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!



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