Special Report
Infrastructure

Science Shared on Online Communities

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 01, 2011 7 min read

Last spring, thousands of children and adults filmed or photographed themselves planting more than 10,000 trees, flowers, and other plants on six continents. The videos were consolidated and posted May 5 of last year on YouTube, where nearly 10,000 viewers, mostly children and young adults, commented on them.

The massive planting wasn’t a social project or contest, but a birthday present for Hank Green, the founder of the environmental-blogging site EcoGeek.com and a popular YouTube video blogger. Mr. Green’s ongoing video conversations with his brother, the young-adult book author John Green, often include original songs and debates about science topics, and have spawned a community of more than 470,000 who discuss current events, science, and other topics, and engage in regular group projects like the planting.

“To me, science is intrinsically cool,” Mr. Green said in an online interview with Education Week. “We may be a bunch of nerds, but when you see how much energy there is surrounding or growing knowledge of the world, it’s hard to not get caught up. And that’s really what we need; we need students to get caught up in the excitement of it all.”

That community is an example of a growing trend in the way science is communicated online. As home cameras and desktop publishing have grown easier to use, thousands have started posting videos and websites dedicated to sharing (often explosive) experiments, debating current issues such as stem cells, discussing events like the latest NASA launch, or organizing group games and social projects.

“From the perspective of informal science education, we’ve been slow to notice and connect with these self-organizing communities,” said Kevin J. Crowley, a co-principal investigator for the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education, or CAISE, in Washington. While online communities are definitely an increasingly popular medium for informal learning, Mr. Crowley said, “as educators, we have to be careful of how we approach them.”

“If it feels top-down, if it feels like someone else’s agenda,” he said, “it doesn’t generate the same kind of energy.”

Rick Bonney, the director of program development and evaluation at the Cornell University Ornithology Lab, in Ithaca, N.Y., and the founder of several nationwide citizen-science projects, knows that danger firsthand.

In the late 1990s, the lab produced a series of print advertisements calling for volunteers to track bird populations. The fliers had tag lines like: “Lend your brain to science!” and “You are the eyes and ears of scientists,” Mr. Bonney recalled, but the ads generated little response.

In 2002, the lab took a new tack, launching an online site called eBird that allows people to keep and compare personalized bird-sighting checklists, photos, and descriptions; plot bird sightings on maps; and talk with other bird-watchers.

“Participation tripled in the first week,” Mr. Bonney said. “In a way, we tricked people, because we’re still getting all their data, but they’re getting much more personalized information on their birds and sharing it.”

Sharing Experiments

Science online is seldom that organized, however. YouTube and Google Videos abound with viral videos in which multiple users repeat and add on to visually interesting experiments.

Science Learning Goes Viral

The most popular of them involves someone—usually a child or teenager—dropping one or more Mentos candies into a bottle of Diet Coke, spurring a chemical reaction that spurts soda 20 or more feet in the air. Variations of that experiment went massively viral in 2006, with more than 10 million people ultimately watching the videos by 2007, according to the online tracker KnowYourMeme.

In May 2008, Louisville High School students briefly held a world record after taping 1,800 simultaneous soda geysers, and hundreds of others have posted permutations. Some posters attempt to explain the chemicals that cause the explosion, or to test the fountain height of different types or amounts of soda or candy, though many more don’t spend much time talking about the science involved.

By contrast, a group of anonymous Canadian chemistry and biology researchers has come together online under the username Nurdrage to post more than 90 science experiments, from growing silver metal crystals to levitating pencil graphite with magnets. While the vloggers—a video-blog group—never show their faces, they work in a full lab setting and include a description of both the scientific processes and safety hazards in each experiment. Nurdrage is in the top 100 subscribed Canadian channels on YouTube.

“We select experiments based on a balance of popularity and educational value, then proceed to perform them in a safe and visually appealing manner,” the vloggers said in an online interview with Education Week. They added that they never demonstrate reactions that could lead to explosions, nor do they demonstrate how to manufacture narcotics.

“Chemistry has the unfortunate and undeserved reputation of being associated with terrorism (in bomb-making) and criminal enterprise (in illegal drugs),” they said. “We stay away from that to try and improve the public perception of our field.”

The rise of online experimentation and science communities has tracked with a broader trend toward do-it-yourself and local activist communities online, Mr. Crowley said. “Technology has become the key enabler,” he said.

Andy Allan, a chemistry and biology teacher at El Diamante High School in Visalia, Calif., started posting chemistry and biology videos and diagrams while he was trying to teach himself how to design a website. His site, ScienceGeek.net, has become popular for teachers and high school students using virtual-laboratory simulators and interactive graphics.

“In some ways, the primary motivation was my own desire to learn something new, and initially, the benefit to my students was secondary. I remember putting a ‘hit counter’ on my first page and thinking that it would take months to get to 1,000 visits,” Mr. Allan said. “On a daily basis, I now get over 1,000 visits before I wake up in the morning. I did not foresee the Web page evolving into a website that would be a resource to teachers and students whom I will never meet.”

Accuracy Concerns

Alan J. Friedman, a former director of the New York Hall of Science and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, calls the rise of science-related blogs and user-generated content “a striking phenomenon,” but he also worries that viewers can more easily be misinformed online at user-generated sites.

While researching an exhibit on the theory of relativity, Mr. Friedman reviewed professional and amateur websites on the subject. “Some of the amateur sites were terrifically good; they’d invented better analogies for some concepts than the professionals, … but I also came across sites that looked just as good, with animation and graphics, but that were completely wrong,” he said.

Mistakes or bad science online can stay up for years and get top search billing, he noted.

“Science is self-correcting; it can take a few years or a few centuries, but we tend to correct our mistakes,” Mr. Friedman said. “Will that eventually happen with the Internet? I don’t know. We don’t yet have a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for things on the Internet.”

Yet if the Internet provides more of a platform for bad science and honest or agenda-driven mistakes than school- or museum-based science education, it can also provide an easier conduit to professional scientists that most students ever get off-line, Mr. Green said.

“You have, on the one hand, news sources and blogs that people consider ‘successful,’ and, at those, you have a lot of really bad science and even some really bad writing,” he said. “But then you’ve got blogs written by actual scientists and engineers. I see this constantly behind the scenes, real communities with real knowledge that goes a lot deeper than your average blog post.”

The Nurdrage team agrees. “In regards to education, I think the Internet’s ability to bring together people with very rare or niche interests [is] the most powerful,” they wrote. “Gone are the days when young minds interested in obscure and uncool topics like chemistry or astronomy had to pursue their passion alone. Now they can join communities of like-minded individuals and access the help of professionals.”

Robert Krampf is one of those working to bridge “traditional” informal science education and the emerging do-it-yourself culture. Mr. Krampf, a former science instructor at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, in Tennessee, now runs The Happy Scientist website, which puts out daily science news and experiment-of-the-week videos. More than 19,000 people a day view his daily science photo quiz on Facebook.

“It is very easy for a science educator to convince the audience that he is smart. After all, he has all the amazing devices, cool facts, and the scientific answers,” Mr. Krampf said. “It is much more challenging, but ultimately much more rewarding, to convince the audience that they are smart, and that science is something they can understand and appreciate.”

Mr. Friedman agreed, but said the field of informal science has a long way to go to understand and leverage online communities.

“I think people learn when they want to learn,” he said, “and if we play our cards right, we can make what happens in the stars and what lives under the ocean just as fascinating as what happens on Facebook, … but I don’t think we’re at that place yet.”

This story was underwritten by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, at www.noycefdn.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week as Science Shared on Online Communities

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