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Sarah N. Gatson, Associate Professor, Dept. of Sociology, Texas A&M University ( – online research communities and new developments in qualitative (ethnographic) research methods (Project summary of grant submitted to NSF, August 15, 2007).

Relevant Website: (see especially

Project Summary

Research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) faces the problem of a lack of personnel, first at key transitions within and between K-12, undergraduate, and graduate education, and later at transitions into professional life, whether in academia or industry. Underlying this situation is a dearth of open networks; settings where the real work of science is done (e.g., laboratories) are typically small, local, homogeneous, and discipline-bound. Increasingly, however, the development of information and communications technology is being integrated into both research and training endeavors. Indeed, decentralized cyberinfrastructure has been shown to enhance communication and community development, especially for groups whose members would otherwise have remained isolated from one another. Therefore, cyberinfrastructure may be a powerful tool to open both human and computer networks and to allow improved recruitment and retention of a diverse group of students across several critical transition points.

Intellectual Merit

Any study of Internet interactions is challenging because of the simultaneous dense interconnectedness of the Internet and the boundaries between networks and communities. Moreover, online/offline community development is a multi-sited enterprise, and each locale in an identified network and its interactions must be thoroughly investigated. One of the most useful tools for researching densely interactive and developing arenas is ethnography. This proposal develops a new approach to ethnography, in which a collaborative network of ethnographers who are participant observers in offline laboratories or networks, as well as participant observers in an online group. The online community to be examined is part of a developing network that uses the Internet for research (including experimentation, analysis, and the publication process), training, and educational purposes. The project will test two core hypotheses, one substantive, and one methodological: (1) that information and communications technology-based networks and communities can open access to science education and professional practice, and (2) that “macro-ethnography” – a collaborative network of ethnographers working on the same core project – is more efficient and effective than current approaches for the study of online/offline communities. To test these hypotheses, the project will (a) establish distributed, multi-vocal ethnographic methods to study large-scale communities, (b) develop research tools to assess the effectiveness of networked simultaneous online/offline community formation, and (c) evaluate and assess these tools for broad distribution in STEM and other academic fields.

Broader Impacts

Ongoing and final results will be presented and published through normal academic channels, but these methods and data also will be disseminated using the same information and communications technology networks used to research the core phenomenon, since the project is situated in an already established interdisciplinary laboratory, and since engaging with its online portal allows participation in one or more interlocking synchronous or asynchronous discussions and collaborative research projects. Because everything viewed using the laboratory’s Internet-accessible microscope can be recorded, all teaching experiences achieved there result in data that a researcher can also use. Conversely, because all research experiences can be viewed openly, the often mysterious process of scientific observation and discussion can be shared with students and non-experts. These experiences themselves are accessible through online participation, and the ethnographic research on the experiences will be similarly accessible. A key outcome will be a macro-ethnographic core network that serves as a model for other macro-ethnographic projects. These new methods, applied to STEM here, are generally relevant to the study of online-offline community, and specifically relevant to the development of collaborative ethnography that goes beyond ad hoc practices.


Coughlin, D.J.; Greenstein, E.E.; Widmer, R.J.; Meisner, J.; Nordt, M.; Young, M.F.; Gatson, S.N.; Quick,C.M.; Bowden, R.A. (2007). “e-Research: A novel use of the Internet to perform live animal research from a laboratory distant from the site of animal care technicians and facilities.

Nordt, M.; Meisner, J.; Dongaonkar, R.; Quick, C.M.; Gatson, S.N.; Karadkar,U.P.; and Furuta, R. (2006). eBat: A technology-enriched life sciences research community. Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 43 (1).

Sparks, D.; Gatson, S.N.; and Quick, C.M. (2006). Bats, blood, and behavior: Addressing student and teacher misconceptions in elementary Texas classrooms. North American Symposium on Bat Research, Wilmington, North Carolina, 18-21 October 2006.

Nordt, M.; Gatson, S.N.; Furuta ,R.; and Quick, C.M. (2005). Integrating research and
teaching in eBat. Third annual TAMUS pathways research symposium. (

Gatson, S.N.; Meisner, J.K.; Young, M.F.; Dongaonkar, R.; and Quick, C.M. (2005). The eBat Project: A Novel Model for Live-Animal Distance Learning Labs. The FASEB Journal 19(5): A1352.

Roberts, L.J.; Young, M.F.; Quick, C.M.; and Gatson, S.N. (2004). Reduce, reuse, recycle: The eBat project. North American Symposium on Bat Research. (

Young, M.F.; Roberts, L.J.; Quick, C.M.; and Gatson, S.N. (2004). Leveraging informal networks: Research/conservation partnerships. North American Symposium on Bat Research.(