Finding the Common Culture: Uniting Science and the Humanities in Citizen Science

By July 18th, 2017 at 5:43 pm | Comment

By Brad Mehlenbacher (North Carolina State University) and Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher (University of Waterloo)

Through citizen science projects, the Bodleian Library is improving access to their music collections, the Smithsonian is transcribing important documents, and researchers at the University of Oxford are transcribing Ancient Greek text from Greco-Roman Egypt. Although these projects represent promising examples of the humanities and social sciences, citizen science projects in these fields still aren’t all that common.

Humanities and social sciences (HSS) include disciplines such as language studies, classics, comparative literature, history, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, economics, education, political science, and so on. These disciplines vary considerably in their intellectual traditions, methods, and disciplinary norms, but there are also common issues, questions, and challenges each discipline shares with the others. In fact, HSS and STEM disciplines also share common issues, questions, and challenges.

Many of these issues, questions, and challenges are related to the development of foundational skills. But the idea that HSS and scientific training share problem-solving approaches is an exciting one! The National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts are, for example, sponsoring a study by the Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine about educational initiatives that integrate the arts and humanities with the sciences, engineering, and medicine (their report is to be published in 2018). Others have considered how the multitude of data we already collect and share in the course of our daily online lives might be used for the social sciences—and the ethical concerns such use entails.

Source: Wikipedia

Integrating HSS and STEM is more famously captured in the growing STEM to STEAM education movement, where the arts work both alongside and with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics research. Such initiatives are crucial to a host of wicked problems: climate change, anti-vaccination movements, environmental crises, genetically modified organism controversies, and so on. Because such scientific and technical issues are always, necessarily, negotiated as human and social activities, the issues resist easy articulation, resolution, solution, and established mechanisms for testing whether the solution is the best from a series of possible solutions. As wicked problems, they involve a host of sociotechnical issues where solutions are influenced by social, economic, political, and historical factors.

Now, what we call “data” may look different. For example, text could comprise the “data” for analysis in a study of how people communicate about science, for example. Or, imagine students annotating medieval manuscripts, comparing different editions of a text in EEBO—or, for the uninitiated, Early English Books Online, and here would we call the “data” the manuscripts. In our example of editing manuscripts, students engaged in these activities learn how to find and vet new information, figure out how to fit it into an ongoing disciplinary conversation, and even discern which kinds of data to apply to different kinds of arguments for different audiences in different fields. More importantly, in any field, data analysis includes expectations for accuracy, precision, and other measures of rigorousness.

Given how HSS attends to the complexities of data analysis, and because applied research and scientific activities are always—at their core—human, historical, and social undertakings, these disciplines can help contribute to understanding complex, wicked research problems. As Pellegrino and Hilton (2012) remind us, “21st century skills” describe a range of competencies that learners across any discipline master. These 21st century skills include “critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, effective communication, motivation, persistence, and learning to learn.”

Engaging with citizen science can help humanities students understand relationships between activities in HSS and broader efforts to learn about and engage the world, whether in classic texts or in the field tracking tiger beetles. Further, HSS projects engaging in citizen science can address wicked problems—human activity, communication, and collaboration—and provide richer and more robust solutions than purely technical approaches. As a practical example, consider how matters of climate change involve human perception, bias, and communication problems, along with the material and technical realities of climate. What might HSS-based citizen science on climate research look like?


Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

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