Most Americans spend at least 13 years in a science classroom learning their protons from their electrons and bacteria from fungi.
But for Todd Harwell, an Environmental Sciences Ph.D. Candidate at Oregon State University, science learning is a life-long process that continues long beyond the day students bid farewell to their textbooks and classrooms.
“When you reflect on your own experiences with science and the environment, you would usually think of a family camping trip, going to a zoo, an aquarium or museum, things like that,” he says.
Citizen science is the next step up, and it’s one way that people who are passionate about STEM can participate in it outside of formal education.
Historically, STEM hasn’t been the most inclusive or welcoming for those who don’t fit the model of the cisgender (a person whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth), white, male and/or heterosexual scientist.
That’s why Harwell, who holds an undergraduate degree in Marine Science and a Master of Science in Environmental Education, researches the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, or LGBTQ+, citizen scientists in community science projects.
Specifically, he wants to understand how engaging in community science contributes to a person’s science identity — how one recognizes themselves as a science person — and the nuts and bolts of what makes a person feel a sense of community.
The research informs his larger dissertation on personal and social outcomes for citizen and community science participants, which he hopes to complete soon.
Harwell started out his academic career as a marine science major and manatee enthusiast, having also earned scholarships and awards from institutions like the Hatfield Marine Science Center and the National Marine Educators Association. He now directs his attention to researching how citizen science project coordinators can level the playing field for LGBTQ+ community scientists.
Harwell says queer students are often pushed away from pursuing careers in the sciences for multiple reasons, such as the lack of queer representation in STEM higher education that can make them feel excluded. Citizen science can flip the coin. Harwell says it gives LGBTQ+ individuals the opportunity to engage in a field they’re passionate about outside of traditional formal institutions they might not feel welcome in.
“[For some people], citizen science allows them to be the queer scientist that they thought they couldn’t be, or that they never had in a college classroom,” he says. “It’s informal opportunities that keep people engaged in science and [let them] continue to learn about science beyond the classroom.”
Harwell’s own life-long love of learning has carried him across multiple states as well as international borders. After completing his master’s degree at the Florida Institute of Technology in 2012, Harwell left the Sunshine State for the coastal community of Paracas, Peru to work as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
He spent the next three years working with the community on local environment and science projects that continued to foster his interest in science education beyond the classroom. The most exciting and challenging part of his time in Peru was integrating into a new community and making sure his efforts were serving their needs.
“One day, I could be working with park guards that were in charge of a group of protected islands, and the next day I was teaching English to fishermen,” he said. “And rather than trying to come in and say, hey, we should do this, [we focused on] talking with people, getting to know them, identifying areas of need and interest and finding community members to work with to develop projects in those areas.”
In 2019, Harwell completed a Community Leadership Project Fellowship with the Q Center, during which he organized "Out in STEM-PDX," a queer in STEM storytelling and panel event. He also completed a Science Communication Fellowship with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
Last year, he began a Thriving Earth Exchange Community Science Fellowship in the Science, Policy and Engagement Cohort with the American Geophysical Union.
Now, his work continues to examine how LGBTQ+ people can be empowered into participating in STEM. If educational and research institutions want to diversify their communities of students and volunteers, he says the need for open and welcoming spaces can’t be overlooked.
The targeted recruitment of citizen scientists through LGBTQ+ organizations and partnerships is one way citizen science project coordinators can make volunteers feel welcome right off the bat. But Harwell’s research goes beyond figuring out how to attract volunteers to understanding what behaviors encourage LGBTQ+ community scientists to keep coming back.
Recognizing and using a person’s preferred pronouns, for example, is a good way to start. Asking a person how they would like to be addressed — whether that be as he/him, she/her, they/them or ze/zir — can go a long way in making queer folks feel included in science spaces.
“It doesn't feel good and it doesn't motivate a [person] to stay engaged with a community or a project that's consistently disrespecting [them],” Harwell says. “Sharing pronouns or asking pronouns [and] then actively trying to use those, that’s a general practice that’s gaining traction.”
Understanding that people are complex individuals, and not just science volunteers, is another consideration Harwell says citizen science project coordinators should take into account. In community science, it’s often the work of a handful of volunteers that results in hundreds or even thousands of data points and those volunteers need to be recognized and named, says Harwell.