Discover Life

Plant Science Cyberinfrastructure Collaborative
preproposal to the National Science Foundation

Education and Outreach

John Pickering
The Polistes Foundation

Utricularia subulata
Illustrated by Cheryl Reese

Utricularia subulata L.
Zigzag Bladderwort

Updated: 14 December, 2006

Discover Life

The challenge

The rapid ability of computers to recall, analyze, and share vast quantities of information is a grand challenge to our educational system. What skills do humans need to prosper in tomorrow's workforce and not be replaced by machines? Consider existing and future knowledge -- the known and the unknown. With the advent of the Internet, machines can now assemble, process, and immediately globalize the digital world. Memorization is suddenly becoming an outdated, inefficient use of brain power. Humans cannot out-google Google in regurgitating the known. Our educational system has yet to respond. Students still memorize mounds of information for tests. Instead we need to teach them how to recall, filter, and analyze information with their finger tips, put their minds to creative use, and learn problem-solving and synthetic skills. Here we embrace a paradigm shift -- let's move beyond teaching the known and empower people to discover and understand the unknown.

A classroom of unknowns

The wonders and mysteries of plant communities offer a global outdoor classroom full of unknowns. We propose to integrate software tools, databases, and protocols for students and citizen scientists to conduct inquiry-based research in this natural laboratory. We will challenge them to discover what is known and unknown about the plants they find exploring schoolyards, neighborhoods, and other outdoor areas. The proposed cyberinfrastructure will let them step beyond memorization and develop creative skills needed to succeed in a flat, automated world.

Teaching through research

We will tightly link our education efforts to original research on plants. The proposed cyberinfrastructure will allow us to integrate teaching and research at an unlimited number of schools and other study sites. Our educational goal is that all participants will individually learn thinking and technical skills in conducting local studies. They will learn to do creative science and not be cogs in a reseach network. Collectively, their findings across study sites will address a grand research challenge in ecology -- to understand and predict species richness, abundance, distribution, and community interactions in response to biotic and abiotic factors, such as invasive species and global climate change.

Ensuring data quality

The goal of citizen science projects often is to teach rather than to do science per se. Consequently, their data may be of poor quality and little scientific use. Fortunately, this need not be so. We will develop rigorous checks and balances to ensure that sufficient, high-quality, replicated data are collected across sites to be valuable to professional scientists, land managers, and policy makers. Participants will photograph and voucher specimens so that we can verify species identifications, for example. We will use software to cross-check data, rank potential quality, and filter out mistakes and unreliable individuals.

Organizational structure

Our proposed education and outreach program centers around the website Discover Life and its non-profit umbrella organization, The Polistes Foundation. John Pickering, the President of Polistes and a faculty member at the University of Georgia, will coordinate this effort. At an indirect cost of 5%, The Polistes Foundation will serve as the fiduciary for distributing funds to collaborating educators and outreach specialists at participating herbaria, schools, and other institutions.

  • Discover Life ( provides free on-line tools to help users gather and share information about nature. Its computer network at the University of Georgia and Missouri Botanical Garden have served over 100 million pages and images since the website's inception in 1998. In October, 2006, it served information to over 145,000 IP addresses. The site currently has over 380,000 species pages based on information from numerous contributors. The site manages over 500 integrated databases which are update frequently via the Internet. Discover Life uses a suite of server-side web tools to help users identify and maps species, process images, make labels to track specimens, and report findings.
  • The Polistes Foundation ( has a distinguished board of educators, scientists, and computer experts, include Jane Goodall, Peter Raven, and E. O. Wilson. Its support includes a 5-year cooperative agreement with the National Biological Information Infrastructure to identify and map invasive species. Contributing partners include the American Museum, Field Museum, Harvard University, Missouri Botanical Garden, Smithonian Institution, Sun Microsystems, Inc., and
  • Biodiversity Science & Education Initiative Through it board members Patty Gowaty and Steve Hubbell, The Polistes Foundation works closely with Biodiversity Science and Education Initiative (, a Smithsonian Institution led thinktank supported by the MacArthur Foundation. This group of over 50 scientists will help develop the grand challenge questions in biodiversity and study design that the proposed network of study sites will address.
  • Center for Tropical Forest Science Similarly, through Hubbell, we have close ties to the Center for Tropical Forest Science (, which he founded. This center, based in Panama, has a network of 22 large study sites in 14 countries. It monitors 6 million individual trees of a total of 6,300 species, approximately 8% of tree species worldwide. We will use data from these and other intensively studied sites to calibrate and check the quality of data from our extensive network of schools and other sites.

----- Outline only below this point -----


  1. Assemble authorative list of all plant species (300,000 species)
  2. Assemble distributional data to map all plants
  3. Identification guides to vascular plants of North America, both native and horticultural (30,000 species) (see Plants for the People)
  4. Identification guides to world tree (60,000 species)
  5. Identification guides to selective pollinators (bees and butterfiles) and herbivores (caterpillars).
  6. Integrated tools to identify specimens, submit and process photographs of them, label vouchers, report finds, statistically analyse data both within and across sites, map and plot results, share results via web pages, and send feedback to contributors.


  1. Herbaria coordinators
  2. Undergraduate interns
  3. New courses at UGA
  4. Database integration -- US & world herbaria
  5. Spidering
  6. Development and testing of research network protocols at schools
  7. Evaluation of educational outcomes in test schools
  8. Expand nextwork (x U.S. states, y countries -- Gap, Roots and Shoots, GLOBE, BioNet International)
  9. Data quality control -- calculate "nature rating" of each contributor
  10. Images and vouchers
  11. Workshops
  12. Technical training and support staff

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