Participation in Scientific Research: Learning from Citizen Science

By Trevor Owens Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Instead of teaching young people about science, we want them to do science. That’s one of the central notions in teaching science as inquiry and it’s a core part of the Next Generation Science Standards. Said that way it sounds simple, but when we step back and try to articulate exactly what doing science means it becomes a bit tricky. Is it collecting data? Is it developing research questions? Is it defending and advancing arguments based on evidence? The short answer to each of these questions is “Yes, and…”. Science is a sophisticated process through which we understand the natural and designed world. Any definition of the science we want people, as full citizens in our democracy, to engage in is going to need to reflect that sophistication.

Science educators have developed robust frameworks for what counts as epistemologically authentic inquiry for schools. I find it interesting to compare this vision of inquiry with the thinking behind various citizen science projects about how public participation in science research should be understood and evaluated. There are some striking parallels between what "counts" as doing science in each case. I think the comparison can help underscore some of the key points about what we want students to engage in for their science education.

What Counts as Public Participation in Scientific Research?

Citizen science projects (discussed in a previous STEMVisions article here) invite members of the public to contribute directly to scientific research. These projects could be anything from asking members of the public to run software on their home computers to help SETI search for alien life, to asking members of the public to contribute their time to help classify galaxies, to inviting them to collect data on birds to study their migratory patterns. In each case, members of the public contribute their time and/or resources to help do science.

It’s one thing to ask members of the public to contribute, but it’s another to call those contributions participation in science. The latter suggests that those participating are to some extent doing scienceexactly what science educators want for students. Figuring out what kinds of projects count as public participation in scientific research is an interesting enough question that it has sparked its own conferences.

Earlier this year, OpenScientist.org published a framework for ranking levels of participation in these projects. I’ve included it below:

You can read about these levels of citizen science involvement over at OpenScientist, but I’ll briefly explain them here and suggest what I think are interesting parallels between this framework and discussion of authentic inquiry. As you move up the pyramid from minimal to contributory to collaborative to co-created, you move further and further away from doing the kinds of rote work that a computer or a sensor does. For instance, some might argue that a project that asks people to note the behaviors of birds is effectively using those people as types of sensors. In contrast, a project that asks individuals to interpret and analyze the collected data moves up the pyramid to having participants engage in the core scientific activities of analysis, argumentation, and study.

What does this pyramid say about doing science?

  • Collection and classification are basic: Things like collecting data or classification and identification work are not considered as valuable by this community as other modes of participation in scientific research. In essence, the idea is that treating people as sensors is not engaging them in the core activity of science, but in effect using them as machines. Note that this level of participation is perceived as one step above contributing your computer’s processor for the scientists to use to run their own analysis.
  • Analysis, interpretation, and argument are valued: In this framework, it’s through the analysis and interpretation of data that someone becomes a collaborator in scientific research. From this perspective, what counts is not so much getting your hands dirty, or engaging in direct observation, but engaging in the mental work of theorizing from evidence and making sense of data.
  • Deciding on research directions is at the top: The top of the pyramid presents a challenge for educators. In this framework, the highest level of public engagement in science is inviting members of the public to play a role in defining the research agenda itself as co-creators and initiators. In this case, it isn’t particularly clear what these kinds of projects would be, but it’s an exciting prospect for the future of science education. I, for one, look forward to a future where all students learn science by actually doing science; that is, acting as co-creators and initiators who are directly participating at the highest level of engagement in ongoing scientific research.

So what do you think? How does this framework relate to formal science education? Do you think there is a clear hierarchy in the way the above illustration implies? And if so, do you think that has implications for how we think about scientific inquiry?

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About Mr. Owens

Ms. Alston

Trevor Owens is the Special Curator for the Library of Congress science literacy initiative and doctoral candidate in George Mason University’s College of Education. He has recently written about imagining Earth from space before we went there and teaching science with historical primary sources.