The undergraduate Class of 2026 completed the three-week-long Citizen Science (Cit. Sci) Program in January 2023 before resuming their academic year in the spring semester. It is a winter program required for all freshmen students at Bard College, Parami University’s partner institution in New York. During the three weeks, students learned basic scientific literacy skills and knowledge.
Citizen Science in today’s world
With advances in science and technology, scientific knowledge and public policy decisions on scientific issues have unprecedented ramifications for the world around us. As such, basic scientific literacy and knowledge is necessary for each citizen to make responsible decisions and actions. The Coronavirus pandemic is one example where scientific experiments and findings feed into public debates over how to make collective decisions as a society. Another outstanding example is the debate over climate change, where we decide what to do to reduce climate impact and how to collaborate on a global scale to make tangible improvements. Science, rather than belonging exclusively to academia, industry, or research institutions, impacts society profoundly, and citizens have the responsibility and the power to shape this relationship.
The Citizen Science Program aims to empower and equip students with the tools, perspectives, and attitudes to use science literacy in their daily lives. Dr. Win Maw Hlaing Oo, Chair of Mathematics and Science at Parami University, explained, “the Program aims to enhance scientific literacy among the students and public engagement in scientific research.”
While the focused theme of the Program may be different from year to year, the thematic areas have the characteristics of general importance and relevance to society. The chosen theme for the 2022–2023 Parami Citizen Science Program is 'Infectious Diseases.'
Kaung Myat Phyo @ Kelvin, a participant in the Citizen Science Program, shared his experience in the Program, “First of all, before any other things, we had the opportunity to understand what "Citizen Science" is - something that we had hardly heard of before. We learned the importance of science literacy, how science is an inalienable part of our lives, and how we could and should contribute to science projects even as laypersons with no science background, all of which were highlighted by the workshop. Through several seminars with several health experts, which were carefully calibrated to educate the students regarding this year's workshop's theme: Infectious Diseases.”
So how are Parami students trained to become citizen scientists?
Students in the Program looked at different methods or approaches to study ‘Infectious Diseases’ and shared their findings in class. Prior to the commencement of the Program, each student receives low-cost origami-based microscopy devices called foldscope to perform hands-on experiments. Students explored the invisible world of cells and microorganisms using foldscope and were introduced to the fields of epidemiology, biostatistics, immunology, and behavioral health, which are crucial for public health.
Theint Thada Phyu from the COVID Specialization team expressed that “I was able to understand the basics of the science field in terms of experience. For instance, I had the chance to learn about the foldscope experiment, laboratory exercises, and One Health-related information.”
In addition, the Parami University science faculty, and experts from Community Partners International (CPI), introduced case studies on four diseases: Malaria, COVID, HIV, and Tuberculosis to the students and provided mentorship for final projects. These diseases constitute challenging public health issues in the developing world, and a basic understanding of them is important for prevention, treatment, tackling societal stigma, and eventual eradication.
University-industry partnership and societal applications
Parami University invited experts from Community Partners International (CPI), which is a leading public health organization in Asia. Founded in 1998, it has the mission to empower communities in Asia to meet their essential health, humanitarian, and sustainable development needs. CPI is currently serving more than one million people each year, focusing on communities affected by conflict, violence, and displacement in remote and hard-to-reach contexts and marginalized through poverty and exclusion.
Dr. Pyae Phyo Aung, Director of Program Strategy and Quality Unit at CPI, was delighted by the collaboration that “[the Citizen Science program] provided an excellent opportunity for the CPI team to share its expertise on infectious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV with engaged young people who can help build awareness and understanding within their peer groups.”
These partnerships are beneficial to both academia and society at large. Dr. Pyae Phyo Aung added, "young people are the foundation and future of our societies. It is crucially important that they have a solid foundational understanding of public health issues that they can apply to their own lives, share with others, and contribute to the good health of their communities and society. Young people's understanding of public health issues supports the fundamental right to health, which in turn contributes to the pursuit of happiness.”
For the final projects, four teams were formed to conduct research on each case study disease. As citizen scientists, students studied diseases from the public health perspective through epidemiology and health systems. They analyzed information and data sets of each disease, looked at the scientific communication to the policymakers and the public regarding these diseases, and studied government policies on addressing their impact.
Kaung Myat Phyo @ Kelvin was part of the 12-person Tuberculosis specialization team that analyzed TB from four different perspectives: epidemiology, behavioral health, biostatistics, and international health. On the experience of working in the team, Kelvin explained, “Having to work with 12 different people with 12 different minds was challenging at every step of the way - from arranging a meeting when everybody was available to choose a topic that everybody could agree on, all the way to deciding what information was to be included and how to prepare PowerPoint slides. This is the case in real life, where we mostly cannot work alone no matter how bright and independent we think we are and have to know how to work together as a team with different levels of diversity.”
The frustration paid off in the form of the team’s project being awarded a Platinum prize “Personally, the memorable parts of the workshop would be two contrasting moments - first, when we were frustrated and stuck in deciding how to proceed with our project and second, when we got everything successfully done, presented the project well, got the first prize, and congratulated one another,” Kelvin added.
“...even though we retained only a rudimentary knowledge regarding the workshop's theme, "Infectious Diseases," what we mostly learned were the importance of science literacy in our lives, the importance of interdisciplinary approaches, and the importance of knowing how to work together, all of which, no doubt, will really help us in performing better in our days ahead both in our academic life and real life.” ⸺Kelvin, Tuberculosis Specialization Team, Citizen Science Program, Class of 2026
The Chair of the Division of Mathematics and Science, Dr. Win Maw Hlaign Oo, expected the students to gain much more than scientific literacy skills. “Parami focuses on liberal arts and sciences education, and the Program enables the students to think and learn across disciplines. There are many tasks for each student during the workshop. They had to collect, analyze and report the data. In addition, they had to work within a team. I believe they gained knowledge on scientific processes along with teamwork skills.”
Thynn Yadanar Su, a representative of the HIV Specialization Group, highlighted that the Citizen Science Workshop helped her understand the importance of public health issues in our society. “I learned how the small things that we take for granted, like washing our hands, cooking meat thoroughly, or not taking the prescribed medicine in full course, have detrimental effects on us and our society. I come to see that the life-cycle of our society’s health system is interconnected and every action or choice we make, relating to our health, hygiene or even diets, impacts the society as a whole.”
The Citizen Science program will return next January 2024 for the Parami Class of 2027. The final project posters of all teams can be viewed at the links below:
TB Specialization Team https://citizenscience.parami.edu.mm/2023platinum
HIV Specialization Team https://citizenscience.parami.edu.mm/2023gold
Malaria Specialization Team https://citizenscience.parami.edu.mm/2023silver
COVID-19 Specialization Team https://citizenscience.parami.edu.mm/2023bronze