Journal of the NACAA
Volume 10, Issue 2 - December, 2017
Improving the scientific literacy of university volunteers who work with adult audiences
- Chalker-Scott, L. , Extension Urban Horticulture Specialist and Associate Professor, Washington State University
Daniels, C.H., Pesticide Coordinator and Extension Specialist, Washington State University
Anecdotally, many WSU Master Gardener volunteers report being inundated with pseudo-scientific information from their adult clientele. At the same time, recurring cuts in Extension budgets have resulted in fewer subject matter experts working directly with volunteers to help them evaluate the validity of such information. Clearly, volunteers in all Extension programs need to develop the ability to independently verify information. The authors have published an Extension Manual, Scientific Literacy for the Citizen Scientist, available as a free download to assist county faculty and staff around the U.S. in training their volunteers to become more skilled readers and interpreters of information.
In 1973, when the Master Gardener program was founded in Washington State, Master Gardeners were trained by university faculty and specialists. These individuals were applied plant and soil scientists who provided high-quality, research-based training in applied plant and soil sciences (Chalker-Scott & Collman 2006). At Washington State University (WSU), and presumably at other land grant universities, recurring cuts in Extension budgets have resulted in fewer experts working directly with volunteers. However, it’s still true that volunteers in all Extension programs need to develop the ability to independently verify information.
Anecdotally, many WSU Master Gardener volunteers report being inundated with pseudo-scientific information from their adult clientele. Much of this information is inaccurate, and/or harmful to either people or the environment, and in some cases, the application of this material is illegal.
In addition to Master Gardener volunteers, other university program volunteers lack academic backgrounds that prepare them for interpreting scientific information or determining whether information they encounter outside our programs is scientifically valid. While such resources are common for training leaders and teachers who work with 4-H youth programs and in K-12 schools (Konen and Horton, 2000; Smith et al., 2004), there appears to be no such resources available for volunteers who interact with adult audiences.
In 2015, we wrote an Extension Manual, Scientific Literacy for the Citizen Scientist (Fig. 1), to assist WSU volunteers, and their clients, in learning how to become more skilled readers and interpreters of information. The manual is available online and is free of charge. The manual incorporates educational strategies such as group interactions and independent investigation that are crucial to developing competence and independence (Konen and Horton, 2000; Smith et al. 2004).
Figure 1. WSU Extension Manual 100E – Scientific Literacy for the Citizen Scientist
The purpose of this article is twofold:
- First, to introduce journal readers to a new, peer-reviewed Extension manual on scientific literacy for citizen scientists.
- Second, to describe a quick, easy and effective method to bring this manual to the attention of those county Extension faculty and staff who train volunteers at your institution.
During the 2017 annual meeting of the Extension Gardening Team, we made a formal one-hour presentation of the manual to team members. The Gardening Team is composed mostly of extension specialists, county educators and/or Master Gardener County Coordinators. Team members at this training oversee more than 980 hours of annual training for more than 950 active volunteers in at least four programs: extension Master Gardeners, 4-H food safety advisors, fruit gleaners and Rain Garden Mentors. In turn, these volunteers spend many hours interacting with the public. As the first line of interaction with the public, these volunteers bring questions back to their county educators, extension specialists and Master Gardener coordinators regarding which techniques, materials, and approaches “have the most science” behind them.
Before the presentation, everyone took a five-question online pre-test to gauge awareness of the manual as well as their previous experience and comfort levels in explaining the scientific method to lay audiences.
The presentation consisted of handing out manual copies, then explaining, section by section, how it could be used in training lay audiences to increase their understanding of how science is conducted, how to design valid experiments, and how to critically interpret information. Several of the Internet links listed in the publication were accessed during the presentation so team members could hear the podcasts and view the teaching tools. Following the one-hour presentation, attendees took a five-question online post-test to gauge their level of understanding of the topics presented and to assess how useful the manual might be in their future teaching efforts.
Based on the survey results shown below, it is clear that The Scientific Literacy for the Citizen Scientist manual was not well known among extension Garden Team members. Although the survey did not ask why team members had not taught the scientific method to volunteers, at least 73% had not done so. The majority of survey respondents (54%) indicated they would not be comfortable explaining scientific literacy. It is also clear that the respondents were not familiar with CRAAP, an important test used to evaluate information (Anon. CSU Chico 2010). Criteria for this test include information Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose.
- Previous to this meeting, had you read The Scientific Literacy for the Citizen Scientist manual?
- No 82%
- Yes 18%
- Have you made presentations to lay audiences on the scientific method or how to design or interpret scientific information before?
- No 73%
- Yes 18%
- Not sure 9%
- How comfortable would you feel in explaining the scientific method in a face-to-face session with a lay audience?
- Slightly to very uncomfortable 54%
- Comfortable to very comfortable 46%
- Have you ever used the CRAP or CRAAP test to evaluate information (for your own use)?
- No 82%
- Yes 0%
- Not sure 18%
- Have you ever used the CRAP or CRAAP test to teach others how to evaluate information?
- No 82%
- Yes 9%
- Not sure 9%
Although the training session lasted only an hour, most survey respondents (91%) indicated they had learned how to use the CRAAP test to evaluate information, as well as knowing where to find The Scientific Literacy for the Citizen Scientist manual online. In addition, the vast majority felt the publication would be useful to them in teaching, and for their volunteers, in learning, how to evaluate information and/or design experiments.
- I know where to find the publication The Scientific Literacy for the Citizen Scientist manual.
- Yes 100%
- The Scientific Literacy for the Citizen Scientist manual will be useful to lay audiences in terms of learning how to evaluate information and/or design experiments.
- Extremely to moderately useful 100%
- The Scientific Literacy for the Citizen Scientist manual will be useful for me when I teach lay audiences these topics.
- Extremely to moderately useful 100%
- I know how to use the CRAP/CRAAP test for evaluating information.
- Yes 91%,
- Not sure 9%
Attendees valued the presentation, based on their suggestion that this training is useful enough to become a standard part of Master Gardener volunteer training. Should that suggestion be adopted, trainers should plan for all-day trainings in order to allow the volunteer audience time to ask questions, absorb the concepts and complete the in-class assignments contained in the manual.
There are no practical pathways to directly reach the more than five thousand current volunteers statewide, nor the hundreds of new volunteers being trained at WSU each year. Instead, we focused on training county faculty and staff to bring this manual to their attention so they, in turn, could share it with Master Gardeners and other relevant volunteer groups.
Rather than schedule a special workshop for county faculty and staff (which would be difficult given the limited free time of busy employees), we instead inserted an abbreviated training session into an already scheduled, off-site annual meeting. This is a practical way to ensure maximum attendance in a location conducive to thoughtful discussion.
Ideally, this manual could also be used by county faculty and staff in other states to train their volunteers to become more scientifically literate; doing so would enhance volunteer effectiveness by improving their skills as educators and as trainers of others (Smith et al. 2004). We recommend introducing it to relevant Extension personnel in a face-to-face workshop, where both group discussions and data collection would be maximized.
Anonymous. (2010). Evaluating Information – Applying the CRAAP Test. Meriam Library, California State University Chico. Available at: https://www.csuchico.edu/lins/handouts/eval_websites.pdf
Chalker-Scott, L. and S.J. Collman. (2006). Washington State’s Master Gardener program: Thirty Years of Leadership in University-sponsored, Volunteer-coordinated, Sustainable Community Horticulture. Journal of Cleaner Production 14:988-993.
Konen, J. K. and R. L. Horton. (2000). Beneficial Science Teacher Training. Journal of Extension 38(2), Article 2RIB1. Available at: https://www.joe.org/joe/2000april/rb1.php
Smith, M.H., C.L. Meehan, R.P. Enfield, J.L. George, and J.C. Young. (2004). Improving County-Based Science Programs: Bringing Out the Science Teacher in Your Volunteer Leaders. Journal of Extension 42(6), Article 6FEA5. Available at: https://www.joe.org/joe/2004december/a5.php