Proposal for an education, research, and technology partnership of
the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Discover Life, and SAS

Executive summary

John Pickering
Discover Life

Draft -- 27 May, 2013

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Let's empower communities to run ecological research sites, engage their members in science,
and generate the knowledge that society needs to understand and solve pressing environmental issues.

Education -- Is it too much to dream that students and others empowered by internet connectivity, digital cameras, and a vast array of other technologies could solve the planet's environmental problems by collecting, analyzing, and acting upon data? We should overcome classroom boredom by challenging students to solve real-world problems. Instead of teaching students to memorize information that they can retrieve from their smart phones, we should encourage them to explore the unknown, discover new things, and use technology to share their findings with the world. We can develop their curiosity, creativity, and logic by giving each an exciting personal challenge --- become a local expert on a species in your neighborhood -- investigate, document, and understand its biology, environmental requirements, and interactions. By involving students in meaningful, original research, we can teach them quantitative methods, problem solving, communication skills, team work, and other valuable job skills.

Environmental science -- Climate change, pollution, invasive species, land use, and over-harvesting threaten biodiversity and the ecosystem services that the biota provides. Without massive public participation in research, decision making, and subsequent actions, scientists are unlikely to understand fully the impacts of these large-scale problems and recommend timely solutions. The tasks at hand are simply too big for governments and professional scientists to tackle without considerable help from the general public and the private sector. Consider the following:

  • Since Carl Linnaeus started to put binomial names on species in 1735, taxonomists have described only 1.8 million of the world's estimated 10 million species. At the current rate of describing nearly 20,000 new species annually, the taxonomic community will take over four more centuries to complete naming all species. This is unacceptable. We need a new strategy. How could citizen scientists, crowd sourcing, and modern technology be applied to speed things up and solve the problem within 20 years?

  • With the exception of some charismatic species and ones important to our health, food supply, and forestry, we have a dearth of information on the distribution, ecological requirements, and importance of most species. There are simply too many species for professional biologists to study thoroughly. A solution would be to empower students and the general public to study ecological communities, monitor changes in populations, and understand their causes. In addition to studying species in nature, they could help photograph, database, and make publicly accessible via the web the estimated 3 billion specimens that are undigitized in the world's museums, herbaria, and private collections. They could also glean and assemble legacy information about species from the vast quantity of published information that is coming online.

  • Because of logistical constraints, we cannot conduct randomized, replicated experiments at regional scales to understand large-scale phenomena such as the impact of climate on biodiversity. However, if a dense network of long-term study sites existed across continents, we could use natural field experiments, such as unseasonable temperatures and local droughts, to do so. Schools could run such a network as a hands-on means of teaching science, technology, and analytical skills.

Call to action -- In addition to scientific and education benefits, we envision making students more environmentally aware, teaching them to collect, analyze, and use data to make decisions, help set policy and, above all, act to make our environment more sustainable. Through education, technology, and an important common cause, let's motivate students with hope for their future and that of the planet. Let's also harness the power of the retired, many of whom have the time, computers, and cameras to get involved and mentor younger generations. Together we can train scientists, demystify science, and develop an educated constituency to help provide the political resolve that society needs to support sound, evidence-based decision making for a prosperous future.


We propose a partnership of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Discover Life, and SAS. This partnership will provide the leadership, infrastructural support, curricula, and training to establish and orchestrate regional, national, and global networks of schools to run ecological research sites, teach science, and solve environmental problems.

Facilities -- We propose to construct a campus at the Museum's Prairie Ridge Ecostation and Research Lab on Reedy Creek Road in west Raleigh. This campus will serve as the headquarters of the proposed network. Its function will be to provide space for

  • Research -- laboratories and specimen collections to support public participation in ecological research, expanding the existing collections at Reedy Creek, adding new ones for entomology, botany, and mycology, disciplines which the Museum currently does not support, and creating a much needed general clearinghouse that provides genetic sequencing, identification services, and a repository for specimens collected by citizen scientists;
  • Education -- an educational center to develop curricula and train teachers, students and other participants;
  • Technology -- a Discover Life technology center to improve online research protocols, identification guides, databases, and other technical support for participants and general web users;
  • Sleeping facilities -- field station dormitories and bedrooms to house students, teachers, scientists, and others involved with developing, learning about, and running the network of monitoring sites;
  • Dining facilities -- a dining hall and kitchen to feed field station guests, workshop participants, and staff;
  • Communal areas -- indoor and outdoor areas designed to support creativity and the exchange of ideas across ages, cultures, and disciplines.

Project phases --

  1. Development (years 1-4) -- In this initial phase, we will
    • build and staff the infrastructural support facilities listed above;
    • refine Discover Life's existing research protocols and online species identification tools for North Carolina, Mexico, and neighboring regions;
    • incorporate these research protocols into appropriate middle and high school curricula in English and Spanish;
    • expand online tools for tabulating, exploring, statistically analyzing, graphing, and mapping results across taxa, space, and over time, enabling users to incorporate data into their analyses from other sources, notably weather data from NOAA; satellite images from NASA, and census, genetic, and historical data from various sources;
    • establish a showcase transect of monitoring sites from Chiapas, Mexico, through North Carolina, to Massachusetts with partner organizations such as NEON in the United States and CONABIO in Mexico.

    During this development phase, we will refine, broaden, and institutionalize over a decade of experience and success in designing online tools, protocols, and curricula for public participation in science. We have the expertise and technology to connect all participating schools, locally and globally. By implementing these resources, we will enable schools and citizen scientists to formulate research questions, collect high-quality data, analyze results, and publish their findings. We will then support them to investigate the impacts of large-scale ecological factors on a broad range of representative terrestrial and aquatic organisms, including vertebrates, plants, fungi, insects, mollusks, and other invertebrates.

  2. Implementation (years 4-8) -- Establishing networks of schools and training teachers are the keys to setting school-driven science into motion. After the residential and classroom facilities in west Raleigh are operational, in an estimated 3-4 years, we will train large numbers of teachers and other participants at the Prairie Ridge campus. Central activities will include training teachers to ask scientific questions, use museum collections, collect data in the field, conduct online research, and engage students with online discovery, analysis, and presentation tools. Our training sessions will facilitate the adoption of biodiversity teaching modules into school curricula. Focusing first on North Carolina, we will strategically identify and recruit a network of participating schools, bringing their educators to the campus for training and support workshops. We will expand by identifying and including school programs throughout North America and other regions of the world, and offering partnered training sessions with teachers from different geographical areas. This learning and cultural exchange will reinforce the value of globally connected science. Once teachers return to their schools, our staff and network of experts will provide technical support and make sure that the quality of data shared across sites remains high.

  3. Long-term -- Within the United States, Discover Life is starting to build a program with the U.S. Geological Survey to involve schools in monitoring biotic and abiotic variables at sites in each of the nation's 3,000 counties, parishes, and buroughs. The program's goals are to document and understand environmental phenomena, respond to natural disasters and environmental threats, and work with STEM programs to have students learn and participate in science. The development and implementation of this network in partnership with the Museum and SAS will serve as the model for Global Environmental Monitoring of Species (GEMS), a programmatic vision of schools, citizen scientists, and experts working together to understand and better manage biodiversity and ecosytem services. GEMS is in the formative stage -- an idea being developed by organizations in Australia, Colombia, India, Mexico, Singapore, and the United States. While our immediate focus is on our Development phase, we will continue to work internationally so that our efforts in North Carolina both facilitate and are facilitated by efforts to involve the public in understanding, using, and conserving nature globally.

Partners and their potential roles --

  • North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

    The Museum's mission is to enhance the public's understanding and appreciation of the environment in ways that emphasize the natural diversity of North Carolina and the southeastern United States and relate the region to the world as a whole. With its public exhibits, Nature Research Center, and educational programs, such as Take a Child Outside, the Museum has considerable experience engaging the public with nature, better preparing science educators and students, and inspiring a new generation of young scientists. Its staff will provide leadership for the project and set up its governance. Its scientists will provide research expertise, manage collections, and help build online identification guides. Its educators will help with curricula development and training participants at the Prairie Ridge campus. The Museum will manage all facilities and provide the legal umbrella for the project.

  • Discover Life

    John Pickering started in 1998 to support the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a project that has since described over 900 species new to science. The Polistes Foundation, a non-profit organization in Massachusetts, now runs Discover Life with federal and private support ($2.5 million over the last 5 years). Its mission is to assemble and share knowledge about nature in order to improve education, health, agriculture, economic development, and conservation throughout the world. Discover Life's technical strengths include data integration, using photographs to document nature, identification services, and tracking museum specimens with unique identifiers and barcode labels. For example, it serves the Encyclopedia of Life over 600,000 species maps based on databases from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and over 1,000 other contributors. Its Mothing outreach project has identified the species in over 100,000 photographs, documenting season shifts across years in moth generations. This April its servers at the University of Georgia and University of New South Wales had 65 million hits from 538,000 IP addresses. Since inception it has served 1.7 billion pages and images. In addition to providing technical training and support, Discover Life's outreach program and network of experts will continue to oversee maintaining high data quality and further develop scientific questions, research protocols, and associated curricula. We propose to move Discover Life, the Polistes Foundation, and Pickering's collection of 300,000 databased insects, many of which are from North Carolina, to Reedy Creek and institutionalize them within the auspices of the Museum.

    The Polistes Corporation provides technology to Discover Life for free, in perpetuity. This technology has potential commercial applications. We propose to explore a commercial venture between SAS and the Corporation that could help fund the proposed endeavor and contribute towards its endowment.

  • SAS

    As a Fortune 50 company, SAS has the resources, expertise, and international management experience to contribute substantially to making our vision reality. In addition to financial support for buildings, staff, and operations, we seek help from SAS in project management, software development, data integration, logistical support with cloud computing, integrating original research into school curricula, and marketing our vision to the world. With curricula, for example, we envision jointly developing and testing research protocols that we incorporate and distribute through SAS Curriculum Pathways. With software, SAS could build upon Discover Life's experience and produce enterprise-level products to serve the needs of the global community.

Next steps -- Together we hope to leave a lasting legacy of empowering youth and the general public to do science and work together to solve problems using sound evidence. If the Museum and SAS are interested in pursuing the proposed partnership, we should meet to consider developing a more detailed proposal with input from our respective organizations.