interests would eventually lead.
Fast-forward a few decades and Ansari, now armed with degrees in molecular biology and bioinformatics, finds himself at a career crossroads after stints the Salk Institute’s genome analysis lab and at telcos Qualcomm and Kyocera (where he worked on everything from hand-held radiation detectors to mobile gaming apps). So it’s off to the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, a.k.a.,“an Alice in Wonderland version of graduate school. It is the kind of place where Photocell 200K light sensors are stocked in the vending machine along with more traditional geek gorp. It is where techies go to dream.
“I took a class called ‘Social Activism Using Mobile Technology,’ where we were asked, ‘What are our causes?’ I really wanted to use mobile technology for a more meaningful purpose. I wanted to build something that was based on impact. Impact as the bottom line,” says Ansari.
His “big hairy audacious goal”? Creating a “common platform for recording all the world’s organisms.” Project Noah (Networked Organism and Habitats), the world’s biggest crowdsourced nature guide, was born. He had come full circle, determined to spark in others the same kind of wonder that his bedroom menagerie had sparked in him.
What began as a glimmer in Ansari’s eye in early 2010 is now available as a free app for smart phone (iPhone and Android), which has been downloaded over 100,000 times. While many use the site as a resource, nearly 24,000 photos have been uploaded by “citizen scientists” —including some from a class of second grader beta testers in Maine. And no less a “wow!” than National Geographic has come on board as an investor. Even more of a “wow!,” staff from the National Geographic regularly peruse the sight and about once a week choose a photograph to hare with five and half million Facebook fans.
Project Noah is still very much in its early stages (the search function on the website will, no doubt, improve), but the rallying cry of “No Child Left Inside!” is a siren song. This isn’t just about the world beyond the classroom: This is the world as a classroom. This is students as scientists, making observations in the field and sharing them in ways that simply weren’t possible before. Now, anyone anywhere can contribute data points of genuine value to researchers.
(credit: PopTech / summer 2010)_____________________
Although envisioned as a mobile app, you actually don’t need a smart phone to contribute to Project Noah. Just sign on to the website and you can upload photos from computer files. You don’t even to know the name of what you’re looking at to contribute. Experts surf the site to help fill in the blanks. Just do your best to describe what something looks like, where it’s located, the time of day, the weather: Every details helps.
Also, unlike traditional field guides that focus solely on plant / animal identification, Project Noah can be used to analyze changes over time for specific species or areas. For example, a class could document all kinds of details about what’s “growing on” in a school garden or nearby park. Plants, of course, but also insects, worms, squirrels, rabbits, dogs and cats, too. When did the first bloom appear? When did the last leaf fall? Even in the middle of a city, it is possible to nurture a deep and textured relationships with Nature. Who knows? The next E.O. Wilson could be one of your students!
FISH, SCHOOLS, CROWDS & NETWORKS
One after another, the educator / presenters at TEDxNYED last month hammered home three messages about modern education:
- To succeed, indeed survive, in the 21st century, students must learn how to collaborate and network, and to sift through, sort and connect-the-dots from gushers of information.
- It is no longer about teaching children how to be taught, but teaching them how to be learners
- Technology is not a gee-whiz add-on—digital frosting to the analog cake of basic learning—but part and parcel of daily life for nearly all 7 billion people on the planet, rich and poor, urban and rural. It is how we function, almost as basic as breathing.
They could just as well have been talking about scientists. Social network tools are not only changing the way they work, but in many cases turbocharging it.
When a team from the Smithsonian recently found themselves at the Guyana border with an urgent need to identify 5,000 specimen fish quickly in order to secure an export permit, they uploaded thousands of photographs and called on their ichthyologist Facebook friends for help:
In less than 24 hours, this approach identified approximately 90 percent of the posted specimens to at least the level of genus, revealed the presence of at least two likely undescribed species, indicated two new records for Guyana and generated several loan requests. The majority of people commenting held a Ph.D. in ichthyology or a related field, and hailed from a great diversity of countries including the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil.
Now there is even a special network, a “Facebook for scientists,” called ResearchGate. Boasting nearly a million users so far, it promises a new way to reach out beyond the lab cubicle to others working on similar issues around the globe. Scientists can post research papers and send out inquiries. Although it doesn’t replace the richness of conferences with old fashioned in-person networking, panel discussions and poster sessions, it makes it easier for researchers to connect with colleagues outside their fields. Biologists can reach out to chemists, and geologists to structural engineers. New paths for collaboration are possible.
To paraphrase Ratatouille’s wise if ghostly chef Gusteau: Anyone can do science. Observe. Recognize. Interpret. Perceive. Express Ideas. Again and again and again. Visual learning skills are science skills (which delights us no end here at vizlearning…). The collective power of millions of new smart phone and digital camera “eyes,” connected by new digital platforms and social networks, means we can know more about more and faster than ever before.
So what are you waiting for? It’s Spring. Earth Day week, in fact. Go out there and pay attention!
RELATED READING / VIEWING
“Earth Day—Hooray!” / vizlearning archives
“Eco-Comedy / Eco-Tragedy” / J.A. Ginsburg, TrackerNews editor’s blog
“What the hell is that?” / Steve Martin & Bill Murray, Saturday Night Live (video)