From Atlas Obscura: How to Help Scientists Without Leaving Home

Gaze out the window or at your computer, in the name of data


Atlas Obscura readers are spending time at home to stay safe and healthy, so the organization is sharing ways you can be awestruck anytime, no matter where you are. 

“THE NATURAL WORLD DOESN’T SLOW down just because humans have to. Outside, buds burst from branches; high, high above them, distant objects traverse the solar system. And while the world keeps going, science does, too. If you have a computer, a phone, and a window, you can help with these citizen science projects.”

Check the article for scores of links to citizen science projects you can do from home. Then, if you are a master naturalist, check the service or continuing education calendars to see which are approved for credit. If you don’t see them, please be kind and add them to help your fellow naturalists get credit for making the world a better place.

On April 22, Tune into Earth Day Online

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

The world’s largest civic event is going digital for the first time in its history. The organizers ask that leaders take science seriously, listen to their people and push for action at every level of society to stop the rising tide of climate change. People can make a better world for everyone; tell everyone you know about April 22 and come back here to be a part of it.

From the organizers:

“On Earth Day, April 22, 2020, we have two crises: One is the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. The other is a slowly building disaster for our climate.

We can, will and must solve both challenges. The world was not prepared for the novel coronavirus. But we still have time to prepare — in every part of the world — for the climate crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic does not shut us down. Instead, it reminds us of what’s at stake in our fight for the planet. If we don’t demand change to transform our planet and meet our climate crisis, our current state will become the new normal — a world where pandemics and extreme weather events span the globe, leaving already marginalized and vulnerable communities even more at risk.” 

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Vegetable Gardening for Earth Renewal

Article by Plant NOVA Natives

Now is the time to renew the Earth – and yourself, while you are at it! Most of us are aware of the benefits to ourselves of eating chemical-free vegetables, and to the environment of growing our own food and thus reducing our use of plastic and our share of the impact of shipping and refrigeration. What we may not realize is that home vegetable gardeners also can play an important role in our collective effort to reconnect our landscapes in a way that provides sanctuary for the birds and butterflies.

A home vegetable garden is not just a little grocery store. If we give back to the Earth what we take out, we create a system that is truly sustainable in the sense of being self-sustaining and friendly to the surrounding environment. The first principal of organic gardening is to grow the soil by avoiding damaging chemicals and adding compost, which we can make ourselves from yard and kitchen scraps. Soil is very much a living thing, full of living beings who have their own intrinsic value. It is also the place where many creatures such as fireflies spend a substantial part of their lives before emerging into the air where we become aware of them. Fungi in the soil extend the reach of plant roots and provide a network for exchanging nutrients, water and information between plants. The less we disturb (or poison) the soil, the better for the living world.

An equally important principal of organic gardening is that we need to build the ecosystem infrastructure to support a balance of insects. Sometimes people mistakenly understand that the way to do that is to purchase ladybugs or praying mantis egg cases, a practice that is not only futile (since they typically just fly away) but harmful, as the species for sale are usually Asian ones. Instead, the way to achieve a balanced ecosystem is to start with the plants that support it, namely locally native species. Although it is possible to intersperse annual vegetables with native perennials, what most gardeners do is plant them in separate beds. Ideally, we can plant a pollinator garden nearby, filling it with a diverse array of native flowers that bloom in succession from early spring to late fall.

Vegetable gardens will be relieved to find that a pollinator garden is a whole lot less work than what they are used to, since there is no need to improve the soil in most cases, less weeding is required, and cleanup simply consists of a little tidying in the spring of the dead leaves, stalks and seed heads that supported life all winter. Unlike zinnias and marigolds that need to be replanted every year and that have limited benefits, native plants not only provide nectar and pollen to the pollinators but also provide the food needed by their larvae. Over a few year period, a yard with many native plants will attract enough predatory insects to keep down aphids or other pests. Toads will eat the slugs, dragonflies will eat the mosquitoes, and crop yields will increase.

On top of all these benefits, any sunny space occupied by a garden is one less area of lawn contributing to stormwater run-off and degradation of our local streams and water quality.

To learn more about using native plants to support the ecosystem, visit the Plant NOVA Natives website and the section on Vegetable Gardening for Earth Renewal. And for a quick pick-me-up, enjoy our one minute video on getting closer to nature in your garden while social distancing.

Face the Wolf

Jerry Nissley

“I scarcely know where to begin…”: The opening line in Jack London’s, Sea-Wolf. This 1904 story develops around a self-indulged, self-professed gentleman of the times, Humphrey van Weyden, who decides to visit a relative across the bay. The fateful day he boards the ferry from Sausalito to San Francisco, the bay is shrouded in dense, preternatural fog. So much so that boats could only navigate using compass, speed, and distance –“a mathematical certainty“, right? Ergo the inevitable transpires–in spite of, or perhaps because of, the cacophony of navigational bell buoys and ship’s fog horns, the ferry is suddenly struck amidships by a steam schooner crawling in against the tide.

Chaos prevails and young Humphrey barely has time to secure his life jacket before he jumps/falls from the fast sinking ferry into the frigid waters of the bay. Hypothermia is a cruel, uncaring beast, and the weak, water-logged human bobber is quickly carried towards the Golden Gate by fast-moving current caused by the ebbing tide. Despair and hopelessness lead to delirium and unconsciousness; yet at the last possible moment Humphrey is plucked from the water by a passing sealing schooner, the Ghost, on its way to Japan. The Ghost’s intractable captain, Wolf Larsen, does not return Humphrey to shore but instead indentures him for the duration of the voyage.

I love classical symbolism. I recalled that story while I was on a four-hour kayak trip the Monday before our current executive order to lock-down. To me the opening scene in Sea-Wolf is analogous to the Corona-virus situation we are in today. Our carefree lives have been hit amidships by a runaway schooner-virus; knocked into treacherous waters and after floundering for a time, we now find ourselves confined to our boat-houses under incommodious restrictions. Are we all now symbolically Humphrey van Weyden indentured by a viral personification of Wolf Larsen? Will we all be better versions of ourselves once we endure this indentured servitude?

I scarcely know how to continue… for alas, I did not sit down to write specifically about Humphrey van Weyden or Wolf Larsen. I sat down to write about how through all of the prevailing current events, spring continues to flourish and how I am encouraged by Nature’s example of fortitude. An example worth emulating. 

Prior to restrictions, I was able to visit both Huntley Meadows Park (HMP) and Mason Neck State Park (MNSP) several times as a volunteer and as a casual visitor/user. At HMP I observed the hoodies and the woodies, the pins and the shovelers, the muskrats, osprey, snake-heads, spotted salamanders, assorted reptiles and migrating birds continue the cycle of life directly up in the face of the “Wolf“. 

Wood Duck

Kayaking at Mason Neck State Park, I observed that emergent vegetation is starting to show through the mud in Kane’s Creek. Spatterdock, cattails, pickerel weed and swamp mallow are starting to form along the water’s edge. Hopefully kayak tours will start up again in the summer months. Whether that happens or not, osprey, eagles, red winged blackbirds and beaver continue nesting/lodging rituals as if they plan to stay another year. I floated up to copious painted turtles adorning the logs like jewels, soaking in vitamin D. In the coves I sensed the sibilant swirl of pre-spawn fish around fallen trees in search of food and nesting sites. They, too, are planning to stay for the year.

Beaver Lodge

Oh yes indeed — our kindred spirits, Flora and Fauna, embrace us. They show us there is a great deal of beauty and emerging hope all around. Perhaps we need to use our God-given senses to discern this — hear and distinguish the cries and calls, taste the Coral honeysuckle, smell the Sweetspire, see and perceive changing patterns, touch the morning mist. We need to be smart, stay safe and get through our “indentured servitude”. Our short-term restrictions do not even compare to Mr. van Weyden’s protracted ordeal and he, “… discovered his own legs and learned to stand on them“.

As a closing solicitude, consider Mr. van Weyden’s own contemplation as the crew emerged from a particularly trying ordeal at sea, “One thing I was beginning to feel, and that was I could never again be quite the same man I had been. While my hope and faith in human life still survived Wolf Larsen’s destructive criticism, he had nevertheless been the cause of change in minor matters. I had learned to look more closely at life as it was lived… to emerge from the realm of mind and idea and to place certain values on the concrete and objective phases of existence.

DC Environmental Film Festival Live Online Through March 31

Because of the pandemic, the DC Environmental Film Festival is streaming its movies through the end of March. Most are free to watch.

About the festival: The Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital (DCEFF) is the world’s premier showcase of environmentally themed films. Since 1993, its mission has been to celebrate Earth and inspire understanding and stewardship of the environment through the power of film.

Each March in Washington, D.C., they host the largest environmental film festival in the world, presenting 100+ films to audiences of more than 20,000. Collaborating with over 110 partners, including museums, embassies, universities, and theaters, the Festival is one of the leading annual cultural events in Washington, D.C., winning the 2017 DC Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Creative Industries.

Keep learning with Smithsonian Museum of Natural History webcasts

Smithsonian Science How

Bring a Smithsonian Scientist into your classroom with Smithsonian Science How! Check out the Science How schedule below to get started, or preview our formats by watching a program from our video webcast archives.

Video Webcasts

These free, interactive, live video webcasts take questions from your students while introducing them to science concepts and practices through the lens of Smithsonian research and experts. The shows provide opportunities for your students to interact via live polls and Q&A with the scientist.

  • Grades 3-8; optimized for students in grades 3-5
  • Developed in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s children’s theater, Discovery Theater
  • Scientists take your questions
  • Complementary teaching resources
  • 30 minutes long
  • Aligned with national science standards


Here is the webcast schedule for the 2019-2020 school year. Want to suggest a topic for a future show? E-mail us at

Upcoming Shows

We’re moving our popular webcast series to video webinars to connect your learners to natural history science and careers more often. Webinars will be presented on Zoom video. All times are Eastern Time.

Completed Shows

Video Archives

We’ve produced 52 Smithsonian Science How webcasts over the last six years. They feature Smithsonian experts and cover specific topics in the disciplines of Earth Science, Life Science, Paleontology, and Social Studies.

Browse the video archives.

Ask Science How

Teachers and students: Do you have a question for our science experts? Send us your questions, either before or after a webcast. We’ll send you the answer. Ask Science How

From the Humane Gardener: The frogs are calling. Will we listen?

Suffering from their own global pandemic, frogs have few places to hide from mowers, pesticides and fungal disease. But helping them starts at home, right in your own backyard.

As Italians sang in hope and unity from their balconies last week, a different kind of national anthem played outside my window an ocean away. American toads trilled their hearts out. Clucking wood frogs plucked the bass strings. Spring peepers chirped a staccato soprano….

The eve of spring, normally a joyous occasion, was unfolding in a world very different from the one we lived in last spring, last month and even last week. And yet it wasn’t different at all, at least not for the frogs, whose symphony reminded me that for so many creatures living here among us, life goes on.

Read the rest of Nancy Lawson’s story

And register to watch her webinar Sunday, April 26th

Join the U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions

In November 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the formation of the U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions group and presented the first set of 2030 Champions.

U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions are businesses and organizations that have made a public commitment to reduce food loss and waste in their own operations in the United States by 50 percent by the year 2030.

The staggering amount of wasted food in the United States has far-reaching impacts on resource conservation and food security, while costing businesses and consumers money. To help galvanize national efforts to reduce food loss and waste, USDA and EPA announced the United States’ first-ever food loss and waste reduction goal in September 2015, calling for a 50-percent reduction by 2030. Government alone cannot reach this goal. It will require effort and action from the entire food system. The 2030 Champions have heard the Call to Action and are committed to do their part to help the nation reach this critical goal.

EPA, FDA, and USDA co-hosted a Food Loss and Waste event at USDA’s Whitten Building on October 18, 2018, in Washington, DC. The purpose of the event was to celebrate the commitments of the 2030 Champions to reduce food loss and waste in their industrial operations by 2030 and to sponsor a panel to highlight some innovative ways and best practices to educate American consumers on the impacts of food loss and waste, environmentally, socially and economically. The leaders of EPA, USDA, and FDA signed a formal agreement aimed at improving coordination and communication across the federal agencies attempting to better educate Americans on the impacts and importance of reducing food loss and waste.

Learn more about reducing food waste

Gardening for Earth Renewal

Article by Plant NOVA Natives staff

How does your garden renew the earth? Vegetable gardens, flower gardens, conventional landscaping and even container gardens can all contribute to a connected landscape that supports our local birds and butterflies. By restoring native plants and avoiding chemicals, together we can heal the damaged landscape we have created with our buildings, sterile lawn, and green-but ecologically-useless plants from other continents.

The wildlife of the East Coast evolved in concert with the complex mixture of trees and understory plants that covered most of the land in the past, plus smaller areas of meadows and wetlands. Turtles, birds, frogs and fireflies all suffer when those hundreds of species of plants are replaced by a monoculture of lawn and a few specimen shrubs. And biodiversity all but disappears when those few plants consist of species that were introduced from elsewhere, as is the case with turf grass (which is from Europe), Japanese Barberry, English Ivy, and many other commonly sold plants, some of which have become invasive and taken over our remaining natural areas.

The antidote is clear: plant more plants, and make sure they are native species! The first step is to look at any nearby natural area and figure out how your property might expand its habitat value and reduce the fragmentation that interferes with the movement of animals. Are you near woods? How about adding more trees and shade-loving shrubs and ground cover? After all, they say that shade gardens are the gardens of the future, because it will be too hot to want to spend much time in the sun! Or perhaps your yard receives your neighbor’s runoff which can be turned into an asset by deep-rooted plants that soak up the excess water and recreate a butterfly-filled meadow. Or perhaps you are lucky enough to have a lawn in full sun that could be used for a raised vegetable bed. Those vegetables are unlikely to be native plants, but the bed will absorb runoff much better than lawn, and you can improve your crop yields by adding a nearby sunny flower garden that draws in the pollinators.

It doesn’t matter whether you want to change or to keep the general appearance of your property – if you prefer, you can achieve the same general look by simply substituting native plants for introduced ones. What we should change is our understanding of how our land functions. You need not settle for a yard that is an empty hole in the map that excludes its natural residents. Rather, your home can become part of what Doug Tallamy, in his newly-released Nature’s Best Hope, is calling our future “Homegrown National Park.” If enough of us make some relatively easy changes to our yard practices, we can knit together our properties into a thriving environment where people and nature live in harmony. Now, in this time of trouble, we can renew the Earth. Find out how at

Sustaining America’s Aquatic Biodiversity: Frog Biodiversity and Conservation

Virginia Cooperative Extension has just published a refreshed version of this useful 4-page info sheet (Publication 420-527). Good for naturalists, classrooms, and nature centers.

One of the references is to a site that US Geological Survey sponsors on frog calls. Take the quiz–lots of fun.