WEB EXCLUSIVE

Challenge #1: Cheap Climate Sensors for Microbe Study

Friday, December 28, 2012

DISCOVER Magazine is partnering with Instructables and SciStarter, an online citizen science community, to solve real problems facing researchers. The Citizen Science Contest is your opportunity to help millions of regular people contribute to scientific discovery. Prizes include a Celestron telescope, DISCOVER subscriptions, and time-lapse cameras! But hurry, the deadline is January 21, 2013.

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Challenge #1: We've Got the Bacteria, Now We Need Climate Data

Background: Wild Life of Our Homes is a research project where citizen scientists help researchers study the species that live alongside us everyday—the bacteria, fungi and viruses that make up a home's microbiome. By using a sampling kit and answering a few questions, volunteers help researchers create an atlas of microbial diversity in homes across the country.

The Problem: Project organizers would love to collect climate data in each of the 1,000 homes where volunteers are sampling microbes, to see how environmental conditions affect what kind of microbes they find. Unfortunately, climate sensors are expensive, and more importantly, project organizers don't have an easy way to transfer data from those home sensors to an online database. Currently they must physically retrieve and download the data.

The Challenge: Find a way to cheaply log climate data and wirelessly transmit the data to the project organizers.

 


 

Here's what project directors Rob Dunn and Holly Menninger have to say about their challenge:

Holly: We'd like to engage our citizen scientists in the study of the natural history in the places where they live. Our goal is to help participants develop an awareness and appreciation for the biodiversity in their daily lives. We've started with discrete projects looking at specific species or groups of species, including microbes and, in a different experiment, insects.

Rob: For Wild Life of Our Homes, ideally we want to sense those climate variables that are relevant to microbial species living in your house. We know that temperature and humidity are potentially important. It seems likely that some other things (O2 or CO2 for example) are also important.

The second question is how intensively to sample each house. Because we are sampling life in multiple points in each house, it would be interesting to have climate/chemical data from each one of those points. That said, adding sampling points adds to cost.

Finally, the third question is how the data get to us. The standard model is that people are sent and send back dataloggers that are downloaded by us. That is a pain and can fail in a number of ways. The cooler approach would be to have dataloggers that connect to people's phones or computers and every so often send us the data. 

Holly: I think the largest technical challenges we face relate to scaling up our projects—e.g., sending cheap but effective climate sensors to homes. We could do 20–50 but ideally we'd like those sensors in all 1,000 of the homes we study.

Got some ideas? Learn more about this challenge here.
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