Thursday, January 19, 2017

Are you a scientist?

Me explaining the components of soil to students at a local event

Every once in a while a student will ask  question that I have no idea how to answer.

Specifically, they ask "Are you a scientist?"

I struggle with how to answer that question.  What exactly does the word scientist mean?  When I look online for a definition of the word I get lots of different answers.

Merriam-Webster defines the word as "a person learned in science and especially natural science :  a scientific investigator". says that a scientist is "an expert in science, especially one of the physical or natural sciences".

The Oxford Dictionary defines scientist as "a person who is studying or has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences".

As adults we tend to think that scientist is a job; that scientists are paid for their work.  While this is often true, there is nothing in any of those definitions that says a scientist is someone who is paid for doing science.  

Heather Shaw (a biologist) collects data during a wildlife study

For most of history, scientist was not a paid job.  Science was something that people did during their spare time as a hobby.  Many people still do science as a hobby - today we use the term citizen scientist to differentiate them from professional scientists who are paid for their work.  Citizen scientists include people who collect data on weather, bird watchers, butterfly counters, etc.. Professional scientists often use the data collected by citizen scientists to piece together larger ideas.

Citizen scientists collect data on native plants at the CWC's Hall's Lake Natural Area

I am not a professional paid scientist.  I don't really consider myself a citizen scientist - I am not systematically collecting long term data on a single subject or site.  A friend who works as a biologist (a professional scientist) once referred to me as a "well versed naturalist".  

According to the Oxford Dictionary a naturalist is "an expert in or student of natural history". defines a naturalist as "a person who studies or is an expert in natural history, especially a zoologist or botanist".  Merriam-Webster says that a naturalist is "a student of natural history; especially :  a field biologist".

Like the word scientist, naturalist has been turned into an occupation.  I know several people that work as naturalists at nature centers or parks, paid to interpret nature to the public.  I don't really consider myself a naturalist.

Me explaining the zones of a wetland to 6th grade students.

Kids tend to think in different terms.  To them anyone that knows a lot about science or studies science is a scientist.  Their idea of a scientist is close to the dictionary definitions of the word.  So the next time a student asks if I am a scientist, I am going to say "Yes, I am a scientist".  

But, here is the big secret: the kids are scientists too.  

You don't need a lot of fancy equipment to be a scientist.  You just have to be able to use your senses to observe the natural world.

Student scientists measure a forest canopy

You need to be able to ask questions about what you observe.

Students observing aquatic macroinvertebrates that they collected from a local pond

You need to be able to conduct experiments to answer the questions that you come up with through observation.  An experiment is often just a more careful observation focused on answering your questions.

Biting a lump of clay?  Nope, that student is conducting an experiment.

Some people are paid to be scientists.  Some do it out of love for learning about the world.  The truth is that we are all scientists if we follow our natural curiosity about the world. People only stop being a scientist when they chose to ignore that part of themselves that wants to learn more.  Get out there and be a scientist!

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