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BabyLegs does NYC

DIY citizen science invention featured in international design shows


By Jeff Green

A unique invention designed by a Memorial scientist is part of a new design exhibition that recently opened in New York City and the Netherlands.

Dr. Max Liboiron has used BabyLegs to work with educators so more young people can be part of monitoring marine plastics.
Dr. Max Liboiron uses BabyLegs to work with educators so that young people can help monitor marine plastics.
Photo: David Howells for MEOPAR

BabyLegs, a homemade surface trawl designed to monitor marine plastics, is part of the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial — an international event highlighting some of the world’s most innovative, creative and big-picture designs — as well as an exhibit running simultaneously at the Netherlands’ Cube Museum.

The open-source creation is the brainchild of Dr. Max Liboiron, associate vice-president (Indigenous research) and assistant professor, Department of Geography, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Open source technology

Created with baby-sized tights, soda pop bottles and other inexpensive easy-to-find materials, BabyLegs can be used to trawl for floating marine microplastics.

Watch the video below to see how you can make a pair of BabyLegs.

It’s become one of Memorial’s most well-known open source technologies – meaning it’s not patented or privatized.

Dr. Liboiron and her team from her Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) Lab have deployed BabyLegs and other similar homemade trawls to open waters around Newfoundland and Labrador.

“I designed something inexpensive, easy-to-make, easy-to-source and hack.” — Dr. Max Liboiron

The team includes undergraduate and graduate students and faculty members from areas such as Biology, Environmental Science, Earth Sciences, Geography and Sociology,

“The origin story of BabyLegs is tied to being new faculty without grants or a lab (yet) and needing to do research here, so I designed something inexpensive, easy-to-make, easy-to-source and hack,” explained Dr. Liboiron, who joined Memorial in 2014.

“It had its first trip up the coast near Bay Roberts and found plastics in sewage outfall. It worked so well I formalized it, including testing at the MI flume tank and did an invention disclosure with the Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office.”

International attention

Since then, researchers, teachers, community groups, citizen scientists and non-governmental organizations in France, Canada, the Netherlands, the United States, the Arctic and Antarctic have taken BabyLegs on field expeditions.

“We’ve put BabyLegs into N.L. classrooms with a curriculum guide.” — Dr. Max Liboiron

The design has also been featured in national and international media outlets including the CBC, The Atlantic and The Economist.

“BabyLegs is unique among citizen science tools because we never assume access to other people’s data,” noted Dr. Liboiron. “She’s specifically for other people to use in their own projects and to produce knowledge on their terms, not be data grunts for us.”

Educating educators

Dr. Liboiron has also used BabyLegs to work with educators so more young people can be part of monitoring marine plastics.

“In partnership with Let’s Talk Science, and via a Public Engagement grant, we’ve put BabyLegs into Newfoundland and Labrador classrooms with a curriculum guide,” she noted.

“At Cooper Hewitt, we also did a workshop with 100 New York City teachers. Other people are using BabyLegs for education, too. A design class in Poland made how-to guides for building their own BabyLegs.”

1/ Trawl testing

As part of the New York City workshop, participants built and tested BabyLegs by trawling them at Hudson River Park.

Photo: Cooper Hewitt

2/ Citizen science

About 100 educators participated in the workshop. Here, Dr. Liboiron examines some of the plastics they found in the Hudson River.

Photo: Cooper Hewitt

3/ Under the microscope

Teachers and students get a closer look at the marine plastics they collected.

Photo: Cooper Hewitt

4/ Big-picture design

The Smithsonian BabyLegs display, as part of the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial in New York City.

Photo: Dr. Max Liboiron

5/ The Netherlands display

The BabyLegs exhibit at the Cube Museum.

Photo: Cube Museum

6/ On the water

The BabyLegs project inspired a meaningful discussion on microplastic pollution, said Michelle Cheng of Cooper Hewitt. The Statue of Liberty is in the background.

Photo: Dr. Max Liboiron

“Dr. Liboiron’s BabyLegs project inspired a meaningful discussion on microplastic pollution, local environmental conditions and climate health at a larger scale, while offering a deep understanding of how design can be activated for social impact,” said Michelle Cheng, manager, integration level education programs, Cooper Hewitt.

“The hands-on nature of this workshop highlights the power of experiencing the design process for oneself — a prime example of how Cooper Hewitt educates, inspires and empowers people through design.”

‘Equity and humility’

Dr. Liboiron says that, thanks to a new partnership with Public Lab via a MEOPAR Fathom Fund grant, she’s launching a crowdsource campaign to turn BabyLegs into a kit, pairing them with community microscopes and creating an online community of users.

“This campaign brings together images, video and stories from many other users,” she noted. “The point of the Fathom Fund is to support science “elected” by communities via their own investments and to put science in the hands of a greater diversity of people.

“Ultimately, think of BabyLegs as a hallmark technology of CLEAR, which prioritizes equity and humility in research – so we have guidelines around designing tools that keep things accessible to people in rural and remote Newfoundland and Labrador and are built with local materials.”

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