Archive for the ‘mit’ tag

Engaging the public to tackle climate change

By April 20th, 2017 at 10:59 am | Comment

Public engagement is critical to address the challenges of climate change, a complex issue with environmental, social, political and economic ramifications. Common forms of public engagement include public events such as science festivals or café informal settings for experts to share their knowledge with the community. Or public policy forums where community members voice concerns to government representatives and other decision makers.

While useful, these approaches to public engagement maintain a separation between those with expertise and power and community members. This failure to tap into the knowledge and experience within the community is an unfortunate oversight. In reality, these so called ‘non-experts’ bring valuable insight with the potential to identify overlooked problems and generate novel and at times surprisingly simple solutions. Read the rest of this entry »

Making Science Less WEIRD

By May 3rd, 2014 at 12:14 am | Comment

Science can be WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), but researchers are working to change that.

Four years ago three researchers in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia published an article in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences entitled “The weirdest people in the world?” The authors, Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan, reviewed research in behavioral sciences and found that 96% of research subjects were from what they dubbed WEIRD societies­—that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies. As well, many of these participants came from a common pool of subjects: undergraduates at research universities. The article suggests some interesting implications when the subject pool is so limited, and there is further discussion about some of these implications by Greg Downey at Neuroantropology.

Making Science Less WEIRD Projects

Making Science Less WEIRD Projects

How might one go about making science less WEIRD? The Making Science Less WEIRD project is one initiative that hopes to find ways to include a more diverse group of people in behavioral research. One way they’ve identified is to make use of the web to connect with populations that researchers might not otherwise have access to in traditional studies.

A diverse participant pool is important, explains Joshua Hartshorne, one of the principal investigators of the Making Science Less WEIRD project, saying, “If we test a wide range of people of different backgrounds, cultures, languages, etc., on some task and they all behave more or less the same, then that’s pretty good evidence that people simply don’t differ along that dimension.” And what if researchers do suspect a difference? “Then we are in a good position to understand those differences,” says Hartshorne. Traditionally this kind of research has been difficult because investigators did not have access to such a large and diverse group of participants as the web affords. Of course, there are also cases where a homogenous population might very well be exactly the population one wants to study, Hartshorne reminds us. But what the web affords, and what the Making Science Less WEIRD project aims to capitalize on, is the ability to undertake those studies of diverse participants that have previously been so difficult.

While there are some 2.4 billion people online, the project investigators are very much aware of the current limitations of that sample. Obtaining a good sample is more complicated than access to more people. “We don’t need a representative sample in order to probe human diversity,” Hartshorne writes, but rather “we need a diverse sample.” The web affords access to more diverse participants than those undergraduate students who are so frequently studied.

However, there are some limitations. Projects currently featured by Making Science Less WEIRD are designed for English speakers. As the initiative grows, and more projects become involved, the principal investigators hope to make the site multilingual. Katharina Reinecke, another principal investigator at Making Science Less WEIRD and a co-lead at Lab in the Wild, said her team is “currently translating Lab in the Wild into five different languages” and hope to include more languages as the project grows. This kind of work is particularly important, Reinecke notes, because there is evidence “showing that people test differently in their native language as opposed to when they are being asked questions in a non-native language.” Even so, Hartshorne reminds us, there is still significant diversity in English speaking populations that has typically not been included in behavioral research studies. An interesting example of this is the vocabulary quiz Hartshorne has been running, which aims to understand differences in the size of vocabularies across English speaking nations. Visit Games with Words (i.e., see VerbCorner on SciStarter) to participate in this study and others that help us understand language. As well, Lab in the Wild is working on creating “more usable and intuitive user interfaces for people around the world,” according to Reinecke, which they hope will eventually work to draw in populations that have been less likely to participate. The Visual Preferences Test is one way this kind of work is happening and one way to get involved.

All of the work being put into Making Science Less WEIRD helps develop better approaches to behavioral research. As well, the lessons for citizen science more broadly are many, including the careful consideration in developing a participant pool and considering the linguistic and technical barriers to access.

This post originally appeared on the PLOS blog.

Ashley Rose Kelly is a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program at North Carolina State University. In August 2014 she will join the faculty in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue. Ashley studies how emerging technologies may be changing science communication. She also teaches scientific and technical writing courses as well as an introductory course on science, technology, and society. You can find Ashley on Twitter as @ashleyrkelly

Categories: Citizen Science

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Stop, Collaborate and…Vote! Help solve climate change with MIT’s Climate CoLab Project

By August 28th, 2013 at 10:55 am | Comments (7)

Do you have an idea about how to approach climate change?  You’re not alone.  Thousands of other people around the world are coming up with potential solutions to one of the world’s most challenging problems, but until now they have not been able to easily connect. MIT’s Climate CoLab is attempting to change this by bringing together innovators from across the globe to collaborate and develop solutions to the problem of climate change.

The basic idea of the Climate CoLab is similar to Wikipedia or Linux in that it harnesses “micro-contributions from many people around the world,” as Laur Fisher the CoLab’s Community and Partnerships Manager describes.  To do this, the CoLab runs annual competitions, in which anyone can submit a proposal that addresses a climate change issue.  Members of the CoLab community, including general public and experts in the field, are then encouraged to provide feedback on the entries, and eventually expert judges select finalists. A second cycle of feedback then begins for the finalists to allow thorough development of the proposals, and in the end the public votes on the winners.  Fisher describes that the goal of the CoLab is to facilitate a “transparent contest.” She notes that “anyone can comment and everything is open.” This year’s competition is currently in its final round of judging, and all participants are encouraged to vote until the end of August on their favorite proposals.


Illustration of the competition process

This year, the Climate CoLab ran 18 different competitions that address different aspects of climate change – for example, there was a contest focused on hydraulic fracturing “fracking;” one was titled “urban adaptation: climate resilient cities;” and one addressed the efficiency of buildings. Proposals were submitted from around the world – from Asia, to Central and South America, and even Iceland – and the applicants came from all education levels and professions.  Fisher asserts that the CoLab needs this diversity of members “because the issue of climate change is such a global issue, but then it’s also complex – there’s no one solution.”

The winning proposals will be announced shortly after the voting ends, and the authors will be invited make presentations at the Climate CoLab’s yearly conference on November 6-7.  The conference is free for anyone to attend, and the theme this year is “Crowds and Climate,” focusing on the role crowds play in addressing climate change – an interesting topic for anyone involved in a citizen science project! At the conference, the next competitions will also be announced for those who are eager to submit a proposal.

Voting for this year’s proposals closes at midnight (EDT) on August 31. Get started!


Emily Lewis is a PhD candidate in chemistry at Tufts University, where she investigates industrially important catalysts on the nanoscale. She received her BS and MS degrees from Northeastern University, and her thesis work investigated fuel cell catalysts under real operating conditions. She loves learning about energy and the environment, exploring science communication, and investigating the intersection of these topics with the policy world. When she’s not writing or in the lab, you’ll probably spot Emily at the summit of one of the White Mountains in NH. Follow her: @lewisbase,

Games With Words: Play On

By July 17th, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Comment

Imagine trying to uncover the meaning behind all the words in the English language. Well, that’s what dictionaries are for, right? Not quite. According to Joshua Hartshorne, the director of MIT’s Games With Words, our current understanding of any word is simply based on its relationship with other words. That’s precisely the problem.

To provide an analogy, imagine if you only recognized the color blue because you knew it wasn’t yellow, green, or red. You know it’s “lighter” than black but “darker” than white. You also know it’s similar to the color of the sky or ocean. But take these relationships away, and ask yourself–do you truly understand what blue is?

This is essentially what Games With Words aspires to investigate in language—the intrinsic meaning of words. Hartshorne’s interdisciplinary team of psychologists, computer scientists, and linguists are trying to characterize what verbs mean.

“Dictionaries notwithstanding, scientists really do not know very much about what words mean, and it is hard to program [computers] to know what the word means when you [yourself] actually do not know,” says Hartshorne. “Our best computer systems, like Google Translate and Siri, treat words as essentially meaningless symbols that need to be moved around.”

One component of Games With Words is Verb Corner, which aims to uncover the meaning of verbs, a particularly challenging subset of language. Choose from 6 different games and scenarios that you can tackle. The more questions you answer, the more valuable the questions you have already answered become. This is because Games With Words uses cutting-edge analysis techniques to estimate your biases (everyone understands language differently!) and simultaneously identify difficult questions. So, the more data they have from each person, the better these analyses work.

Screen shot 2013-07-17 at 3.53.55 PM

“Rather than try to work out the definition of a word all at once, we have broken the problem into a series of tasks. Each task has a fanciful backstory, […] but at its heart, each task is asking about a specific component of meaning that scientists suspect makes up one of the building blocks of verb meaning. In this, we are building on pioneering work by Ray Jackendoff, Steven Pinker, Beth Levin and many other linguists and psychologists.”

Hartshorne recalls that back in 2006 when he started doing web-based experiments, collecting data from groups of hundreds of people was impressive. Nowadays, with existing technology, it’s possible to collect data from groups in the thousands if not tens of thousands. The ability to do this only adds value to studies like Games With Words. However, one of the biggest challenges is still scope. Because this is such a massive undertaking (there are lots and lots of words), the Games With Words staff needs all the help they can get from citizen scientists like you. (Yes you, dear reader!)

“We realized very early that even with a small army, it would take us well past the ends of our careers to finish this project if we don’t attract enough citizen scientists.”

The Games With Words team will be sharing the results of the project freely with scientists and the public alike, and they expect it to make a valuable contribution to linguistics, psychology, and computer science.

If this is up your alley, follow it down to Verb Corner, ASAP! Find other language-related projects (and over 600+ other citizen science projects) using our Project Finder.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons,

Although she holds dual bachelors’ degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine, Lily Bui has long harbored a proclivity for the sciences. A daughter of an engineer and an accountant who also happen to be a photographer and musician, respectively, Lily grew up on the nexus between science and art. Lily has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served a year in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter in California; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. She currently works in public media at WGBH-TV and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in Boston, MA. In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns (mostly to entertain herself). Follow @dangerbui.