Public Domain

Project of the Week #15: Parenting Science Gang

What does this project do?
Parenting Science Gang is a UK citizen science project where parenting groups design and run experiments. They believe that all parenting is an experiment, so you might as well collect the data. And, more seriously, they look for questions parents ask that require evidence-based answers and, where such answers are not available, design experiments themselves.

What do I have to do?
That is up to you and whichever of their Facebook groups you belong to! (Information on joining them and being in a relevant Facebook group can be found here. If you're not yet in any relevant Facebook group and you'd like to join them, please check the Get Involved or Contact pages.)

Past experiments have involved asking questions about anything to do with parenting, such as whether there is any benefit to breastfeeding beyond two years, or having a teething necklace. These questions are then voted on (the teething necklace was a question that didn't make it). An interesting one - which ended up appearing in the national newspapers - was addressing the claim that nappies should be washed with non-biological washing powder. This ended up changing NHS guidance about nappy washing - but the founder, Sophia Collins, tells me that this wasn't their plan at all; they merely asked about the evidence behind these guidelines and it turned out there wasn't any! Which tells us how important it is to ask for evidence.

If you are reading this outside the UK, you are probably wondering what on earth this is about. Non-bio washing powder is barely available in many countries outside the UK. What is its benefit, and why are only British children apparently in need of it? The experiment the Parenting Science Gang designed was complex. Many volunteers had to use different types of washing powder - and, to make it a "blinded trial", they must not know what sort they are using - and then rate the washed nappies according to cleanliness, smell, etc - and to swab them for bacteria and send the swabs to a microbiology lab.

Where can I find out more?
About Parenting Science Gang
Their blog
@ParentSciGang on Twitter
Facebook page
Sophia Collins, the founder, on Twitter

What’s the Citizen Science Project of the Week?
Citizen Science Project of the Week is a regular Monday feature at Doing It Together Science. What project would you like to see featured? Please let us know on the contact form, Facebook page or email us at info@togetherscience.eu. Please put "Project of the Week" in the subject line and send us a link to the project, some information about it and why you'd like it featured. If you want us to, we'll credit you and tag you on Facebook!

More details
Parenting Science Gang is a user-led, or "extreme", form of citizen science. Questions are asked by volunteers. Scientists may be asked for help, expertise or resources, and a live Q&A is held regularly, but, as Parenting Science Gang points out, "Scientists (well-meaning, well-read scientists) can overlook things that matter to the groups they work with if they aren’t a member themselves." They have also found out that parents, especially mothers, aren't always taken seriously, and the matters that interest parents of young children are often not much talked about in public. They cite this article and this paper about the importance of citizens' own involvement in scientific matters, especially those that impact them. They also cite research that shows the benefits to the child if science becomes a normal part of family life, rather than "something that is done by boffins over there".

Among many other activities, this year the Parenting Science Gang held a residential weekend to train parents in scientific methods, such as assessing scientific claims and reading scientific papers. Alice at UCL was invited to give a talk about volunteer management, her expertise gained in managing the large online community of the first five years of Galaxy Zoo. (This session was a joy. As almost all the interaction takes place online, community management is already well known to the Parenting Science Gang members, and bringing out a selection of "case studies" of potential problems that can occur in online communities, and how to solve them, generated very high-level discussion and quickly led onto the parents talking as a group about their own plans for online work.)

A recent new project is a partnership with the Let Toys Be Toys campaign, which encourages toy retailers to stop assigning toys as either boys' or girls' toys, but to encourage all children of whatever gender to explore their interests without being discouraged by stereotypes. Many of us suspect that only giving girls dolls, or only giving boys toy cars, might limit their later skills and interests - now is a chance to find out whether this is the case and what is the effect.

Another of their discoveries was that the fibres of some cloth nappies are coated with hydroxyl apatite, a mineral which also makes up bones and teeth. Nobody knows why yet. The project working on it is called Apatite for Destruction. Parents love puns.

"Early parenthood can be scary, isolating and confidence-shaking but it’s also a crucial time in the child’s life," writes Parenting Science Gang. "Giving parents the tools and, crucially, the confidence to understand and critically evaluate scientific information and whether advice is evidence-based is very powerful." I recommend this interview with Sophia Collins on whether citizen science done this way can change the world.