Science education at Science Online 2013

Published on PLOS Sci-Ed

This was my first Science Online conference, and it was a refreshingly collaborative experience. Research scientists, high school teachers, museum educators, education researchers, science writers, psychologists, and social scientists all came together with no pretensions for a shared purpose: to share ideas on how to better educate and communicate with the public about science.

The design of the name badges nicely captured the feel of the “unconference” format. The badges emphasized first names and were intentionally devoid of institutional affiliations, creating an open, egalitarian atmosphere. The style of this conference is an example of one way to combat the problems of elitism and distrust that I outlined in my earlier post on the research-practice divide in science education.

Science Online 2013 name badge.

Science Online 2013 name badge. (PLOS sponsored the lanyards for everyone.) Photo by Jean Flanagan.

There were a few sessions directly focused on science education, and I’ve attempted to capture a few of the highlights from those here. However, many sessions that were more focused on science communication and journalism had implications for education as well, and may serve as inspiration for future posts.

Why won’t the science deficit model die?

Liz Neeley, assistant director of science outreach at COMPASS, and John Bruno, a marine ecologist and science communicator, moderated this session. The deficit model is the notion that when the general public fails to understand science or support science-based policy recommendations it is because it simply lacks the information. In other words, if only the public knew what the experts know, all our science communication problems would be solved.

Current research and thinking in science communication has shown the deficit model to be ineffective and overly simplistic. But many scientists, educators, and journalists still default to it, perhaps because it’s so easy: throw some data on a website and your duty to science communication is done. Engaging with specific audiences in culturally sensitive ways takes time and effort. Another reason for the continued prevalence of the deficit model might be that scientists have traditionally been dismissive of social science, and therefore aren’t likely to read science communication and education journals. Compounding this effect, many in higher education were trained to teach through TA positions and observation of their professors with little or no exposure to the findings of education and communication research. Additionally, although most science research grants require dissemination and broader impacts statements, perhaps agencies haven’t taken a strong enough stance on requiring them to be effective and meaningful.

What will it take to kill deficit model thinking? Changes in science training and grants might take time, but more communication between social scientists and scientists could spark the transition. Dan Kahan’s cultural cognition research, which I wrote about for Sci-Ed earlier, was mentioned here and throughout the conference. Perhaps at Science Online 2014 scientists could be paired with social scientists (based on an interests and expertise survey) and start work on a small science communication project.

Formal science education, informal science education, and science writing

I was excited for this session as soon as I saw the preliminary conference schedule, as it ties together three threads that are all of great personal interest to me. Marie Claire Shanahan, a science education researcher, and Emily Finke, a museum educator, co-moderated the session. Differences in training and careers can keep people working in school-based education, museum education, and journalism apart. But these fields have significant overlap and could almost certainly benefit from more collaboration. Many people at the session had projects that they knew could benefit from the perspective of a partner in one of the other two areas. Interestingly, they didn’t seem to know how to find each other until arriving at the session.

Perhaps there’s a need for an online hub for projects in need of interdisciplinary collaborators. Of course, the Science Online community lives on year-round through Twitter, blog networks and other online communication. Readers of Sci-Ed: maybe you are a teacher looking for a museum collaboration, or a writer wanting to know more about research in how people learn science? Reach out to each other in the comments or on social media.

How can the science of science education inform communication about science?

Andrea Novicki, an academic technology consultant, and Sandra Porter, a science education materials developer, organized this session. Their aim was to raise awareness of science education research among science writers and to brainstorm some ways its findings could improve science communication. Conceptual change theory tells us that learners receiving new information about science are attempting to integrate this information into what they already know, and that they can harbor a host of naive intuitive ideas or misconceptions. In a classroom setting, educators can actively find out the ideas their students hold and strategically select readings or activities that target the misconceptions.

But what about science writers, who lack coherent repeat audiences? How can bloggers and journalists measure the effectiveness of what they are writing? In many cases, interaction with readers can be minimal. Blog comments can be useful, but only a very small percentage of readers take the time to comment. And even then, they often takes the form of a simple “great post!” Just because someone thought what you wrote was great doesn’t mean they understood it, or understood it the way you intended. Similarly, Google Analytics and re-tweets can tell you something about how many people read your piece, but nothing about how much your readers may (or may not) have learned.

One idea that was tossed around was adding polls (even rough pre/post surveys) to blog posts to collect a little data on whether knowledge increased or minds were changed. But this is only appropriate for educational science blogs and only feasible if you have a highly engaged audience. This session left me with more questions than answers, but I think it’s crucial that writers—especially those who see themselves as science communicators—start thinking more about what’s really going on in the minds of their readers. Much in journalism and blogging is untested—I’m looking forward to revisiting this topic in 2014.