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?

How do we analyze and study something familiar and taken for granted?  How do we take account of the myriad modes of communication and media that are part of practically everything that we do, including learning? One of the biggest challenges we face studying learning (especially in a museum) is documenting meaningful aspects of what people say and do while also taking into account the multiple, nested contexts that help make sense of what we have documented.  As a growing number of researchers and theorists worldwide have begun to document, understanding how these multiple modes of communication and representation work to DO everyday (and not so everyday) activities, requires a multimodal approach that often sees any given social interaction as a nexus (a meeting point) of multiple symbol systems and contexts, some of which are more active and salient (foregrounded) at any given moment by participants or by researchers.

This requires researchers to have ways of capturing and making sense of how people use language, gesture, body position, posture and objects as part of communicating with one another – and for learning researchers it means understanding how all of these ways of communicating contribute to or get in the way of thinking and learning. One of the most compelling ways of approaching these problems is through what has come to be called a multimodal discourse analysis (MMDA).

MMDA gives us tools and techniques for looking at human interactions that take into account how these multiple modes of communication are employed and deployed in everyday activities.  It also supports our tackling the issue of how context drives meaning of talk and actions and how talk and actions can invoke and change contexts.  It does this by acknowledging that the meanings of what people say and do are not prima facie evident, but require the researcher to identify and understand salient contexts within which a particular gesture, phrase, or facial expression makes sense.  We are all fairly fluent and deploying and decoding these cues of communication, and researchers often get quite good at reading them from the outside. But how does one teach an exhibit to read them accurately? Which ones need to be recognized and recorded in the database that drives an exhibit or feeds into a researchers queries?

Over the next several months, we’ll be working out answers to these questions and others that will undoubtedly arise as we get going on data collection and analysis.  We are fortunate to have some outstanding help in this regard.  Dr. Sigrid Norris, Director of the Multimodal Research Centre at the Auckland University of Technology and Editor of the journal Multimodal Communication, is serving as an advisor for the project.  We’re also planning to attend the 6th International Conference on Multimodality this August in London to share what we are up to and learn from leaders in MMDA from around the world.