Do you ever look for sand dollars when you walk along the beach?  Or Japanese glass floats?  What about dead birds?  It may sounds strange, but hundreds of people along the West Coast walk up and down the beach looking for dead birds.

Let me explain.   Volunteers in citizen science project COASST (the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team) do monthly beach surveys to monitor seabird mortality.  This is the citizen science group I will be working with for my thesis.  Participants commit to surveying a one-mile stretch of beach every month, and complete a one-day training to lean the protocol for identifying wracked birds.  After each survey, volunteers upload the data and photographs to the program website for independent verification.

Why monitor dead birds?  The COASST program was originally designed in 1998 to collect baseline data about seabird mortality in case there’s an oil spill.  If no one knows what’s “normal” for seabird populations, it might be difficult to create accountability should an oil spill occur.  Over the past thirteen years, COASST data has been used in a variety of scientific studies, including studies on fisheries interactions, harmful algal blooms, genetic studies of Western Grebes (candidate for threatened species status), and potential warning systems for avian flu.

Two weeks ago, a couple COASST volunteers let me join their survey to see what it’s like.  On the drive out to the beach, one volunteer asked me, “How did you hear about COASST?” It turns out that we both first learned of the program in a book called Strand: An Odyssey of Pacific Ocean Debris.  After reading about the COASST program, she looked up when the next training would be held, called her “nerd friend,” and they have been happily identifying and photographing dead birds ever since.

I have to say, this was the most fun I’ve ever had counting dead birds.  We had great weather, beautiful scenery, interesting conversation… what else could you want from a day at the beach?  I am really looking forward to working with the COASST program and volunteers for my thesis.

My original thesis question was: Does participating in a citizen science program give volunteers a greater understanding of the Nature of Science?  Searching the current literature, I realized most authors assumed that understanding the nature and process of science is actually useful to non-scientists.  Considering the lack of empirical data to support this assumption, it was not something I was willing to adopt uncritically.  Instead, I began “unpacking the lines” leading up to my original question, untangling the messy web all the way back to fundamental questions around science and science education.   What is the value of science?  What is the ultimate goal of science education?  Asking these questions, it’s hard not to feel like Derek Zoolander staring into a puddle (“Who am I?”), but I think they are essential for every scientist and science educator to consider.  Many of the questions I posed are ultimately unknowable, at least by me, but the process of asking them, writing about them, and discussing them with peers, professors, family, and friends has been what I consider the most valuable part of my education.

Below are several questions I’m exploring in developing the theoretical framework for my thesis.

Science Literacy

  • What is the ultimate goal of science education? What learning outcomes best support that goal?
  • As an educator, does having a clear idea of how I expect people to actually use scientific knowledge in daily life change how I frame the learning experience?
  • What is the relationship between scientific literacy and participating in scientific research?

Nature of Science (NOS)

  • When is it important for non-scientists to understand how science works as a discipline, as opposed to understanding how a particular natural phenomenon works?
  • Is inquiry-based or experiential education simply an effective and engaging approach to science education, or does it give students a deeper understanding of the nature and process of science? If students do learn more about how science works, how will they use that knowledge in the future?  How important is explicit NOS instruction?

Citizen Science (CS)

  • How do participant motivations and outcomes of CS programs differ from other informal science ed programs?  From project- and inquiry-based learning, or experiential education?
  • What science literacy goals are supported by the different models of CS projects?

Science and Democracy

  • What science knowledge do people need in order to function in a modern democratic society?  Are there any aspects of science literacy that all groups of people should know, regardless of who they are, where they live, and what their interests are?
  • What does it mean to be an “informed citizen”?

Perspectives on “doing science” and “definition of science”

  • What are all the definitions of science under which different groups of people operate?  What is the minimum threshold of engagement for someone to be “doing science”?
  • What learning outcomes are supported by “doing science”?  Why do many educators prefer that their students “do science” instead of watch a demonstration?

History of Science, Professionalization of Science, and the Novice / Expert demarcation

  • Can you do science unintentionally?  Who do you think was the first scientist?  Can you do science on a desert island?
  • At what point of being involved in science-related activities do non-experts begin to feel they are “doing science”?  What’s the difference between doing science, doing something scientifically, and doing something expertly?
  • How does the history of science and the professionalization of science over the past couple centuries influence our current definition of science?

Normative Science

  • If I was working as a scientist, what would I want my relationship with advocacy to be?  If I was working as an educator, what would I want my relationship with advocacy to be?
  • What are the special roles in society that scientists and educators have?  Are there rules each should follow in communicating science?
  • Do scientists or educators ever receive explicit instruction about how to handle their civic responsibilities as professionals?  What is lost by not asking yourself: How do my underlying values get incorporated into my science? Into how I communicate science?