Science Near Me is a national website that aims to connect the general public to scientific research and events. Oregon State University’s STEM Research Center helped launch the tool. Martin Storksdieck is the director of the center and a professor at OSU. Science Near Me is a subsidiary of SciStarter, a citizen science platform. Darlene Cavalier is the founder of SciStarter. They join us with details.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The Hoyt Arboretum Terrestrial Orchids Project, the Portland Urban Coyote Project, the Cascades Pika Watch; these are all science related activities or events you can find right now on the new Science Near Me website. It aims to connect the general public to science fairs, forums, experiments and events. Oregon State University’s STEM Research Center helped launch the website in partnership with the citizen science platform, SciStarter. I’m joined now by two of the people who made this happen. Martin Storksdieck is the director of OSU’s STEM Research Center and a professor at OSU. Darlene Cavalier is the founder of SciStarter. Welcome to you both.
Martin Storksdieck: Thank you for having us.
Miller: Martin Storksdieck first. What was the big idea behind this new site?
Storksdieck: There are multiple big ideas but the biggest idea really is… If I want to go, let’s say, to Portland this weekend with my son and do something science related, I would have to search so many different places to find out what’s going on. This website will make it easy for me to find what I want to do and to see what is offered in the context of all the other things that are offered. So I have a choice instead of having to go to multiple websites, figuring it out myself, and Google will not help me at all. That’s one of the big ideas. It makes it easier for people to do something that is interesting to them related to science engagement.
Miller: Can you explain how somebody might use it? What kinds of things can you search for?
Storksdieck: Ultimately you can search for pretty much anything that any provider for science engagement, science learning activity, can put into our system. That can be anything from a river restoration project that happens nearby to the offerings that a science center has that are ongoing and that are unique at a particular moment. It can be a makerspace. It can be a science festival. You had mentioned something in the beginning. All of these should be in there because the providers found an incentive, found it useful for them, to share it via this website.
Miller: It seems like this is only going to succeed, the site, if things are listed on it. That could take some work, one more thing for someone to do. How are you going to get all of the event coordinators or planners to do that?
Storksdieck: Well, for two reasons: We make it really easy. Darlene can talk about the technical aspects of [what] makes it easy for people to do what they’re already doing, in terms of announcing their stuff, and have it then be on Science Near Me. There’s a lot of technology behind that. The other thing is we are working actively with partners. This is not working with just one science center or one festival. This is working with the Science Festival Alliance, it is working with the Association of Science Technology Centers to work with networks that feed information into this. We have multiple partnerships – many actually – to help us get this information. They are incentivized because we are giving them more audience. A lot more people will find what you have to offer when they look generically for, ‘I would like to do something this weekend in Portland’ and not just specifically looking for a particular institution. We’re driving, potentially, traffic to them, so it’s a huge incentive.
Miller: Darlene Cavalier, as I mentioned, you’re the founder of SciStarter, among other things, which is the parent organization for this new website. What is SciStarter?
Darlene Cavalier: SciStarter is kind of a microcosm of Science Near Me. Where Science Near Me offers all types of engagement opportunities for STEM – Science Technology Engineering and Math – like Martin described, SciStarter focuses on one aspect of that called citizen science, participatory research, crowdsourcing; it goes by lots of different names. What it has in common is that people are engaged in their advancing areas of research. They’re helping scientists and other project leaders answer questions that can’t be answered alone without their help. SciStarter organizes thousands of these citizen science projects and that makes it easy for millions of people to find all types of opportunities to get involved in citizen science. Our whole entire database feeds into Science Near Me. In answer to your previous question, nobody has to add a record or a project to SciStarter and then go add it to Science Near Me. Science Near Me is a very smart system that basically collects data from partners who are called providers. They shouldn’t have to do much more than they’re already doing for us to connect and aggregate this system. So SciStarter is one form of public engagement in science, and it is used as a model for Science Near Me. I want to add the other incentive: Why would SciStarter feed all of our records to Science Near Me? Other than that I’m a Co-PI on the Science Near Me project, the idea there is that we often want to know what people do when they’re not doing citizen science. Does their involvement in one of the projects they found on SciStarter lead to other forms of engagement like science policy forums or going to some of the festivals or getting involved in some maker activities? Once they leave our site, we often don’t know that. Science Near Me allows us to look and see what else they’re doing after they’re done or before they’ve done a citizen science project. So, for research reasons and to try to help us better understand our audiences, Science Near Me becomes a very valuable tool.
Miller: Martin Storksdieck, what are you hoping to do along the lines of what Darlene Cavalier was just telling us? What are you hoping to find out about how the public engages with science related activities?
Storksdieck: That’s a very good question. Particularly, what do we want to find out that we can do at this point in time? What Darlene was mentioning is, these kind of stepping stones. One experience, one engagement with science, that can be short, of course doesn’t make much of a difference. Just like one instructional hour in mathematics in school will probably not make much of a difference. What makes a difference is to connect the tissue: doing one and then the next and then the next and how it all fits together. We know, actually, very little about how people stitch these pathways together for themselves and how one experience that I have, let’s say a citizen science project or crowdsource project where I contribute to something, makes me do the next thing [and] the next thing. These connections and the cumulative effect it has on people’s engagement with science, their attitude towards science, their interests, their perspectives, their learning that comes from it, and the way in which they are affiliated, connected to, and support science; that is what we try to find out, these cumulative effects over time and space and experiences. We [also] like to find out from providers who feed this into the system, when one provider sees what else is out there, the degree to which they begin to talk to one another and begin to make these connections available to their audiences. When I go to, let’s say OMSI – let’s take the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry as an example – and I go to an exhibit about a particular topic, in the exhibit already I will be guided towards something else I might be able to do as a result of this. That’s what we like to find out. It’s not only how people make these connections and what cumulatively it does when people engage but also how providers can begin to curate this learning ecosystem for their customers, for their audience.
Miller: Darlene Cavalier, I want to hear more about the citizen science world that you have really been steeped in for a number of years now. What are examples of how these volunteer efforts can actually help move science forward?
Cavalier: [There are] so many examples of that. One recent one is a project called Stall Catchers which is organized through Cornell University. They had graduate students looking through short clips of videos of ultrasound images showing blood move through a vessel in a mouse brain. There’s a lot of words there, but in essence it’s very, very time consuming. They’re looking for different evidence of stalls – how blood is moving freely or blood is stalled – and using that to then match that with experimental drugs and medication to see what happens if you remove some of the stalls. Will memory be returned to that mouse? I forgot to mention the mouse has Alzheimer’s. All of this is to say they started crowdsourcing this activity. Basically when 10 people see and say the same thing about one of those little clips – they [Volunteers] are taught to identify when blood is moving and when it’s not. It’s a very, very simple task. [When] 10 people see and say the same thing about one of those little clips of video, that’s considered research grade data. What they found is it has accelerated that research project that’s looking at forms of treating Alzheimer’s to the point where they know one weekend’s worth of activity from citizen scientists is at least three months worth of the lab time there. That’s just a very long way of showing you one example that can have an impact on millions and millions of people. I want to say that Alzheimer’s is something like the seventh leading cause of death, and right now there is no cure or good treatment for it. So that’s one example. At the other end of the spectrum, people might be playing games or they might just share some pictures from nature because they love gardening. That data is shared through these different projects, through these different apps that are very very popular now, and stored in a database where any researcher is able to use that to help look for changes in, [for example,] climate change or migratory paths of different species. We basically say there’s something for everyone from astronomy to zoology. If there’s a research project, there’s probably a citizen science project related to it.
Miller: I love the mouse example, and I can totally see how that would help the researchers a lot in speeding up the collection of meaningful data. But it seems like that’s just one part, an important part, but just one part of the broader scientific method which is about developing a hypothesis and then testing it in a careful way and then replicating it. [It’s] a process that is really different from the way we live our lives in unscientific ways which is more haphazard and based on opinion and anecdote. How much can you model the broader scientific method with volunteers as opposed to participating in data collection?
Cavalier: Some people participate in just the data collection part. That might be as close as they ever get to science, and do you know what? It’s closer than no connection to science. Even just thoughtfully making and sharing observations is an important skill. Some people also then analyze the data. So you could be part of the data collection. You might also be part of analyzing the data. Looking through these and looking for certain characteristics like I described with the Alzheimer’s project. More and more we do see more opportunities for people to be part of setting the research agenda. They might be a community member that’s concerned about their air quality, so they may start collaborating with scientists through programs like the Thriving Earth Exchange which is from the American Geophysical Union, AGU. They match scientists to community members who might need a little extra help in identifying [for example] appropriate protocols, the right use of technology to gather data so it is credible data and it can be acted upon. It’s not always just a little tiny slice of data collection. But I know at SciStarter, and a lot of people who are involved in citizen science and science communication and other forms of engagement, we’re actually very grateful for any step that people take towards engaging in science.
Miller: Martin Storksdieck, I’m curious about the broadest societal picture in this country now. What do you think is at stake in getting more people interested in taking part in science?
Storksdieck: That’s a very good question. I think the way to think about this is that science is not separate from society. It’s a part of society, it’s embedded in society, it is a societal activity. The more we can have a sense of that embeddedness, the better off we are as a society. What Darlene was saying, giving more people opportunities to enact, let’s say, their own sense of wanting to belong to science – in small ways all the way to big ways – makes a big difference. There’s a survey that was done recently that said that 16% of the population surveyed in this had claimed to have taken part in some form of citizen science activity. That shows you people not only are hungry for doing this but there is a need to express your self-connection to science. To me what it means is, science is not separate from society. That has a lot to do with how much we trust science, how much we feel science is for us. In the long run, it makes a big difference in how much we support science as a basic societal endeavor, not only for finding out what is new knowledge but how to translate that knowledge to our benefit. Taking people along on the ride and giving people a voice in it and allowing people to participate – whether that is because I learned a little bit outside of school, whether I learned in school or whether I actually take part – makes a huge difference.
Miller: How much has the politicization of the response to the pandemic affected the way you think about these questions?
Storksdieck: Actually it just enhances how we’ve always thought about it. The idea of science being part of society, science being for society and in society, hasn’t changed. What it has done is make us much more aware how issues of trust, participation and belonging can be misused. As we can see with questions of COVID, where it’s less about the question [of] what science says and more who you believe a scientist is and who you should listen to, these are forms of disconnect and politicization, I think, that actual participation in science can help overcome.
Miller: Martin Storksdieck and Darlene Cavalier, thanks very much.
Storksdieck: Thank you for having us.
Cavalier: Thank you.
Miller: Martin Storksdieck is the director of the STEM Research Center at Oregon State University where he is a professor in the College of Education. Darlene Cavalier is the founder of SciStarter.
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