Identity, community and the new year

Maybe I’ve been around universities too long, but fall always seems like New Year’s to me.  Part of it, of course, is the excitement of a new school year – new classes, new students and colleagues, new projects.  Classes start this week in Corvallis, and I’m gearing up to teach a class I’ve taught many times before – Communicating Ocean Sciences with Informal Audiences.  If you are not familiar with the class, check out the website here.  One of the reasons I love teaching this class is because even though I was involved from the get go in helping imagine and design it, it seems new every time I teach it.  Part of it is that constant tweaking that comes with reflecting on what we like and don’t like about our teaching.  But the COSIA class also seems to be a great palate for thinking about and working on a whole variety of themes and ideas and topics that emerge in informal science education and free-choice learning work.  The twin themes that are running through my head as I develop the class this year are identity and community.

We just learned last week that we were awarded a new NSF AISL grant called COASSTal Communities of Science. The project partners the FCL Lab with University of Washington researchers Julia Parrish and Jane Dolliver who run a very successful and impressive citizen science project, COASST, that spans beaches from Alaska through Northern California.  With this new grant, COASST is responding to volunteers, communities they serve, and national calls for citizen scientists to address the issue of marine debris in the Pacific Northwest.  COASST will be developing new protocols and modules for monitoring marine debris that should bring to that realm the same level of rigor and engagement that their current program has been recognized for.  I’m excited because our role in this project is to carry out research on recruitment and retention of citizen scientists in both COASST’s traditional programming as well as the new marine debris modules.  We’ll be looking at a host of factors that affect both, trying to understand the complex relationships among personal, social, cultural and ecological factors supporting the program.  I’m even more excited because we have developed an Activity Theory framework for the qualitative and quantitative parts of the study and will be looking explicitly at COASST as a community (or communities) of practice.  We’ll be researching participants’ identities vis-à-vis the science they are involved in and how those identities develop and change over time.

This research focus on communities of practice and identity change will inevitably shape the look and feel of the COSIA class this fall as well.  At the most basic level, we’ll all be working in the class to develop a short-term community of practice around communicating ocean sciences.  But at the larger level, the class itself is designed to help scientists and educators in graduate school at OSU develop identities as people who are comfortable and expert not only in their science, but also expert at communicating it.  For many folks who take the class this means changing their understanding of a whole variety of things – from the nature of science to the nature of teaching and learning.  We are encouraging them to do nothing less than become a different kind of person—and they are learning that when we ask people to learn about OUR science, we may be asking them to become different kinds of people – the kind of people who care about and want to be involved in science.  And that’s identity change at work.  Once you recognize that, models of communication based on experts getting knowledge out to publics just don’t hold any water anymore.  Communication is about shifting and shaping identities as much as about shaping knowledge.  That means that the stakes are always higher than you think and that even the simple act of facilitating a density activity at a local museum might be about negotiating identity as much as having fun with water!