Accessing, learning, and engaging with science : an ethnographic study of citizen scientists and the River Team




Nguyen, Kevin Anh

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In a sociopolitical climate where a large majority of United States citizens feel disconnected from the science community, we need ways to connect the public with science. I suggest that citizen science can be a powerful bridge to make science more accessible to the public. This dissertation is an ethnographic study of one citizen science program, in particular, the River Team. The River Team is an undergraduate volunteer water quality monitoring student organization located at Southwestern United States public university. I conducted a three-year ethnography of the River Team, and I collected data through participant observation, fieldnotes, interviews, and video. The dissertation is organized around three manuscript-style chapters, and each chapter explores a different theoretical perspective of the River Team and citizen science. The first paper examines the cultural differences between citizen science and science. For this paper, I use interviews and Thomas Gieryn’s (1983) theories on cultural cartography of science and boundary-work. I show how citizen scientists are cartographically distinct from science, and citizen scientists, though lacking in epistemic authority, are well positioned to provide the public access to science and science education. The second paper is an interactionalist video analysis of how one particular citizen scientist, Anna, developed and became the science captain, one of the lead formal roles on the River Team. This paper applies Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s (1991) theories on situated learning and legitimate peripheral participation, and I analyze both the unique structure of citizen science programs and Anna’s development and changes in her roles, interactions, and positions over two years. Finally, the third paper is centered around River Team members’ engagement with science and interests outside of water quality monitoring. Using Randi Engle’s and Faith Conant’s (2002) theories on productive disciplinary engagement and Flávio Azevedo’s (2018) theories on situational interests, I provide four video cases of how members productively engaged in multiple science disciplines and their interests. These three papers taken together show how this group of citizen scientists accessed, learned, and engaged with science. Citizen science is well positioned to connect the public with science.


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