Designing for Scientific Literacy

Learning for scientific literacy

It is frequently suggested that participation in citizen science projects benefits citizens by giving them a scientific education (Pattengill-Semmens & Pattengill, 2003; Raddick, 2008), or improves scientific literacy (Bonney et al., 2009). Trumbell et al. (2000: 265) noted that participants in citizen science projects “had engaged in thinking processes similar to those that are part of science investigation”. However Brossard et al. (2005) and Cronje et al. (2011) in studies that tested this assumption, did not find a statistically significant difference between pre-post gains in scientific literacy of citizen scientists. Another study on citizen science knowledge-gain increases found increased domain knowledge but failed to find an increased understanding of the scientific process (Jordan et al, 2011). Could it be because volunteers are usually involved in data collection and not in the processes of formulating scientific questions? What types of learning can citizen science projects foster? Does this type of learning lead to increased scientific literacy?

Learning is a cognitive process as well as a social one, and individual and a collective one; it can be quantified by behavioural change, increased speed in finding solutions and in many other ways. Learning is complex and thus described it in many ways; many learning models reflect different assumptions on the nature of learning. As I favour innovation over convention, to me learning is not about the retention of information, rather the application of knowledge, the creation of new links and perspectives. The SOLO taxonomy learning framework shown below provides different types of learning, the relational and extended abstract level covering the type of learning I am interested in.

When evaluating citizen science projects’ contribution to participant learning, I would suggest to evaluate whether participants were stimulated to think on the relational and extended abstract level. Those are the levels of meaningful scientific literacy. Abstract thinking mixed with (scientific) creativity is the basis for scientific innovations. Shapin (2010) quotes Albert Einstein’s saying that “the conceptual basis of physics is a free invention of the human mind” . Hu & Adey (2002: 389) state that “‘Doing science’ is far more than either mastering an existing body of knowledge or of following set procedures. Almost by definition scientific research requires creativity in the sense of going beyond existing knowledge and techniques, of creating new understandings” (2002: 389). Learning does not have to end once observational data has been uploaded. BirdTrack by the British Trust Ornithology for example, allows its volunteers to see their own data as well as other collected data and play around with it online, encouraging people to practice a new skill and linking their contribution to the whole.

If the aim is to foster scientific literacy, a careful balance between protocol and spaces for creativity has to be struck. Currently, the academic literature seems to emphasize protocol. This is due to the nature of the main activity citizen scientists are asked to do: data collection. Concerns about accuracy and validity of data requires crowdsourced data collection to be streamlined by protocol. If practitioners were to design projects with the aim of learning in mind, these would have a very different nature. It becomes even more interesting when practitioners design projects that allow for space for their own learning to be evaluated, because –in the words of a teaching friend- the real magic happens when people learn together. Paulo Freire wrote “education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students” (1968: 72). Rather than assuming the student is an empty vessel that needs to be filled, Freire advocates a mutual learning adventure based on recognition that all are teachers and students.

Maybe, citizen science projects can improve scientific literacy, by stimulating volunteers to think at an abstract level and have room for creativity, mistakes and guesses. Who knows, maybe the next Hawkins or Higgs might have started their scientific endeavours by participating in a citizen science project?


Bonney, R., Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Kelling, S., Phillips, T., Rosenberg, K. V., & Shirk, J. (2009). Citizen Science: A Developing Tool for Expanding Science Knowledge and Scientific Literacy. BioScience, 59(11), 977–984.

Brossard D., Lewenstein, B., & Bonney, R. (2005). Scientific knowledge and attitude change:
The impact of a citizen science project. International Journal of Science Education, 27(9), 1099.

Cronje, R., Rohlinger, S., Crall, A., & Newman, G. (2011). Does Participation in Citizen Science Improve Scientific Literacy? A Study to Compare Assessment Methods. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 10(3), 135-45.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and herder.

Hu, W., Adey, P. (2010). A scientific creativity test for secondary school students. International Journal of Science Education, 24(4), 389-403.

Jordan, R. C., Gray, S. a, Howe, D. V., Brooks, W. R., & Ehrenfeld, J. G. (2011). Knowledge gain and behavioral change in citizen-science programs. Conservation biology : the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology, 25(6), 1148–54.

Pattengill-Semmens, C.V. & Pattengill, B.X. (2003). Conservation and management applications of the REEF volunteer fish monitoring program. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 81, 43-50.

Raddick, M. J., Bracey, G., Carneys, K., Gyuk, G., Borne, K., Wallin, J., & Jacoby, S. (2008). Citizen science: status and research directions for the coming decade. ASTRO2010 Decadal Survey Position Paper.

Shapin, S. (2010). Never Pure. Historical studies of science as if it was produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority. Baltimore: the John Hopkins university Press.

Trumbull, D.J., Bonney, R., Bascom, D. & Cabral, A. (2000). Thinking Scientifically During Participation in a Citizen-Science Project. Science Education, 84, 265-275.


  1. So interesting Elles, thank you. I am recently focusing on motivation for volunteering and your insights on learning while participating, creatively manipulate knowledge and experiences are triggering some new ideas for better design citizen science methodologies.

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