Category Archives: Science Online 2011

Blogging with the Invisible Community – and Why It Matters

Blog Training at Project Exploration

[Note – I’ve been offline for a while. Thanks for your patience!]

This past weekend I was part of Science Online 2011, a conference held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Organized for the past five years by the dynamic duo of Bora Zikovich and Anton Zuiker, Science Online serves as a catalytic convergence for writers who write about science and scientists who blog – plus every kind of person in between involved with science communication, mainstream or otherwise.

The conference is relatively small by design – roughly 300 people and a fairly tight program dedicated to issues specific to science communication and the blogosphere.

From a glance, the attendees seem to mostly be between the ages of 25 and 55 and at least half are women. More than most are geeky. (For example, jokes by the comedian during the dinner banquet ranged from “So a bacteria/viruses/gene walks into a bar…” to deep consideration of the alternative units Han Solo COULD have chosen in lieu of “parsecs” to describe the speed of the Millennium Falcon in the original Star Wars, (Star Wars IV of course).

My attendance at this conference in 2008 helped launch the Project Exploration blog and social media program. I love this group, their energy and the way in which they welcome techies and newbies alike. It’s an encouraging, proselytizing, non-condescending group: “If you don’t blog you CAN, and you SHOULD and we can HELP!”

It’s also fairly representative of the current “face” of science- the face Project Exploration is working to change, literally and metaphorically. Project Exploration is a nonprofit science education organization I cofounded which is dedicated to leveling the playing field in science through personalized experiences with science and scientists.

The Invisible Community

My presentation title at the conference (and the title of this blog) is drawn from a line in Einstein’s credo:  Although I am a typical loner in life, my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice keeps me from feeling isolated.

I find myself thinking a lot about this quote. Project Exploration students are part of this invisible community. As students who struggle in school they’re invisible to the science initiatives that focus on the academic elite; as students who may not see themselves as smart and students who struggle with (or are pushed out of ) school their ideas, curiosities and passions are often invisible to teachers, the adults in their families and sometimes even to themselves. And yet, simply by being curious, by having ideas, by struggling towards something meaningful – truth, beauty, justice – they are part of the invisible community in which Einstein found solace and belonging.

And, as bloggers Project Exploration students are also part of the “Science Online” community.

Science. In Crisis?

When we hear about science and education in mainstream media – which we do nearly daily – we hear about crisis. We read references to Sputnik, which although the size of a basketball, cast a disproportionately-sized shadow across America in the late 1950s. We constantly hear about the ineffectiveness of teachers who are, at their best, some or more of the following: afraid of science; inept at inquiry or constructivist-based teaching methods; untrained, uncertified, unsupportive, uninterested.

These are the dominant images of science. We rarely see science the way it lives at Project Exploration: groups of African American and Latino young people deeply and meaningfully engaged in science-immersion programs shaped by their interests and questions, taught by scientists of color. Mainstream portrayals of the crisis in science education are devoid of images of science as interdisciplinary or infused with art, creativity and adventure. Yet these are the hallmarks of high-caliber science, and the science our young people engage with at Project Exploration.

Scratch beneath the shiny surface of the ever-present calls for “science for all” heralded in this time of crisis and we find the dull reality of science for “some:” regular and repeated investments in students who read well and write well, in students who have facility with math, in students who are already interested in science, in students whose parents can pay for out-of-school enrichment experiences.

Nine teenage Latinas and African American girls tracking coyotes in Yellowstone, led by a Muslim Jordanian-American woman is “normal” at Project Exploration, rather than the exception. None of these students were required to pay an application fee, demonstrate a B+ average on their report card, or prove their commitment to pursuing a degree in science in college to participate in Project Exploration programs. They needed to be curious, open-minded and willing to try something new. They needed to show up every day during the expedition preparation week –and they needed to be willing to write about their experiences everyday. Increasingly, our students are also being asked to blog about their experiences via the Project Exploration Blog.

Metrics that Matter in the Invisible Community

After nearly a decade of programs serving more than 1000 participants we know a lot about what’s happening with our students. We know more than 95% are graduating high school and more than half of our high school graduates are pursuing higher education. Of these more than 60% are pursuing- or have already received – a degree in a science-related major. These statistics are manna for those whose vision is colored by the “science in crisis” lenses.

However, based on five- and ten-year retrospective evaluations we also know the metrics that matter to students. What do students’ care about?

  • Someone knows their name
  • The program “never ends”
  • They learn how to write
  • They’re in the news

In the summer of 2009 a group of students, charged with the mission of designing “The Best Science Program Evah’” mandated that using new media and blogging were core skills to be developed. And the student blog was born.

Project Exploration immediately adapted a blogging 101 syllabus I picked up from the 2008 Science Online Conference. The blog training is incorporated into their research-preparation for a field-expedition. We start by having students create a blog for themselves and learning the basic skills of writing a post, inserting links and images, choosing widgets and themes. After the training we immerse them in real science alongside scientists. We write with them – in journals – every day. Some of these journal entries turn into blog posts for the blog. After the field program is done some of the students continue to blog on our site and their own.

Making the Invisible Visible

So, what do students blog about when they blog? They blog about being in the field and the process of science. They write about how their view of science – and themselves – changes through their experiences. They write about events with Project Exploration. They write about political activities they’re involved with that have little to do with science. They write tips on how to be better bloggers. Sometimes we hire students as “resident bloggers” and commission them to cover science events run by other organizations.

Their posts are seen. They are known. On our blog we have a map of the world that marks visitors in red – nearly every country has a dot. We have a widget that tracks visitors state by state and we’ve had visits from all 50.

When we consider what students say matters to THEM about a science program, blogging hits nearly every mark: they’re known by name; they’re seen; they learn how to write; they’re not only in the news, in fact, they’re making the news that other people read.

But there is another reason blogging with the invisible community matters. While I was at the Science Online conference I took the opportunity to approach one of the most web-and-online-community-savvy women I’ve ever met. I asked her if she knew of efforts to increase the diversity of access and participation of communities of color in science online. She said, “Well, I know there are individual people who talk about this as an issue.” I tried again. “Are people in your realm (in her case specifically the online community management-realm) ever concerned that the community of participants is small – that the same people are talking to each other even though so many new tools and platforms are being developed? Are there any discussions about needing more diverse community members to broaden the conversation?” Somewhat mystified by what I was getting at she finally said, “I guess I think it’s up to individual people to bring their diverse friends in.”

Voices of people of color are missing in the science-communication realm; and stories about science are missing in the blogospheres that serve communities of color. I went to the conference to get caught up on blogging platforms, new online tools and to highlight the role blogging can play for engaging young people with meaningful experiences with science. What I realize now is that the blogosphere needs our students as much as our students need the blogosphere.

When this happens the invisible community may just become visible – and the online community will be less of a gated community.

END NOTE – CHECK OUT THE POST BY ED YOUNG, fellow attendee of Science Online 2011 and superb science writer…who tackles some similar themes from another angle.  “Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber? Chamber? Chamber?” Nice point about people needing to “do what you can” and “work to their strengths.”