I’ve been hearing about a number of interesting science/tech education projects recently, all approaching the topic in innovative and very hands-on ways. Just recently I met someone working for a new startup called Ardusat, which provides students with the opportunity to program and operate Arduino microcontrollers aboard satellites. These microcontrollers are connected to a variety of sensors, allowing students to design experiments and collect a variety of data. Here we are, barely 50 years after the launch of Sputnik, and space has become a laboratory accessible from the classroom.
On April 17th Rachel and Elizabeth, two young scientists and cyclists, left San Francisco on bicycles and set out for the east coast in what they call Cycle for Science. Along the way they talked with educators and classrooms about what science is and how everyone can participate. I’m a little sad that I only just heard about the trip, now that it is almost over, but it is nevertheless an interesting project, and I’m sure there will be good educational material that comes out of it.
I’ve been attending several sessions of a workshop yesterday and today that center on the topic of scientific communication. The workshop, hosted by the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery, is called ‘Art of the Conversation’, and addresses the general question: how does someone in a scientific career talk to other people about what they do?
The first session I attended yesterday was ‘Accessibility: Explaining technical information to a lay audience’ with Dr. Jennifer Ashton (senior medical contributor, ABC news), Steve Paulson (host of Wisconsin Public Radio’s ‘To the Best of Our Knowledge‘), and Sharon Dunwoody (professor of journalism and mass communication at UW-Madison).
The three speakers each gave their perspective on techniques to improve the communication of scientific information to the general public. Some of the information was geared more towards scientists who want to explain their work to an interviewer or to the public, and some of it was more appropriate for science writers who want to take that role.
Many of their suggestions were very intuitive, but nonetheless they are issues that many scientists have trouble with (myself included). In any case, it always helps to hear these things repeated. Here is some of what they said:
- Simplicity is key, but avoid ‘dumbing it down’. Avoid using jargon or overly technical language.
- Give examples. Or non-examples. Sometimes something can be better understood by understanding what it isn’t.
- Offer the information in layers, from general to specific, to get at complex ideas. This can also help to ensure that people from a wide variety of backgrounds can learn something.
- Difficulties scientists can run into: getting lost in the details, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, staying too general. Either case can cause people to lose interest.
- To really make their research interesting, scientists should, 1) show why they’re passionate about what they do, and 2) personalize the issue, adding the human factor to the discussion.
- Stories should have a narrative arc: beginning (why should someone care), middle (contains most of the information), and end (tie it in again to why people should care)
As a sort of summary, I think that many of these suggestions fall into two major categories:
- Inspiration – Getting a reader/listener to care about the topic. This is achieved by making information interesting and relevant and telling a story.
- Education – Making it easy to learn about a topic. Once a person is really interested in something, educating them becomes a lot easier, but there are still ways to ensure that they learn as much as possible. Using examples and simple, straightforward language are good ways to do this.
In the movie Antitrust, the main character, a programmer named Milo, battles against the CEO of an enormous software company who is bent on world domination and is not afraid to employ brutal tactics to steal code that he needs to accomplish this goal. In the end, Milo finally defeats his plan by releasing all the code online, making it freely available, and therefore no longer able to be exploited by any single entity. To underscore this act, he tags on to this release the simple statement ‘Human knowledge belongs to the world.’ With the growing size and spread of the internet, this idea of cheap and easily accessible information has spread to many different realms, one very important one being education. Last night I had the opportunity to go to a panel discussion about online learning opportunities (like MOOCs – massively open online courses) and how they might change the face of education.
The panel’s main speaker was Anya Kamenetz, author of the books ‘Generation Debt’ and ‘DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education’ (as well as a free guide to DIY online education available here: Edupunks’ Guide to a DIY Credential). She had some interesting things to say about education.
In the US, there is a dichotomy that has arisen between the fact that information is free and available (via the internet) and the fact that higher education definitely isn’t. The cost of the University of Wisconsin can range from $6000 per semester for an in-state resident to more $13000 for a nonresident, and for somewhere like Harvard it rockets up to $30000-$40000 . This is a problem in a country that prides itself on being democratic and egalitarian, since there are many people who just can’t afford those fees. As Kamenetz put it, ‘college is no longer the engine for social mobility.’
So what are the alternatives? There are a few big players in online education: edX, Coursera, Khan Academy, P2PU. There are other types of education resources as well, different from coursework: Enstitute (where students apprentice with a start-up company), LearningCounts (where people can get course credit for material they already know), or online platforms where users can build portfolios of their work that potential employers might see, doing away with the need for a degree in the first place (like GitHub for programmers or Behance for creative types).
One question that came up last night was: what role will educators play in this scheme? While the answer to that isn’t entirely clear (mostly we’ll have to wait and see how things develop) it’s clear that there is still a need in this system for tutors, mentors, and guides. For one thing, people crave personal interactions, and a lot of good discussions and connections can come out of meeting face to face with someone that can’t occur in a large impersonal system. Additionally, the fact that there is so much information, from the online courses mentioned above to encyclopedias such as Wikipedia to simple information searches through Google, means that it can be overwhelming for a student who doesn’t know where to start or even what their goals might be. In this case, a teacher acts as a guide, to point the way and warn against potential pitfalls.