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The inside of the Virtual Citizen Science Expo provides multiple options for visitors to explore. The virtual reality website was designed by the Spotty Rain Campaign's principal investigators and associates. (Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Water Resources Center)

No Longer a Dry Topic

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Media Contact: Kristin Knight | Communications and Marketing Manager | 405-744-1130 |

Approximately 2.5 million Oklahomans were affected by drought from January to March 2023.

Drought occurs when a long period of low rainfall leads to a shortage of water. However, drought is more than just loss of rain as the impacts can be tremendous, said Nicole Colston, assistant research professor in the Oklahoma State University Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management.

The Spotty Rain Campaign is an Oklahoma Water Resources Center project funded by the National Science Foundation Advancing Informal STEM Learning. The program was designed in 2018 to bring education about drought monitoring and adaptation to communities in Oklahoma.

Colston saw a need for something like the Spotty Rain Campaign while working to complete her post-doctoral fellowship research in the Oklahoma Panhandle. She was there in 2014 and 2015, the years after a 10-year period of drought.

“Rural communities are important because spatially they are not well represented in weather monitoring and reporting,” said Colston, who became co-principal investigator of the Spotty Rain Campaign. “There are a lot of stations and gauges in urban spaces, not rural areas.”

The idea behind the name “Spotty Rain Campaign” came from the inconsistent patterns of rainfall during drought times.

A need exists for more rain gauges in rural areas to give scientists a better sense of when and where rain falls at the county level, Colston said.

Drought can be a slow-onset disaster that starts as something invisible before it affects people on a large scale, Colston said. The public’s feelings about drought can be explained by the hydro-illogical cycle, she added.

“The hydro-illogical cycle illustrates how we think illogically about drought,” Colston said. “We get rain and are apathetic. Then, drought hits, and we become increasingly aware. Then, we panic until rain comes and we become apathetic again.”

Drought education helps people avoid the panic stage and plan ahead for drought, Colston said.

To begin more conversations about drought, Colston had an idea of bringing education tools to rural libraries by partnering with the Southeast Oklahoma Library System.

Through the partnership, Colston made the Spotty Rain Campaign accessible in 15 libraries.

“I thought it would be more for land owners, but the Spotty Rain Campaign has really captured youth and family audiences,” Colston said. “The partnership with the Southeast Oklahoma Library System and Backyard Explorers is a virtual program for kids and families.”

The Backyard Explorers program covers six topics to encourage young people to get outside and explore nature around them, according to the Southeast Oklahoma Library System.

“These are citizen scientists in training,” Colston said.

The Spotty Rain Campaign works alongside Backyard Explorers to discuss the topic of drought. Colston collaborates with libraries to co-design the Spotty Rain Campaign programs for both librarians and patrons.

“Our library system worked with the Spotty Rain Campaign to place rain gauges outside our libraries and to give to families of library users as a form of citizen science,” said Michael Hull, executive director of the Southeast Oklahoma Library System. “The rain gauges heightened awareness about water scarcity and engaged families in a constructive learning activity, which helped them feel involved with the community and the environment.”

The NSF grant has allowed investigators for the Spotty Rain Campaign to bring educational materials to rural libraries through various tools.

“We are answering questions about how can we better offer science-based learning in informal spaces,” Colston said. “In this case, ‘How can we work with libraries to do STEM education?’”

The grant has allowed co-principal campaign investigators to bring more than rain gauges to communities. During COVID-19 closures, the Spotty Rain Campaign started using educational tools like augmented and virtual reality to reach their audiences.

“Augmented reality is being able to use virtual objects in a physical world,” said Tutaleni Asino, co-principal investigator on the project and associate professor in the OSU School of Educational Foundations, Leadership and Aviation. “Virtual reality is similar, but you transport yourself into a computer-generated environment.”

As co-principal investigators, Colston and Asino use augmented and virtual reality to engage people who might not communicate about drought.

“Augmented and virtual reality have helped us communicate some complex ideas about drought in a simple way,” Asino said. “It has also really allowed us to engage with younger people. That is something I didn’t expect.”

One of the virtual reality tools principal investigators use is the Virtual Citizen Science Expo, which was created by Asino and graduate research associates in the Emerging Technologies and Creativity Research lab on the OSU campus.

“The Virtual Citizen Science Expo is a virtual reality exhibit hall for learning about citizen science and drought monitoring,” Colston said. “Backyard Explorers and the general public can access cool tools for nature observation, learn about volunteer opportunities, and meet real scientists.”

Rural librarians who have been a part of the Spotty Rain Campaign have seen the effects of the campaign’s tools, said Heath Stanfield, manager of McAlester Public Library of the Southeast Oklahoma Library System.

“Spotty Rain’s greatest accomplishment is teaching the next generation that anyone can be a scientist,” Stanfield said. “It doesn’t require degrees or equipment.”

The Spotty Rain Campaign has partnered with two national organizations — the National Drought Mitigation Center and the Community Collaborative for Rain, Hail and Snow — to allow citizens to be involved with science through local environmental monitoring, Colston said.

“Citizen scientists can help us predict and prepare for drought,” Colston said. “Scientists really use the data for a whole range of things.”

Scientists and citizens work together to track, report, and share data through the Spotty Rain Campaign. The NSF grant for the Spotty Rain Campaign ends in June 2023, and although Colston and Asino hope to continue their work, they already know they have made an impact.

“When we started, I thought I would be doing dusty room meetings with farmers, and that’s not really how it happened,” Colston said. “I know I have made an impact on how rural and small libraries think about doing citizen science.”

To find more information about the program, visit Spotty Rain.

Story By: Rachel Martin | Cowboy Journal

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