Sunday 5 September 2010

Wild Haired Scientists Online

Today, in an effort to get away from the technological whirl I've been in over the past few days, I mostly mucked out the fountain in the garden, ate cold pizza and watched repeats of Hotel Inspector and Supernanny. And now I feel ready to blog. As you know, I went to the Science Online London 2010 two-day conference on Friday and Saturday.

I was really interested in Alan Cann's breakout session on "Students in the Sandbox". Alan gave a lot of ideas for those of us involved in education to develop students' professional skills, such as editing Wikipedia pages for credit. He had settled on FriendFeed as the simplest way for him and his students to interact professionally, work collaboratively and share items of interest. Infinitely preferable to Facebook, since it doesn't involve subjecting oneself to seeing photos of one's students doing keg stands.

The problem from my perspective is that, firstly, we have a whole safeguarding issue - the Powers That Be may not be too keen on me developing an online community for my students outside of the protected environment of the college VLE, and that, secondly, it's hard enough to get the little buggers to use their college e-mail when they'd far rather use their Hotmail or Yahoo IDs (which a) they change every two weeks, and b) get caught in our spam filters), let alone sign up for another application. The ideal solution would be if our VLE, Moodle, was sophisticated enough for a FriendFeed type application to be installed - the news, blog and wiki pages just don't really cut it.

There was a brilliant session on I'm a Scientist by Sophia Collins and Shane McCracken. As you may know, my students took part in I'm a Scientist in June of this year, and it was probably one of the most useful, worthwhile and engaging activities they had ever done in the classroom. There had been some backchannel complaining about how the PIs in many scientists' labs did not approve of lobbying, blogging, and presumably outreach, so if nothing else, this is a means of engaging with young people without even leaving your lab. The scientists thoroughly enjoyed themselves - many of us have quite a shock when we first try to describe our science to someone outside of our field. The kids will not be polite if they don't understand, so it's a very quick way of learning how to communicate at a range of levels.

Being a sucker, I thought it might be fun to run an unconference session, and put forward the title "Why does the public hate scientists, and how can we restore our 19th century reputation?". This was put in as a joint session on engaging the readership with John Timmer, Ed Yong and Alok Jha. Why yes, I was punching above my weight.

The video has been streamed, and you can watch the first of three below (I presume clicking through will bring up the source page, where the rest of the unconference session is also available archived.

If you only want to hear my dulcet tones, you can start the video from 12 minutes 30 seconds, but I recommend watching all of this to hear John and Ed's opening throughts beforehand. I was rather busy engaging in discussion and keeping my eye on the ball to make my own notes during the session, but there is a rather marvellous writeup from Adam Tinworth on "Bloggers, Commenters and the Reputation Game". He comments on how, while there were many attempts to steer the discussion back to engaging with readers in blogs, there was more enthusiasm for talking about the image and reputation of scientists. My hypothesis for this is that there had been rather a lot of chatting about blogs and blogging, although the points raised by John, Ed and Alok were new, and as such something non-blogging-related received more interest.

Some observations, however:
  • Not a lot of bloggers knew for a fact that they had non-scientist readers - while most of us have readers in other scientific fields, as an outreach and engagement method, blogging could do with a bit of refining (there were some heavyweight exceptions, of which Neuron Culture and Not Exactly Rocket Science are two).
  • Very few scientists - STILL - engage in outreach, but when I laid down a gauntlet to them that visiting schools and colleges was probably one of the most effective ways of interacting with non-scientists, there did seem to be a murmur of agreement, and a couple of volunteers (note, I am always happy to have scientists come to visit, and would be particularly interested in any London-based scientists who would like a work experience kid for a week getting in touch).
  • There are data on public perceptions of science and scientists, but perhaps these don't tell us exactly what we are looking for. There is also some disagreement about whether it is the public perception of scientists or the public perception of science itself that requires some improvement.
I am also aware, having seen the photo of me looking very serious, that I need a better hairspray. When I left the house on Saturday it looked as luxuriant and voluminous as Alok's. Suggestions welcome in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. We integrate Friendfeed into our institutional VLE by simply putting a link into the navigation sidebar, replacing the built-in discussions boards, which our students don't use. That way, Friendfeed appears within a VLE frame, much discussion and sharing occurs and the VLE is subverted ;-)


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