Exploring the Links between Post-Industrial Landscape History and Ecology through Participatory Methods

We’ve just had a paper published in PLOS ONE about some work we (two MSc by research students Kevin Rich and Mike Ridealgh, Mike Ashmore, Steve Cinderby and myself) did way back in 2011 on two brownfield sites near Wakefield. This was a really interesting piece of work, because we were using a mixture of participatory mapping approaches, citizen science surveys and our own surveys to uncover how the history of these sites has influenced the ecology that can be seen on site today. If you’d like to read the paper, it can be found hereĀ http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0136522

Scrub grassland at Upton Country Park. Kevin Rich

Scrub grassland matrix at Upton Country Park. Photograph by Kevin Rich (2011)

Through these approaches, we were able to capture information about the sites that would not have been possible otherwise, and to me, this work really highlights two things: the value of doing so-called ‘mixed-methods’ research, and the value of working in a participatory way. If you read the paper, you’ll see that these approaches allowed us to gather rich and detailed information about these two sites. So, huge thanks are due to everyone who took part.

In the paper, we explain the methods that we used for recruiting participants, the methods we used for our mapping and our citizen science surveys, in the hope that other researchers will use these methods in their own work. But if you have any questions that you’d like answering, please comment below, on the paper itself, or drop me an email.

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Science is for parents (and grandparents) too!

I’ve just had the pleasure of evaluating the outcomes from an course run by the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York, with the aim of teaching parents and grandparents the science that their children get taught at school. For the past few years, this ‘Science is for parents too’ course has been funded by the Wellcome Trust, which means it is free to attend.

This has been a really nice project to evaluate, partly because Alex, the course tutor, and his colleagues at CLL, have clear outcomes of what they want to achieve through the course. They want to increase attendees’ confidence in helping their children with homework, increase people’s knowledge about the science that children are taught in school, improve people’s attitudes towards science, and they also want these positive changes to be transferred to the children.

Having clearly defined outcomes like this is helpful for when I’m designing the evaluation because I know what it is I’m trying to measure against. So, for this course, we did a pre- and post- questionnaire design, asking parents using a Likert scale (Strongly agree to Strongly disagree) with statements about their confidence, whether they read about or watch science programmes, and their understanding of the science taught in schools. I combined this with a longer questionnaire after the course with open-ended questions to allow attendees to write in their own words about their experiences. This gave some really rich detail about the effectiveness of the course, including some unexpected outcomes, such as that one parent had been inspired to set up an after-school science club!

We also administered a pre- and post- course questionnaire to the children of the parents attending the course, and we had a control group of children whose parents were not attending the course. This allowed us to test the children’s knowledge of science and attitudes towards science, with the pleasing findings that:

  • Children whose parents attended the courses showed an increase in scientific knowledge throughout the course, with a control group showing smaller increases in knowledge or no improvement in knowledge over the same period.
  • A greater proportion of children whose parents attended the courses would like to be a scientist after the course compared to the control group.

I’ll add a link to the report once it has been published, but I wanted to share the parents’ responses to the question ‘do you think you have benefitted from taking part in the course’. Here, I coded all their responses into categories, and then in Wordle, I used the advanced settings to tell the software how many times that code was mentioned. So, the larger the word, the more times it was mentioned. Knowledge, the largest word, was mentioned by 10 different parents (out of 22).

Wordle of benefitsThis image nicely reflects back to some of the other things I’ve blogged about in the past: often, participants in projects feel there are different outcomes to those intended by those running the course, for example, here, three people mentioned that the course was helping them with their jobs, and two wrote of the value of being on and seeing the university campus. I think this highlights the value of using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative evaluation methods – without giving parents the opportunity to discuss their experiences in their own words, we might not have seen the wide-ranging benefits that this course can have.

Praise for the power of storytelling

This weekend I had the privilege of attending a conference at Lancaster University with the rather long title “Participatory Research: Working and communicating with communities: Good Culture and Precariousness”. Now, because life has been rather busy the last few months (hence the lack of blog posts), I hadn’t found much time to think about what to expect from it. Day one focused mainly on a participatory project run by Matthew Johnson of Lancaster University which explored what culture means with two groups of people, one from Ashington in Northumbria, and the other from Brisbane, Australia. You can read about the project here. I found the whole weekend to be very stimulating and refreshingly different from any conference I’ve ever been to. One of the things that really struck me (again, see previous post on this) was how important telling stories can be in breaking down barriers between people and establishing shared understanding, and it is so much more interesting to start a conversation, as is traditional within Australian Aboriginal communities, about your family and where you have come from, than the more common opener at conferences: “So, what do you do?”!

Although we tend to work across disciplines here at SEI, this conference really brought home to me the power of bringing people with diverse interests into one room. The conference was small, about 20 people, a mixture of ‘academics’ and people who had participated in the project, and we discussed family, culture, mining, japanese drumming, ethics, citizen science, perfume, personas, jewellery, film-making, power relations, sacred places…..and so much more. And that was just in the sessions themselves!

Thanks to all involved, a great weekend which will stay with me for a long time.

New project: Data submission within citizen science projects

This month Rachel, Alison and I started an exciting new piece of work looking at data submission within citizen science projects. This is a really important piece of work because hundreds of thousands of people across the UK are taking part in environmental citizen science projects, surveying sites for wildlife and passing this information on to scientists and others who can use it to better understand our environment. BUT, experience from the OPAL project suggests that many people take part in these surveys but then don’t submit their data anywhere.

Looking for wildlife is one part of doing citizen science projects such as the UK Ladybird Survey (photo from BBC)

Looking for wildlife is one part of doing citizen science projects such as the UK Ladybird Survey (photo from BBC)

We want to explore why people do, and don’t, submit their data, and as we’re working closely with the OPAL team at Imperial, we hope to be able to put our findings straight into practice in order to make any necessary improvements to the data submission process. So, we’ve developed a short Survey Monkey questionnaire, which should take 5 minutes to complete, for people who have done an OPAL survey – it can be found at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/KWPHYJF

The other part to this research is a large face-to-face survey, which is being conducted by a marketing company, who are asking a representative sample of people across the UK whether they have taken part in any citizen science projects, and then asking the same questions as in the OPAL questionnaire. This will allow us to put our findings from the OPAL questionnaire into the wider environmental citizen science context.

We’ll report on findings in this blog when they are available this summer.

Accessing audiences through radio and podcasts

Since I started work on the OPAL project way back in 2008, I’ve been a fairly regular guest on BBC Radio York. In the early days this was to talk about the projects that I was working on, but in the last few years my appearances have broadened to talk about stories in the news. I know that many of my colleagues feel a bit daunted by the prospect of speaking on live radio, but I just tend to imagine I’m speaking to my family and friends, explaining what I’m up to in my usual enthusiastic style.

I think researchers can often overlook local radio as a way of ‘getting the message out’ to audiences who might not read newspapers, attend talks or other outreach events, read social media etc, and I’d really recommend engaging with your local radio station (and there are many out there!) as a way of communicating en masse to ‘the public’. You will probably find that they are very keen to have your input on your area of expertise, and may well ask you to come back to speak on related topics. If this is the case, you need to know what you feel comfortable talking about. Are you only happy talking about your specific area of expertise? Would you mind talking about your subject area more broadly? Or, as has been the case with me, are you happy to get up at unearthly hours of the morning to review the newspapers and end up talking about topics as diverse as women in science, soap vs. shower gel and the Eurovision Song Contest?

Whichever you go for, it can be a rewarding experience, however daunting it might feel initially. And it may well lead onto other interesting experiences, for example, I’m now a regular guest (ok we’ve only made two) on the Talk on the Wild Side podcast which is much more in my area of interest, talking about UK wildlife https://soundcloud.com/talk-on-the-wildside. Have a listen and see what you think. The latest is all about the Signs of Spring.

spring-316535_1280If you’ve been involved with local radio, I’d love to hear your tips for other researchers, please add them in the comments below.

3 ‘take aways’ from the Citizen Science Association conference

Last week I had the immense privilege of going to the Citizen Science Association conference in San Jose, where over 650 enthusiastic practitioners, researchers, evaluators and participants gathered to discuss the booming field of citizen science. I’m going to share a few key things I took away from the conference (others have done much more comprehensive blogs, storifys etc, which can be seen by searching #CitSci2015 on twitter).

1. There is a huge amount of enthusiasm around citizen science! The presentations I saw were, without exception, delivered with passion and confidence, and speakers were willing to share experiences and lessons learned from their projects. This is fantastic because this culture of sharing will hopefully lead to improvements in both individual projects and the field as a whole.

2. There is diversity in the topics of projects using citizen science, for example, Anne Land-Zandstra talked about the “Great Influenza study” which has taken place for the last decade or so in The Netherlands (see talk abstract), Eduardo Dopico discussed using old family photographs to observe environmental change over time (see talk abstract), and Amy Robinson delivered a fantastic keynote about Eyewire, a game to map neurons in the brain. There was less diversity in the project approaches, the vast majority that I saw were ‘contributory’ style, where scientists design the project and ask participants to collect or process data (with an exception being Heather Castleden and colleagues’ session on community-based participatory environment and health research, where Heather was asked by the Mi’kmaq of Pictou Landing First Nation to help them find out whether waste from a paper pulp mill was damaging their health). I suspect that there are many more collaborative and co-created projects out there, just not represented at the conference…

3. There is beginning to be some really interesting research being done alongside citizen science projects, in terms of what motivates people to take part in projects, how people move between different projects, what the barriers to participation are, what makes some projects more successful than others etc. As citizen science is a relatively new field of study, I think we need to make sure that we draw on well-established literature such as that around informal science education, volunteering, social psychology, participatory research, etc. etc., so that we are not ‘reinventing the wheel’ with regards to theory. I hope the new journal, Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, will be a space for bringing this rich literature to a new audience.

If you were at the conference, what were your ‘take aways’?

Using Prezi as an alternative form of report

Methods-of-EngagementIn the spirit of trying to engage with people in diverse ways, I have created my first ever Prezi, which highlights the findings from a really interesting piece of work we’ve been doing for SEI over the past year or so. For those who haven’t come across Prezi, it’s an online presentation tool, which some people as using as an alternative to powerpoint. The advantages of Prezi is that presentations don’t need to be linear, you can design them so that people can explore as they wish. I was inspired to report on our findings using Prezi by the fabulous Ned Potter who works at the University of York (for a great introduction to Prezi, see his “The how to make a great Prezi, Prezi”

It took me rather a long time to get my head around how to create a Prezi, because it’s different to any other software I’ve used before, but once you get the hang of creating frames and positioning them close to each other so that people don’t get sea-sick as Prezi moves from one frame to another, it’s actually quite straightforward.

So, see what you think of mine (SEI Methods of Engagement), and let me know what you think, feedback would be much appreciated! If you’ve got tips for using Prezi then please share them!

NB: We’ve also written a more traditional report, which can be found here