Acoustic Wildlife Recording promotes Citizen Science!
Here at Backyard Brains, we are all about citizen science, or the idea that the scientific community benefits from the collaboration with members of the general public for collecting and analyzing information about the natural world. Very DIY, very much the “for everyone” in our slogan. In 2017, Backyard Brains partnered with the University of Michigan’s Multidisciplinary Design Project (MDP) to focus neuroscience education on another kind of brain: birds! With the help of BYB, a team of undergraduate engineering students worked to develop a new kind of “Backyard Brain.” The idea was this: Create a low-cost device that could be deployed in backyards that would identify and record birdsongs! This could be used to help track and log bird populations across the country, which is an important index of environmental health. Development of this project continued over the course of our 2017 summer fellowship , and that progress is detailed in Zach’s summer blog posts. BYB and MDP will team up again for the project this year, with a new team and a new, expanded goal. But first, how did such a project come to mind? Naturally, it is the technological next step of a classic, “analog,” cataloging method…
The Audubon Christmas Bird Count
The National Audubon Society‘s annual “Christmas Bird Count” is perhaps the greatest example of democratized citizen science. Since 1900, volunteers have braved harsh, wintry conditions to help count and identify bird populations in their hometowns, as seen in Audubon’s photo above. These volunteers, from all across the country, then send in their findings, thus informing a national bird census.
The data gathered by initiatives like the Christmas Bird Count and Birdsong Identification project is incredibly important. Bird populations are very sensitive to environmental changes, making them a strong indicator of environmental health, stability, and possible effects of climate change. In this way, bird population trends can also be a lens to see our own world through.
This is the kind of citizen science that has inspired us, and others, to come up with devices which could help perform this task. Our work began in this field last year with the development of a “Birdsong Identification” device. The aim was to create a low cost, easily-distributed listening device which could be deployed to identify songbirds, and Zach’s project this summer started to do just that.
Birds, Rain, Wind, and More
The newest iteration of this project doesn’t stop at birdsongs. For 2018, the BYB-MDP partnership is looking to expand the reach of the project to create an acoustic environmental recorder that can also be listening for rainfall, wind, bats, coyotes, and other wildlife! There is a lot of information to be gleaned by turning an ear on our wilderness. Birdsongs are still on the menu, but with a new team (see above) and a new direction, the goal is to create a low-cost device which can be deployed and modified by both students and scientists to focus on whatever environmental indices interest them most!
We’re excited to announce the Backyard Brains will be featured in an episode of “Mind Field,” a YouTube Red original series created by the famous math and science YouTuber, Vsauce!
If you aren’t familiar with Vsauce, definitely give his youtube channel a look! He has become a staple of online science education, as his YouTube videos are created to break down and explain complex ideas in a relatable and almost comedic manner. His new show, Mind Field, dives into the world of human psychology, perception, cognition, and neuroscience. Sounds like our kind of show!
Which is why we were so amped when our co-founder Tim Marzullo traveled to sunny Los Angeles to visit and film at the YouTube production studio! Our very own little slice of neuroscience education would now be exposed to the masses! (Cue mad scientist laughter.) Arriving early in the morning with his trusty toolbox packed full of neuroscience experiments, Tim got right to work filming with Michael Stevens (creator of Vsauce), Alie Ward (TV Science Personality), and the production team at the YouTube studio.
Tim explains, “It was a really novel experience. The only other film shoots I’ve been a part of had small crews and were done ‘semi-live,’ where we only had one or two takes to get something to work. For this episode, we spent all day filming just two experiments, and a lot of work went into each. We would reshoot each take several times, making sure everything turned out beautifully on camera, and refining our script so the descriptions were tight and entertaining. There were ~20 people on the Mind Field crew, so it was really a cool experience to be a part of a high-budget, professional shoot.”
Season 2, Episode 8: The Electric Brain was just dropped this month, and we were so excited to see the fruits of Tim’s trip. It is a YouTube Red show, so you’ll need a subscription to YouTube to see it, but believe us when we tell you that it will be worth it. No spoilers for the show, so we don’t want to say which of our experiments are appearing, but what we can tell you is that they are two of our more provocative experiments…
The Consumer Electronics Show floods Las Vegas annually with nearly 200,000 visitors and exhibitors, and for the first time, Backyard Brains joined the likes of Intel, Google, IBM, and other giants by attending as exhibitors and hosting our own booth!
The trip was fun, but certainly wasn’t without its challenges. Upon arriving in Vegas, our team realized that we were missing something very important… a sign for our exhibit. Oops. Consequently, we spent the evening before the first day of CES hunting for arts and crafts supplies (harder to find than you’d think…) and painting a new sign! We think it turned out pretty well, and it definitely feels very on-brand for a do-it-yourself company.
Our team did demos and talked to interested geeks for four straight days, and it was a blast! We asked people who had never heard of us before to roll up their sleeves for science. The hands shaken, the electrodes used, the business cards traded–it was all a blur of new connections. In the past, we’ve typically only attended scientific conferences, like the Society for Neuroscience conference and the Michigan Science Teachers Association conference, where we’ve been pretty established. So this was our first dip into the consumer world, and a lot of people were excited about the tech and the educational opportunities it provides!
Our RoboRoach proved to be incredibly novel and intriguing for attendees at CES… We didn’t double check with every booth, but we’re fairly certain we were showing off the only real cyborg at CES! We had constant crowds, and even private tours showing up to take a look at our RoboRoach, the world’s first commercially available cyborg!
We hope you enjoyed CES… we know we did! Whether you are new to BYB or are a long-time fan, we sincerely thank you for taking the time to stop by our booth and participate in some hands-on neuroscience! This was a new conference for us and we were not sure what to expect… turns out we were so slammed with crowds that people had to try multiple times to get in and see demos! Thanks for your enthusiasm and support, we’ll definitely be back next year! In the meantime, be sure to keep checking the blog and wander over to our Products Page to see what we’re up to!