It started out as a Google spreadsheet where University of Guelph students could input data they gathered while observing squirrels.
Now the citizen science project is being turned into an app, which one U of G masters student hopes will help encourage the community, and users across the country, to develop their own research skills.
“I really want it to be a platform and an opportunity to also elevate other early career researchers,” said Elizabeth Porter, coordinator of Squirrel Life Community Project. "That's the goal of having something so accessible and easy to use."
Squirrel watching isn't as mainstream as bird watching, but Porter said these animals can exhibit simple or complex behaviours, like deceptive caching, where squirrels pretend to bury food in one location to fool other animals.
"How clever is that, that the squirrel is hiding its nut so animals don’t come and dig it up," said Porter. "The more squirrels you saw the more you notice different behaviours."
Porter started Squirrel Life after hearing from friends who were unable to participate in experiential learning opportunities during the pandemic. Also a masters student in the department of integrative biology, Porter was doing her own research on squirrels when she realized students observing these animals would be an easy way for them to gain hands-on experience with data.
"That came together to make this beautiful synergy of nature and science and also learning, and how we can combine those to do something really powerful for people of all ages," said Porter about the project.
"It's one thing to be taught or told how to observe an animal, sitting in a classroom, or sitting at a screen and watching a professor talk, but it's a different thing to go out and actually get to do it," Porter continues. "The more squirrels you see, the more you start to notice their different behaviours."
Starting the project with first-year biology students in 2021, Porter assigned the students to go on a squirrel walk and provided them with a reflection worksheet to write down their thoughts.
"The reflections were absolutely awesome to read," she said about the responses, noting some students called it the highlight of their semester.
With all the data that was coming in, Porter said the Google spreadsheet became less reliable, and the project transitioned to an online platform called EpiCollect5, which also has an app.
Wanting a customizeable citizen science app with GPS capabilities and a user-friendly interface so that all ages could collect data, Porter reached out to the Computer Science program and they went to work building a Squirrel Life app.
“When we release it, we want to be super user friendly and just easy and fun to use, because the idea is that it’s not hard, that anybody at any age can participate in it and enjoy it.”
The Squirrel Life app was designed by undergraduate students from the Computer Science program. Porter said this also became an experiential learning opportunity for those students, and she was impressed by how they were able to put together a professional looking app.
“They had to figure out a lot of the code, and debug it, and stuff I don’t even know about, they did a lot of really, really hard work,” she said.
The app is expected to launch later this spring. Once up and running, users will be able to write and upload observations about squirrels in different locations to the app. They will also get to see data submitted by other users in the community online, which could fuel research projects.
“So the mobile app will be the data collection tool and the web portal will be the data exploration place,” Porter said about the concept for the Squirrel Life app.
The release of this research to the public will be part of an upcoming event called Squirrel Life Spring 2022 Community Event, which takes place March 26. At the event, residents can learn more about the program, get free goodies and go on a self-guided squirrel walk. To register for the event, click here.
Originally planning to release a beta version of the app at the event, Porter said interest in the project led the team to delay the launch until all the bugs had been figured out. For the time being, the community project will be available on EpiCollect5, which she said will be very similar to the project students are currently participating in.
Excited for the release of the app, Porter hopes it will see participation from people who aren't as connected to nature, but are connected to their devices.
"I hope by people experiencing nature more will care about it more," said Porter. "We all have to live and part of that is keeping the environment healthy."
To learn more about the Squirrel Life Community Project, click here.