Learning science through social media

What is the idea?

A free, open social networking website intended to promote scientific literacy by encouraging a community of students and amateur scientists at all levels to perform research projects and share their ideas, methods, and results on the web.

What is the point?

Science is an important part of the human experience, just like literature or music. But perhaps more importantly, science is the best tool we have for informing some of our biggest social problems like climate change, energy consumption, and health problems. So, it’s very important for every person to understand what science is and how it works, even if they don’t need it for their jobs. But, unfortunately, fewer than 20% of Canadian adults can be described as scientifically literate.

Our education system is very good at reaching a few students and inspiring them to enjoy and pursue science. But, other students are turned away from science, feeling frustrated because it is difficult and the connections between science and one’s every day life don’t seem strong enough.

The point of creating an online community for science students is to create a different kind of learning environment that may be more welcoming and enjoyable for those students who are left uninspired by lectures and textbooks.

Why would people use this website?

People will use this website because, by design, it will be an excellent place to do science. Because of the focus of the website on students and learning, it will foster a very helpful community of learners at all levels who can help each other develop their ideas, solve problems, and learn new things along the way. The website will also provide high quality tools for online collaboration, scientific record keeping, social networking, and sharing the fruits of one’s efforts.

Community provides a huge incentive for people to do their best work. Fewer operas, books, paintings, or dances would be created if there were no audiences to appreciate the artists’ work. Science is the same way, and it is a shame that we don’t have a larger audience of science enthusiasts celebrating every student’s science fair project. But maybe an online community will help that.

Scientists are largely motivated by gaining recognition for their work within the scientific community or with the public. But with science fair projects, the size of the audience is small and the display is temporary. So, students may be focused more on squeaking by with a passing grade than with creating a body of work that is meaningful to them. But if a student knew that his or her work would be shared with the whole world, and built upon by other students, the amount of effort put into it by that student will be much higher.

We know this is true from students who were asked to update online encyclopedia articles for course credit. Because the students knew they would be contributing to a community, and other people would find their work useful or inspiring, more effort was put into the encylopedia pages than would have been put into a traditional essay, which would only ever be read by a few people.

Social media really is a powerful tool for education, and since science is a highly collaborative, social activity, learning science through a social network really is a perfect match.

Students will come for the tools, and stay for the community.

What will the student experience be like?

For some students, getting started can be the hardest part of tackling a science fair project. But, with a lively science fair community on the web, a student can look at other projects to find out what sorts of things can be accomplished in their areas of interest and at their skill level. Moreover, students may have suggested ways to improve on their results that no one has tried yet. Or, someone may have posted a discussion in the forums about a neat experiment they would like to see someone tackle and upload to the website. For a student who is new to science, having access to these kinds of discussions can lead to much more personal, original work.

A student who uploads his science fair project, or work done after school will get feedback from other students in the form of comments and mentions in the work of others. Others will be working on similar projects and they can exchange ideas to make both projects better. Outstanding finished projects may get a ‘featured’ status if it achieves enough recognition from the community.

And, yes, we really should expect that students will go out of their way to help each other learn.

Is the internet really a good learning environment?

Historically, science took the power of knowledge out of the hands of authority figures and made it available to anyone willing to learn. Thinking of things that way, doesn’t it seem a little strange that most of us learned science from authority figures telling us what is true?

Science education should be about people finding out for themselves what is true, applying the tools of and principles science to any and every topic that interests them and interacting with peers to help each other learn. In fact, the discussions that happen between students can be more useful for learning than even the most beautifully crafted lectures from a teacher. Using the internet and social media, we can easily introduce this kind of science education into our schools and homes.

Also, this community can be designed to mimic certain aspects of the professional scientific community, giving the students who use it better insight into how science works and what scientists actually do. In other words, the site will provide a unique opportunity for its users to improve their scientific literacy by pursuing their own interests.

Sounds like a good idea. How can I help?

Please check back for updates to this section!
[update: Sept 1, 2010] If you are Canadian, you can vote directly for the project each and every day by clicking here and then clicking ‘vote for this project’. But, most importantly, you can help by spreading the word. Please share this link everywhere you can!



Should scientific literacy be part of the literacy package?


Here is an excellent essay from Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, an Irish physicist to convince you:

First, many challenges facing modern society involve a basic understanding of science. Issues such as the safety of commercial nuclear power, the ethics of embryonic stem-cell research, or action on greenhouse gas emissions all demand a basic knowledge of scientific concepts, and how scientific facts are established. This latter is the more important point – an understanding of the built-in scepticism of the scientific method builds confidence in scientific discovery.

Instead, public discourse on important scientific issues is often dominated by media commentary that has little idea of the methods of science, and that fails to distinguish between informed and uninformed opinion (not to mention vested interests). For example, much of the current “debate” concerning the reality of human-induced global warming occurs not within science, but in the media – a public scepticism that takes little account of the robustness of modern scientific enquiry.

So what is the solution? I suspect the answer lies in education. It is striking that when we talk of literacy, we mean a mastery of reading, writing and arithmetic. It could be argued that a basic knowledge of science should also be part of the package – and is about 300 years overdue.

How reasoning affects our democracies

The Boston Globe recently posted an essay discussing how people’s reluctance to adjust their beliefs to new information affects the democratic political discourse.

Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

Actually, the link between people thinking like a scientist and democracy is quite strong. After all, an election is a type of measurement. Given all the complexities of the real world, we are asked to figure out what is actually true and make quality decisions that will affect everyone in our communities. But, what we discover is that we aren’t very good at doing this. We often come to the wrong conclusions because our mental wiring isn’t up to the task. Too many people are unfamiliar with the tools for ensuring our reasoning has turned up the right solutions.

Traditional education is not a good solution to this problem. Being told what’s true is ineffective. Instead, a certain type of integrity needs to become part of our culture. Thinking like a scientist needs to be a value for everyone who votes, not just for scientists.

Learning is shaped like a “U”

When you are cleaning out your closet, you generally start by pulling everything out and spreading it all over the floor before you start putting it back in a much more organized way. If you were to plot the messiness as a function of time, it would start out relatively organized, then head downwards as you spill your belongings onto the floor, but then turn back upwards as the reorganization phase began. In other words, the organization vs. time graph is U-shaped. Hopefully, it ends up higher than when you started. But, its unusual to organize a mess without making things a little worse for a short period of time before ultimately making things better.

It turns out, a similar thing seems to be true of your mind as you try to learn complicated ideas or tasks. It is common to think of learning as a monotonic progression in learning a new skill. The more you have practiced, the better you expect to be. But, there is evidence from a diverse array of cognitive tasks (language, art, facial perception, social cognition, music, science, etc.) that show that your performance on the task has a U-shaped dependence on time. In other words, for complex tasks, you may experience yourself getting worse before you actually get better.

We don’t know the cognitive reasons for this dip in performance yet, but a recent paper by Paul J. Camp proposes a thoughtful hypothesis for why this might happen with students learning Newtonian reasoning.

But as they move on from this initial burst of experience into other problems and different contexts, they must rely on remembering the correct Newtonian reasoning and recall is seriously complicated by the fact that their older phenomenological reasoning patterns are much, much better indexed and easily accessible than their newer Newtonian ones. They must experience failure of those memories and be reminded of what they have learned more recently. This produces a dip in performance.

According to the evidence, even while a learner’s performance is dipping, the actual understanding is not. The performance dip comes despite an increase in understanding.

So, how should a person go about learning something?

If skill acquisition is characterized by increments followed by decrements in performance as the mental representation of that knowledge is reorganized, and if shifting context is critical to the reorganization process, then curtailing that process after observing the first peak in performance runs the risk of losing access to that knowledge altogether. This directly implies that an iterative structure should be central, not peripheral.

In other words, learning should not be done linearly. Textbooks and curricula which lead students through a series of topics, always moving on to new material without constantly returning to previous materials is likely not the most efficient way to enable learning. In fact, it may leave students with a fragmented, poorly organized set of ideas that they are likely to forget and need to relearn later on. However, these students may still pass the exams and teachers will view them as success stories strengthening their confidence in linear teaching methods.

Moreover, the traditional method of testing may not be a good measure of student understanding.

The data above shows not only that performance development is U-shaped but also that it is at best only partially synchronized between students. If, say, a midterm exam is scheduled at a time when one student is at the first peak of performance and another is in the valley between peaks, the more knowledgeable student can actually receive the lower grade.

Jon Stewart misunderstands science

In a recent interview with Marilynne Robinson, Jon Stewart claimed that science seems to rely as much on faith as does religion and that he’s struck by the similarity of the arguments at their core.

I think Jon has made the common mistake of confusing the story telling part of science (hypothesizing and conjecturing) with the believing part of religion (faith). While religion and science both have elements of story telling, they are not the same thing. The important difference between them is their different take on the path between a story and a belief.

The fact that scientists have stories about what Dark matter is (Jon confuses dark matter with anti-matter) is different from them ‘believing’ those stories. To a scientist, believing comes after the evidence, never before. However, by definition faith is about believing things in the absence of evidence, and this is the point over which science and faith are “exclusive and at odds”. Science says beliefs based on faith are bad news.

I’ve been careful to use the word ‘faith’ where Jon has used ‘religion’. I’m not sure if religion is at odds with science. Religion is a large wrapper with a lot of things inside. If one of those things is faith, then religion and science are exclusive and at odds.

More to science than just what’s true

An interesting article at Denver Post makes a good point about communicating science to the public. There is more to it than telling people what’s true.

These three controversies have a single moral, and it’s that experts who want Americans to take science into account when they form opinions on contentious issues need to do far more than just “lay out the facts” or “set the record straight.”

What science says is important, but in controversial areas, it’s only the beginning. It’s critical that experts and policymakers better understand what motivates public concern in the first place; and in this, they mustn’t be deceived by the fact that people often appear, on the surface, to be arguing about scientific facts. Frequently, their underlying rationale is very different.

How do you measure that?

We are constantly measuring everything around us and drawing conclusions from those measurements. To navigate our everyday lives, we must analyze data, but we don’t normally think of it that way. In fact, it comes so naturally to us that we don’t normally think of it at all.

Actually, every concept you can have in your head, comes complete with some understanding of how that concept should get measured. You feel like you know a beautiful photograph when you see one. When you see a bus, there is usually very little mistake that it is a bus. You feel like you would know a funny joke when you heard one. ‘Beauty’, ‘bus’, and ‘funny’ are just concepts in your head. The understanding you have of the role those concepts play in the real world is related to making measurements.

Some people think that some concepts can’t be measured. As with love, or pornography, you just have to know it when you see it. But, even if you feel this way, there is still some kind of measurement going on in your mind. You have just chosen to outsource that measurement to your subconscious and not carefully consider what parameters are involved.

When you hear a joke, you actually measure its funniness without even thinking. If it made you laugh, that’s funnier than if it just made you chuckle. If it made you spray milk out of your nose, that’s funnier than just a laugh. How does the funniness of that joke compare to the funniest thing you can remember? Even though you probably never assign any numbers to the funniness of a joke, you definitely have a sense of how funny it is. You are making funniness measurements!

If I measure funniness by how much a joke makes me laugh, and you measure funniness by how much a joke makes you laugh, we will probably disagree on whether some jokes are funny or not: when we use different measurements of a thing, we are really using different definitions of that concept.

We are very used to the idea that not everyone measures things the same way. What’s funny to one person may not be funny to another. What’s beautiful to one person may not be beautiful to another. We are used to these things being subjective so we don’t find it unusual when we disagree with people over subjective ideas.

This really hinders our conversations with people though. If we don’t agree on the definition of funny, does the word really have any meaning? There is only meaning in a word if my conception of it is close enough to how the person I’m speaking to conceptualizes it. So, there is a lot of value in thinking carefully about how things are being measured. Are they being measured the same way you would measure it?

For example, if someone tells you that apples healthy for you, what does that mean? How have they measured the ‘healthiness for you’ of apples? Did they measure healthiness by looking at the colour of an apple? Did they try an apple and measure its healthiness by how they felt? Did they give an apple to a bunch of their friends and ask how they felt? Did they analyze the chemicals of an apple and investigate how those chemicals interact with the human body? Perhaps they compared the health benefits of apples to the health benefits of sugar water. Maybe they did the comparison while making sure that no one knew which group they were in.

All of these different kinds of measurements give different meanings to the idea that ‘apples are healthy for you’. The way you measure something actually affects the meaning you assign to it. There are always ways to make a measurement better, more precise, and more meaningful if you are careful and creative about it.

Some things, like the length of a pencil, are straightforward to measure. But, we are constantly being asked to measure complicated concepts like healthiness, danger, or funniness in our every day lives. We don’t have a ruler for those measurements, so we just have to improvise. The ways we choose to improvise those measurements actually impact on the decisions we make everyday. Whenever you want to be sure you’re not making a mistake, it’s a good idea to stop and ask yourself how can you make your measurements a little more thoughtfully? Also, how can you help other people make better measurements?