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People need to feel that they belong to science

March 31, 2020, 4:14 p.m.

For the last interview of our series about inclusion in citizen science, we wanted to know more about what’s happening outside of our continent. We travelled (virtually of course) to the West Coast of the USA to have a chat with Shara Fisler, founder of the Ocean Discovery Institute, an organisation specialised in citizen science projects involving underrepresented minorities.

If you want to have a look at the first two interview, read what EmilyDawson and Taru Peltola said.

Shara, what is your background and how did you start working with underrepresented minorities?

I was at first a scientist working on a project studying plankton in the San Diego Bay when a government programme called “Upward bound” approached me. They support and help kids from low-income families to go to college by organising science internships and offered to give me financial help for my research if I accepted to welcome two interns from their programme.

By working with those students, I could see how their perception of themselves and of their abilities evolved throughout the project. Having responsibilities and feeling the trust around them helped them thrive. At that moment, I realised that I had the possibility, as an actor of the scientific community, to help people from underprivileged background to engage in science and I decided to make it my main focus. I founded the Ocean Discovery Institute: we started as a small project organising summer camps, and twenty years after, we now reach more than 6000 students each year.

What is the current state of Citizen science regarding underrepresented minorities engagement in the USA? Why is this issue so essential?

Citizen science is a relatively new field, and the problem of inclusion in science engagement has been identified for a long time in the literature. In the USA, unfortunately, we are still at the very beginning in terms of effectively including underrepresented minorities in citizen science, and most of the groups or communities are not invited to participate in science – just because we don’t create opportunities for them. It is of course easier to involve people that are already engaged or just interested in science, and including those “external” communities require focused efforts and strategy.

There are projects with good intentions: when language can be an issue for different populations, translating projects is a good start, but it is surely not enough. To truly engage those people in a meaningful way, it needs an entire focus, which is why we completely concentrate on those communities at the Ocean Discovery Institute. The main message we want to convey is that everybody can contribute to science, as scientists or as citizens, at any age.

Science can be intimidating because of the external representation that everyone has, with complex tools and an abundance of unreadable spreadsheets. What is actually cool and easy about science is that we always have to replicate the methods. By using tools over and over again, people gain this expertise which changes this idea of science being “impossible”.

Your institution worked on developing a Citizen Science Model to Engage Members of Underrepresented Minority Groups a few years ago, and wrote a report on the results. Could you tell us more about this project?

A few years ago, we started a project aiming at involving high school students from an underprivilege neighbourhood in science. It was very successful at connecting teenagers with higher education studies in general and science in particular. Results showed that 70% of them obtained a bachelor in the next 6 years, and 60% of those bachelors were in science, which are unprecedent results. Some of the students then got involved are industry, graduate school, and even politics.

The initial project was focused on students, but we decided to look on how to engage a broader public, including students, parents and other members of the community. We worked with one community in particular in the San Diego county, which is the second most diverse in the USA.

The project’s topic was about illegal dumping and especially about understanding the accumulation of trash in and movements of trash through a series of interconnected urban canyons in the community.

We were very proud to have gathered a diverse group of people in taking part in these activities, and we saw several people coming back to each action. We also learned a lot to help us do this work better. For example, we found that the project did not result in significant learning outcomes and we believe that this is because we needed to focus more on enabling them to see that they are part of a community of science. We believe that if participants don’t feel they belong in science, it’s almost impossible to effectively teach scientific concepts.

You said that your Institute is now specialised in organising Citizen Science projects for underprivilege publics. Could you tell us more about your methods?

We developed a general model that gives an idea of the process we use:

  • We understand and serve the needs of our community.

Having been active in City Heights for a long time, we have unique insights into the challenges faced by the community. We recognize that in order for our community to fulfill their potential for becoming science and conservation leaders, they must first have their fundamental needs met (Fig 1.). Our programs holistically address these fundamental needs.

Fig. 1. Hierarchy of Needs in Underserved Communities. Adapted from Maslow (1943).
  • Every person has the potential to shape their life’s trajectory. Opportunities provided by a quality science education can help facilitate that navigation. However, individuals in our community are facing substantial inequities throughout their lives, which prevents them from making the most of their opportunities. Our programs are designed to address the many gaps in the educational pathway and provide critical resources for success. In turn, every individual is empowered to pilot her own life’s course.
  • Our students’ study the marine environment because it provides the ideal platform for discovery. Regionally, marine ecosystems, and their co-dependent terrestrial ecosystems, provide endless services upon which we are all deeply reliant. Further, the ocean, is an influential catalyst for exploration, discovery, and innovation. Yet, both the marine and terrestrial environments are threatened by human action, inaction, and ignorance. It is critical to our global well-being to understand the natural world and its socio-ecological relationships, and to know how to apply this knowledge to actively manage our resources.

Photo by Naya Shaw from Pexels

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