Monday, April 12, 2010

Citizen Scientists

There's an article in Nature magazine that talks about the problems with thinking of science education as only a classroom-based activity.  The big issue is that funding and policy initiatives tend to be limited to grade-level specific education.  This is important, but with the rise of the internet, there's a lot of good-quality, easily accessible content, which results in more people being self-taught about science, rather than from formal classroom study.

There are mixed feelings about this. On one hand, self-directed learning eliminates the big complaint about the classroom: in school you can't always learn what interests you, or learn things at the same time you'll need to use them.  So a Google search on how to build skateboard parks tends to be more interesting to people than sitting through an introductory Physics course, even though both involve the classic problems of inclined planes and sliding blocks.  Also, by using informal tools of education, people can learn about a topic at the time they need it, not just during a brief slice of their academic year.

However, one concern is that there's less attention to strengthening the informal learning communities.  While every child is (supposed to be) guaranteed a public education in the classroom, places that reinforce this learning, like museums, libraries, parks and activity centers are losing funding.  This may mean that self-directed learners only find their communities online, instead of with their neighbors.

Also, while there is a lot of content available to people, there are still questions about what is "good" content?  Who is a valid authority?  What makes a reliable study?  How is this information relevant or useful?  An example of this misunderstanding was when the advocacy of high-profile celebrities implicating the MMR vaccine to the rise in autism was influential in fostering negative public opinion towards vaccines in general.  So in spite of the dissent among researchers, and the fact that the original MMR-autism study was discredited, the rates of MMR vaccinations dropped in the past decade, leading to spikes in measles outbreaks and serious policy concerns

The Nature article has an even bigger question for informal learning: "how do people integrate the disparate pieces of knowledge they acquired at different times and places? And how can anyone assess the overall outcome?"  Their suggestions are to create more partnerships between regular people and community resources, or to pair schools with existing science and research centers. 

I think these are great ideas, and I'd also like to see policy initiatives that are actually geared to teach the non-student how to screen and use the huge amount of scientific literature that's so easily available.  We already do this with our diets by using the Food Pyramid, and it works very well. I think a great idea would be an easily-understood, highly-broadcast diagram that would show people the basics of science literacy:  how to read a chart, how to distinguish between sources, what's the math behind scientific studies, or how to read a journal.  What about you?  Where do you learn about science, and how would you improve it if you could?

Photo Credits:  Law_Keven, Flickr.


  1. This is fantastic! As an instructor at a community college, one of my primary goals is to help my students develop the skill of reading, analyzing, and applying information from a variety of sources of scientific information, including website, popular press, and more. I will use this Nature piece as a cornerstone for discussing my efforts with others and framing my approach.

  2. It looks like you could subtract the word "science" from the phrase "science education" in both your article and the original Nature article, and you would have more or less the same argument. That is, I think people are educating themselves outside of a formal setting on every topic imaginable. But are they learning enough? I really like your idea about teaching the fundamentals, and then allowing independent scholars to build on those core tools. But isn't that a return to a formal education? Has our system of formal education simply forgotten why it exists in the first place, that is, to allow people to be capable of independently expanding their knowledge in a useful and robust way in whatever direction they might be called?

  3. This is a very important and timely topic. Self-directed learning is critical for anyone who really wants to do any thing original or inventive. Formal education can't teach you everything. But I also think that it is important to engage with others face to face and to have guidance and feedback when necessary. I think that accessibility of education is key. There are alot of great resources though like the Great Courses series and Open courseware that allow the ambitious self-learner to learn from lectures given by a professor and have access to a syllabus or recommended reading list.