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Re-making science

Sara Wylie

In its ear­liest days, the process of sci­ence was val­i­dated by a group of reg­ular people bearing wit­ness to a peer’s exper­i­ment or obser­va­tion. So-​​called “gen­tleman sci­en­tists” would gather around some­thing like Robert Boyle’s air pump exper­i­ment to verify the designer’s con­clu­sions. “This is how the Royal Soci­eties started,” explained Sara Wylie, an assis­tant pro­fessor in North­eastern University’s Social Sci­ence and Envi­ron­mental Health Research Insti­tute.

Today, sci­ence is a job not for the masses but for a select group of people with years of aca­d­emic training and exper­tise in the lab. But on Wednesday at the first-​​ever White House Maker Faire, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama told atten­dees—including Wylie—that the spirit of doing is still quite alive in each of us. “[The United States] is a place where we know how to invent and we know how to dream and we know how to take risks.” He added, “This is a place where people who work hard have always been able to make it.”

But on this day, the words “make it” referred to more than career suc­cess and finan­cial sta­bility. They also spoke to the lit­eral idea of making, as the nation turned its sights to the growing Maker Movement—a tech-​​based ver­sion of the do-​​it-​​yourself approach when people are equipped with the resources and moti­va­tion to create some­thing to improve our com­mu­ni­ties and our world.

Wylie, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences at North­eastern, was among more than 100 pre­sen­ters at the Maker Faire. At the event, Pres­i­dent Obama, the first lady, and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from 11 dif­ferent gov­ern­ment agen­cies met with stu­dents, entre­pre­neurs, and everyday cit­i­zens to learn about the inno­v­a­tive ways they are “inventing the future” by using new tools and tech­niques to launch busi­nesses and learn skills in the STEM fields—science, tech­nology, engi­neering, and math. Obama declared the day the first ever National Day of Making.

Wylie argues that when it comes to civic sci­ence, people have the moti­va­tion but lack the resources to answer their sci­en­tific ques­tions. That’s why in 2010, Wylie and her col­leagues founded Public Lab to pro­vide these resources. Public Lab is an online, do-​​it-​​yourself envi­ron­mental sci­ence com­mu­nity that pro­vides low-​​cost tools for reg­ular people to do high-​​quality, repro­ducible science.

Wylie and her Public Lab col­league Eymund Diegel had the oppor­tu­nity to speak with Pres­i­dent Obama directly about their work. Photo cour­tesy of Wall Street Journal /​ Asso­ci­ated Press.

Wylie and her Public Lab col­league Eymund Diegel had the oppor­tu­nity to speak with Pres­i­dent Obama directly about their work. Photo cour­tesy of Wall Street Journal /​ Asso­ci­ated Press.

 At the Makers Faire, she pre­sented her work at Public Lab to make this do-​​it-​​yourself sci­ence pos­sible for helping people to solve prob­lems in their com­mu­ni­ties. These include landowners in Deaver, Wyoming, who are devel­oping the symp­toms of hydrogen sul­fide expo­sure as oil and gas extrac­tion com­pa­nies encroach on their prop­er­ties. It’s res­i­dents of Chicago’s South Side who live next to toxic waste piles and it’s stu­dents who want to improve the water quality of their rivers and streams.

Wylie hasn’t always thought of her­self as part of the Maker Move­ment. “The ques­tions that moti­vate me are actu­ally the­o­ret­ical and cul­tural: how and why have the sci­ences devel­oped his­tor­i­cally? What are the blind spots and assump­tions built into our present modes of sci­ence and research tools? And how can we rede­velop both the struc­ture of sci­en­tific com­mu­ni­ties and our research tools to better study pressing envi­ron­mental health ques­tions?” she said. It was those ques­tions that lead her to the Maker Movement.

But that journey has turned her into a maker. She’s had to learn elec­tronics and envi­ron­mental sensing methods, she’s had to teach her­self how to fly dig­ital cam­eras from weather bal­loons and how to make spec­trom­e­ters from broken CDs and webcams—to name a few.

These skills—along with the tools she’s cre­ating with them and the new approach to sci­ence they are enabling—have placed her squarely in the middle the Maker Move­ment. A global com­mu­nity of people is using easy-​​to-​​access but state-​​of-​​the-​​art tech­nolo­gies such as 3-​​D printers and over-​​the-​​counter micro­con­trollers to imagine and build new devices, beau­tiful art­work, and every­thing in between.

She also inte­grates this inter­dis­ci­pli­nary work into the class­room in courses such as Envi­ron­ment, Tech­nology and Society and Community-​​Based Par­tic­i­pa­tory Research.

Through her work, Wylie hopes to sup­port people who are bearing wit­ness to their envi­ron­ments and cre­ating usable data from their expe­ri­ences. She said that when cit­i­zens have the ability to use low-​​cost tools to mon­itor haz­ardous indus­tries or con­firm the validity of mar­keting claims that a par­tic­ular deter­gent is envi­ron­men­tally safe, this work sup­ports the efforts of fed­eral agen­cies like the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tec­tion Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.

The mes­sage I wanted to get across to the White House is the idea that cit­izen sci­ence can sup­port our fed­eral gov­ern­ment in many new ways,” she said.

– By Angela Herring

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