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Carlson received his inspiration to become a scientist as well as his first lessons in how to do science from his grandfather, George Donald Graham, at the age of eight. Carlson describes his grandfather as "a free-spirited wild man, a person with incredible scientific creativity. But he was one of those personalities who couldn't go through the standard course of instruction. So he pursued his passion for mathematics and geology and biology on his own and he would frequently write really interesting papers that he couldn't get published because he didn't have 'Ph.D.' after his name."
Carlson did not have a happy childhood. He describes his father as a "Jekyll and Hyde" alcoholic in those days and his mother as a person who "suffered from depression her whole life but who never sought treatment." He grew despondent in his early teens and even had thoughts of suicide, but he was saved he says by his scoutmaster, Joseph Kessler, who showed up early one morning unannounced to take him bird watching for the annual Audubon National Bird Count. "I had never been bird watching before. But I sure was happy to get out of the house." The two bonded that day with Kessler becoming a father figure to Carlson. Before the day was over, Carlson says Kessler implanted ideals that would go on to have a profound effect on his life. "He told me that childhood would soon end. And if I ever hurt anyone like I had been hurt or failed in my goals that it would be wrong of me to blame my parents because they would not be making the decisions that would lead to those results, I would be." Carlson found the concept of personal responsibility to be "utterly liberating". He stayed in Scouting and eventually earned the rank of Eagle Scout.
Carlson excelled at school and civic activities. He was elected president of his class at Trident Jr. High School and twice took first-place honors as District Champion in impromptu speaking. However, his mother threw him out of his home when he was 16 years old. Guided by the values he acquired in Scouting, Carlson insists he never turned to drugs or prostitution as many exiled teens do. Instead he used his skill as a magician to eke out a living. He completed high school and ended 18 months of homelessness when started his freshman year at U.C. Berkeley.
Carlson graduated from U.C. Berkeley with Bachelor of Science degrees in both Applied Mathematics and Physics in 1981. He graduated from UCLA with a Master's Degree in Physics in 1983, and with a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics in 1989. As a post doc, Carlson worked at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and ran the observing program for the Berkeley Automated Supernovae Search.
Inspired by his grandfather's example, Carlson left academia in 1994 and became a founder of the modern citizen science movement when he created the Society for Amateur Scientists to "Help ordinary people do extraordinary science". Millions of readers enjoyed his monthly column "The Amateur Scientist" in Scientific American from 1995 to 2001. He was also one of the first columnists for Make magazine.
Starting in 2002, Carlson began turning his attention away from creating opportunities for adults to participate in authentic science projects to focus on, "inspiring the next generation to love learning about science and technology." After years of development which involved thousands of students on line and hundreds of students in various pilot studies, in 2010 Carlson applied for and was granted non-profit status from the IRS to found a new organization known as the LabRats Science Education Project.
LabRats is largely inspired by the Boy Scout model. In fact, Carlson says that he and his old scoutmaster developed the "LabRats Credo" (LabRats' version of the Scout Law) together. Also like Scouting, LabRats features weekly meetings, a rank-based system of advancement, and a strong focus or ethics and community service. Carlson says, "LabRats is a lot like Scouting, only instead of campfires and square knots we teach science and technology."
Carlson is currently the creative force behind LabRats, in which he goes by the title "Head Cheese" and asks his students to call him "Dr. Shawn". He is also developing iDoScience research collaboration platform,.
In 2013, he introduced "Engagement Education", which he describes as "radical rethinking" teaching STEM. The goal of Engagement Education is to create strong positive emotional connections between the learner and what is being learned, the learner and her peers, and the learner and her adult caregivers, all of which Carlson insists are essential to "inspire young people to love learning about science and technology". Engagement Education is now the foundation of the LabRats system of instruction.
- The Amateur Astronomer, John Wiley and Sons, 2000, ISBN 978-0-471-43699-7
- The Amateur Biologist, Wiley, 2002, ISBN 978-0-471-38281-2
- Scientific American: The Amateur Scientist-The Complete Collection vol.IV, Bright Science LLC, 2010, ISBN 978-0-9703476-2-6
- "Core Concepts in Physics," 1998, Saunders. The first multi-media physics textbook ever published. Credited on back of box as, "Shawn Carlson, Ph.D., lead writer for the presentation, is a physicist and nationally known science writer. He is a specialist in making difficult concepts understandable." ISBN 0-03-023507-3
- "Satanism in America- How the Devil Got Much More than His Due", with Gerry O'Sullivan, Gerry Larue, April Masche, and Donald H. Frew, Gaia Press, 1989
- "The Citizen Scientist," Make Magazine, 2005-2007
- “The Amateur Scientist,” Scientific American, 1995–2001
- "Science On Society", The Humanist, 1992-1994
Reports/Book Reviews/Letters (Partial List)
- "A Science Teacher's Manifesto",
- "How To Talk About Science, The 'Five Essential Insights' ", Volume 2013, Number March (2013), Pages 1-12 DOWNLOAD: http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=2447476.2447478
- "Amateurs Take On the Universe", Review of Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris, Scientific American, September 2002
- "Long Live D.I.Y.", Scientific American, Letters Dept., September 2002
- "Jefferson's Balance?", Skeptical Inquirer, Letters Dept, May/June 2002
- "A Billion Good Things", Invited tribute to Carl Sagan, Skeptical Inquirer, January/February 1997
- "Virtual Mars?", Ad Astra, January/February, 1993
- "Giving the Devil More Than His Due", Review of Painted Black by Carl Rashke, The Humanist, March/April, 1991
- "The Push-Gravity Ideas of Walter C. Wright", Commissioned report for the California Department of Education, 1988
Peer-Reviewed and/or Technical Articles 
- "Preliminary Estimate of Core Collapse Supernova Rates From the Berkeley Automated Supernova Search", Santa Monica Astropart, pp. 477–482, 1990. with C. *Pennypacker, S. Perlmutter, R. A. Muller, B. Hamilton, C. Smith, T. Sasseen, H. Marvin, LP Wang, F. Crawford, R. Treffers, S. Bludman
- Various IAU telegrams announcing the discovery of supernovae
- "Subthreshold Production of K+, K-, and Antiprotons in Relativistic Heavy Ion Collisions," UCLA University Publications, 1989
- "Astrology," Experientia, Vol. 44, pp. 290–297, 1988
- "Upper Limit on the Charge of Electron Antineutrinos from Supernova 1987A," LBL Preprint, 1987
- "Sub-threshold Production of K- in Relativistic Heavy Ion Collisions at Bevalac Energies," with J. Carroll et al., Relativistic Heavy Ion Interactions, APS Conference Proceedings, 25.70 NP, 1987
- "Subthreshold Production of Strange Hadrons in Relativistic Heavy Ion Collisions," with S. Trentalange, et al., Intersections Between Particle and Nuclear Physics, AIP Conference Proceedings, Amer. Inst. Physics, 150 pp. 814–821, 1986
- "A Double-Blind Test of Astrology," Nature, Vol. 318, pp. 419–425, 1985
- "Electrostatic Gating of the Time Projection Chamber," with P. Odonne and P. Newman, LBL Preprint, 1981
- The American Dream: Stories from the Heart of Our Nation, Dan Rather, 2002, Harper Collins ISBN 0-688-17892-8
- "A CONVERSATION WITH: SHAWN CARLSON; Just Like a Film Script, From Jobless to Genius", The New York Times, Claudia Dreifus, January 23, 2001
- "LabRats Science Education project"
- "Personal Website"
- "TEDx Talk, 2012 "Connecting the Dots to Your Future."
- ["http://player.vimeo.com/video/65821006 "Introduction to Engagement Education."]