Tinkering knowledge sharing, or why we need to hack science

Making sense of science at any age is an effort best created by the citizens who actively engage into science-doing.

Pacific Science Center math van at Ridgeview Elementary
Combining science with games is a promising way to encourage children to study, making it fun and educational [AP]

Traditionally, researchers are academics employed by universities. The cliche of a boffin scholar surrounded by dusty books and frantically scribbling mysterious stuff comes to mind as well. Whoever s/he is, the researcher produces knowledge, and whether solemnly leftist or frivolously rightist you may be, you all respect science and knowledge. These are serious matters, for the right as for the left and for all the ideologies in between and beyond. As a matter of fact, hacking gets frivolity out of the way when we consider science and knowledge.

“A scientist, an artist, a citizen is not like a child who needs papa methodology and mama rationality to give him security and direction, he can take care of himself, for he is the inventor not only of laws, theories, pictures, plays, forms of music, ways of dealing with his fellow man, institutions, but also entire world view, he is the inventor of entire forms of like.” This quote is from unfortunately forgotten epistemologist, Paul K Feyerabend, and dates back to 1978 when his book Science in a Free Society was published. Let’s use this quote as a baseline of a discussion about the democratisation of science. 

Hacking science is great… Wait, what?

You are right: such an assertion may be misleading. It is more of “hacking science-doing” discussion that I aim for. The cliche of the lonely scholar with an unhealthy look and asocial behaviour is still widespread, but gets more and more pervasive as communication technologies advance. What remains true, however, is the conservatism and rigidity of research institutions. Science is built upon data collection, analysis, critique and reuse, yet the ordinary science-doing as imposed by research institutions requires secrecy, thus working against the maximisation of knowledge dissemination. Before one screams about paranoia, think of paywalls locking studies from access, publication of datasets as PDFs or even images.

The reluctance to publish data and share knowledge openly has, however, started to attract people’s attention. A general move towards openness generally referred to as “open science has emerged, inspired from the spirit of the free and open source software (FOSS) movement. Similarly to FOSS ethics, promoting software source code to be made public, reusable and modifiable by anyone, the central theme of open science is to clearly account for methods, generated data and obtained results thus enabling a massively distributed collaboration that speeds up the pace at which science is done.

A very powerful concept – “citizen science” – has naturally emerged along the lines of open science. Countless professional researchers blog about their work and discuss online results obtained by their peers. Such open discussion permits non-professionals to participate as well. The surge of the hacker/maker/do-it-yourself movement has tremendously contributed to engage non-professional scientists in science.

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Nowadays, there are hundreds of projects the world over within which professional and non-professional researchers take part in genuine scientific studies. A clearly visible shift has operated in the recent years from citizens helping merely collect data to citizens actually analysing it, producing valuable results and interpreting them as well as generating new hypotheses.

The “democratisation of science” advocated for by Feyerabend is actually happening. Science-doing is falsely imagined as the exploration of ever-expanding theories on the universe’s complexities solely reserved to an elite of smart, dishevelled and somewhat sociopathic individuals. Science-doing is actually within reach of everyone out there who can ask a question, gather information, critically analyse it, (maybe) find an answer, and act upon the result.

Sounds idealistic? You have the right to be wrong. Do you like maths? Perhaps not. Consider the Polymath experience though. Back in 2009, Fields medallist Tim Gowers blogged about “massively collaborative mathematics. He wrote: “The idea would be that anybody who had anything whatsoever to say about the problem could chip in… you would contribute ideas even if they were undeveloped and/or likely to be wrong.”

What followed? Hundreds of comments and the birth of the Polymath project. Indeed, people do massively collaborate on problem-solving in mathematics. Both professional and non-professional researchers have also been contributing to the identification of anti-malaria drugs, mapping road kills or noise pollution, on documenting oil spills in the Gulf Coast with balloons, on studying the impact of climate change on birds, etc.

Outreach and citizen engagement in science-doing are crucial for relishing civic duty and claiming people’s right to be informed and educated. Power is where information is, thus having access to it is a means of self-governance and contributes to curbing corruption, privilege, and injustice. I have already argued about the striking need of such initiatives within the Arab world. Even though science is an emerging field in the region and funding rarely suffices to secure proper equipment for research, interest about it does exist. Reaching out to non-professional scientists is what professionals from the region should consider inherent of their daily job.

Political influence in science-making and communication is a growing concern in the Arab world and elsewhere. Citizen science endeavours are not only independent; they are also cost-effective: “during one year alone, volunteer observers for biodiversity surveillance in the UK were estimated to contribute time in-kind worth more than £20 million,” a report estimated. Citizen science also provides reliable data, and its tools can be extended to all domains of science, from environmental studies to humanities. Free access to the latest scientific developments enables citizens to challenge historical assumptions. Solving locally-relevant problems or just participating out of curiosity actually do bring science back to its roots. 

Hacking school

I speak high about hacking science. And I will speak even higher about hacking school. Have you ever thought about where our desire to know how stuff works stems from? I’d argue: from childhood. When we are kids, we wondered why the sky is blue or how we make babies. We ask questions, stab in slugs to see how far they can go having some parts removed, and decide that they cannot go that far when sliced. A researcher formulates a hypothesis, decides what data to collect to address it, then analyses it and draws conclusions to validate or not the initial hypothesis. Sounds like what kids do naturally, in fact.

My point is that kids do learn through research. The sticking point is where adults think that a grown-up knows answers. We thus deem to instil pupils with readily available information and call it “education”. The problem is not transmission of knowledge to the new generation, but that we only do so persuaded that stepping into the uncertainty of having no answers is deleterious.

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What if, instead of locking our minds and castrating kids’ question-prone existence, we decided to build a culture of curiosity? Back in the 15th century, printing gave a prod to new modes of transmission of information: similar effects can be expected with internet but over a much shorter timespan. Through current media, pupils and students access incredible amounts of information. The institution “school” has is thus less than ever the monopoly of knowledge; what is its aim then?

Scientific “paper glut” contributes to the reformulation of concepts. What our kids need to learn is both how to learn and to unlearn. The teacher should be not the one transmitting facts but rather the person who teaches how to comprehend, criticise and validate it. Instead of attempting to know all that is produced, the teacher must accept what is – for all of us – a small cultural revolution: the teacher knows better than the pupils how to analyse information. S/he must therefore be a specialist of knowledge discovery. 

Freedom to play

I bet many of you think how noble this is but have trouble figuring out how to make it happen. The miracle answer does not exist, but there are a bunch of possible approaches. Have you heard of educational and research games? Yes, I just mentioned gamification, that is the integration of game design thinking in non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging. This is not a new idea: the concept of play generating and shaping our culture has been exposed in Homo Ludens (1938). Blood typing, biochemistry, and many other scientific games have helped showcase the importance of motivation implementation for learning and science-doing.

Playing educational and scientific games online may thus very well be one of the major challenges for our schools. We hope that our kids will learn “serious” stuff, and this can very well be achieved by allowing them the freedom to play. I very much liked what the Digital Youth Project described in a report on kids’ online activities: these span from “hanging out” (socialising) to “messing around” (tinkering, even to the level of becoming a local technology or media expert) to “geeking out” (experiencing internet-inspired inquisitiveness).

Imagine then another “school”: one where instead of classroom teachers, there would be lab teachers with each having a different responsibility. In no case such a responsibility should focus on assessing kids for competence. Thus, education would not be primarily aimed at preparing for jobs and careers, but rather would constitute a process of guiding children participation in public life. Instead, these adults we call teachers would be co-creating knowledge with kids.

There are both the possibility for non-professionals to engage into science-doing and the need to transform teachers into co-creators of knowledge. Thus, if kids can have a new species of dinosaur named after them or build a nuclear fusion reactor at home, why not letting them do actual research along with elder science enthusiasts? A legitimate question is then: why not implement a learning-through-research curriculum at school?

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Science transforms the way we think of the world and of ourselves, particularly true for children. Science-doing requires being excited about uncertainty and open to possibilities. As play does, science enables discovery and the creation of relationships and patterns. Add rules to play, and you have a game. There is thus nothing more natural than children embracing the uncertainty and getting things wrong, both enabling openness to discovery.

Thus, the process of asking questions and hatching out ways to address them becomes more intuitive. This approach contrasts with more traditional teaching methods where the goal is to find solutions, not questions. Creativity plays a lead role here. Creativity needs, however, to be desecrated: everyone can come up with new solutions and visions. Creativity is an open, interactive and requiring process; being creative means that constructive criticism is necessary for progress.

Citizen science for kids

How would a learning-through-research curriculum look like? Interdisciplinary is a must. Including digital literacy in curricula is crucial, and programming languages for kids already exist. UK primary school pupils have already published a research paper about flower recognition in bees, and in a Paris suburb a primary school class learned science through studying ants. The class tweets their observations and collects hypotheses from other classes and adult researchers.

Twitter is not the only way to collect and share knowledge children could opt for. Adults have Wikipedia, but it is too complicated for kids – and often does not contain answers to their questions. Try out the entry for “light” for instance: search for an explanation why the sky is blue. If you survive the high-voltage scientific slang and read through the whole page, you notice there is no such explanation. Initiatives such as Simple Wikipedia have stemmed aiming at explaining complex concepts with simple language. French Vikidia (a Wikipedia for kids but mostly written by adults), Dutch Wikikids and its French counterpart, Wikimini (Wikipedia for and by kids), have started trying to bridge the gap between collaborative knowledge creation and sharing for all.

By taking part to real science, we all become actively involved in the process of making sense of science. The children not only become the scientist but also develop a sense of choice and creativity. Thus, everyone is actively aware of the ways our environment and imagination shape us as individuals and as a society.

Rayna Stamboliyska is a research fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research at Paris 5 Descartes University where she develops the synthetic biology part of the Citizen Cyberlab project and co-organises the “Nightscience” 2013 event. She is also a blogger at SciLogs.com’s Beyond the Lab, which looks at emerging ways of doing science, at FutureChallenges.org and Jadaliyya. Rayna is board member of the French chapter of the Open Knowledge Foundation developing citizen science in France.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliciaRogue