Canopy in the Clouds development team analyzes its social outreach
Oct29

Canopy in the Clouds development team analyzes its social outreach

A guest post by Greg Goldsmith, a tropical plant ecologist and part of the multitalented team behind Canopy in the Clouds. He describes methods he used to track and analyze audience engagement in the educational website with colleagues Drew Fulton, Colin Witherill, and Javier Espeleta in an article out today in Ecosphere. Cloud Forest Introduction from Colin Witherill on Vimeo.   There is a growing movement towards using the web for educational outreach in the sciences. The unfortunate truth is that no one really knows whether or not it is working. Data gathered from our science education website Canopy in the Clouds demonstrate that simple changes to website design, content and promotion can improve the outcomes for everyone involved. In an article published today in the Ecological Society of America’s open access journal Ecosphere, Drew Fulton, Colin Witherill, Javier Espeleta and I show that by monitoring how visitors find and use the site, we can spend less time and user fewer resources while simultaneously increasing both the quantity and quality of visits. The results provide much needed data on how people find and use science education websites that we hope can help others in their own efforts. Perhaps the most striking results concern how we use social media tools. Facebook was more effective than Twitter at driving visitors to Canopy in the Clouds, but visitors from social media viewed fewer pages and remained on the website for less time than visitors referred from other sources (e.g. educational websites). Simply building a website is not enough, it needs to be actively promoted in order to reach its potential. We studied more than 60,000 visits to the site over a three-year period using Google Analytics, a free tool that lets a website provider track visitors to the website. Importantly, the visitors’ identity and location are removed from the data provided in order to maintain anonymity.  The metrics include how visitors found the site (e.g. keyword search or link from another site), how long they spent on the site, and what content they viewed. The study also revealed how visitors used the website content. Their behavior was not what we expected. Canopy in the Clouds is designed to use immersive multimedia from a tropical montane cloud forest as a tool for engaging people in ecology. The website’s homepage has an introductory video that then leads to the core multimedia content. Our results suggest that if we immediately immersed visitors in the core content of the website, rather than providing the introductory video, that they would stay for longer and look at more pages. This provides a data-driven foundation upon which we can...

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What’s the Future of Ecologist-Communicators?
Aug15

What’s the Future of Ecologist-Communicators?

This guest post is by Holly Menninger, Director of Public Science for Your Wild Life at NC State University. Engage. Communicate. Reach out. Engage. Communicate. Reach out. These words echoed throughout the hallways of the Minneapolis Convention Center last week like a mantra. From organized symposia to high-energy Ignite sessions, ecologists both urged for and heard a rallying call to cross boundaries during this year’s Annual Meeting – to leave the ivory tower, to connect to policy makers, to connect to educators, to connect to resource managers, to connect to communities. The battle cry reached a crescendo in the standing-room-only Ignite session on Thursday afternoon: A Conversation on the Future of Ecology. Past and future leadership of the Ecological Society of America called on us to – in the words of our past president Steward Pickett – be fearless, to connect our science to society. I’ve been attending the ESA Annual Meeting since I was an incoming graduate student in 2000. More so than any time in the last 13 years, this year’s meeting in Minneapolis featured a sustained waving of rally caps in support of ecologists participating in public engagement, communication and policy, greater than I’ve ever witnessed before. In fact, I wildly swung my own rally cap during an earlier Ignite session about bridging the gap between basic and applied science – I spoke passionately about the lessons we’ve gleaned from building a successful science outreach and communication program about biodiversity. I suggested approaches that could enhance other scientists’ efforts to connect their science to the public, as required for addressing our planet’s grand environmental challenges. Continuing the drumbeat at the Future of Ecology session, there was a call for ecologists to learn how to communicate and to recognize that communication is not a one-way transfer of information. Agreed, I thought. But then, as I surveyed the room full of nodding heads, I felt something powerful well up in me. It wasn’t anger. It wasn’t heartburn (although I did have Mexican food for lunch). It was more like that red-faced indignant feeling one gets when one is either deliberately or inadvertently ignored. I felt ignored because I sensed that many in the room (and those avidly live-tweeting the session) didn’t realize or recognize the awesome pool of communications and outreach talent already within ESA’s membership. The rallying calls for increased and improved science communication seemed aimed squarely at the Society’s mid-to-late career academic scientist crowd, a crowd that has long needed arm-twisting and cajoling to engage the public, not a group that had already embraced public engagement as a core value. I am a scientist-communicator. It’s my...

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Baltimore’s Watershed 263 experiment in socioecology
Jan16

Baltimore’s Watershed 263 experiment in socioecology

Ecological restoration makes city dwellers happier and healthier. by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer IN the first summer after my move from the cool green climes of western Washington State to Washington, DC, I gained a primal, physical understanding the urban heat island effect. Summer in the District of Columbia is a hot, humid shock for a native northwesterner, and last summer was record-breaking hot. Cycling away on humid summer evenings from the baking concrete and asphalt canyons of downtown, the steady progression into increasingly leafy residential neighborhoods felt like an essential reward, without which the long, sweaty uphill climb would not be psychologically tenable. A patch of woods, one of the many remnant forts of mostly forgotten historical significance dotting our nation’s capital, seemed to breathe blessed, refrigerated air over me as I turned the corner on the last leg of my journey. Thank you, elder generations, for this gift of evapotranspiration! That patch of woods is, of course, contributing more than a cool breeze to passing commuters. It is an ecological refuge, an absorbent surface during intense thunderstorms of the midatlantic summer, and a sponge for nitrogen and phosphorus washing off city streets and lawns. It’s an all-season draw for joggers, dog-walkers, and folks out for an evening stroll.  Parks, playgrounds and tree-lined streets make this working class (though, like much of Washington, rapidly gentrifying) neighborhood a pleasant place to live. And having a pleasant place to live is not trivial, nor is it just a marker of safety and economic privilege. It confers better health and well-being. “We had this hypothesis that there is a link between the social revitalization and ecological revitalization of urban neighborhoods,” said Peter Groffman, a microbial ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. Organizations like the USDA Forest Service and Baltimore’s Parks & People Foundation had observed the connection for many years, he said. The people on the ground say that projects that improve water quality by planting vacant lots, parking strips, and other urban spaces with trees and community gardens also bring people out of doors and teach local kids about their environment – and do so at lower cost than traditional engineering solutions to sewage management and stormwater runoff. When you bring neighbors outdoors to work on a shared community problem, the project brings people together. It creates, as the sociologists like to say, “social cohesion.” People see that they have power over their environment – that, as a group, they have access to power and city services. They start to demand access to other services that residents of wealthier parts of the city...

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Science outreach is becoming hip

The world of academia used to be a place where professors and students stayed shuttered away in their research labs and offices, doing their research for the benefit of one another, with no desire to engage in the public eye. Cynics may chuckle and comment that this stereotype is still largely true today. But more and more, institutions and granting agencies are looking favorably, instead of suspiciously, at scientists who step out of the ivory tower and engage the public. In a Fresh Perspectives column in this month’s issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (subscription required), we hear from Olivia Messinger and Scott Schuette, two graduate students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale who outline the many merits (and pleasures) of engaging in public school outreach during their graduate careers. They make the case that graduate students’ knowledge combined with the resources of the university – in ecology, such resources as insect collections will always thrill school students – is a vast, untapped resource that can help to rectify the fact that most American adults lack a solid foundation in scientific concepts.  Outreach, they say, is becoming increasingly favored by academic reviewers. Such “synergistic activities” are losing the stigma of having only detrimental effects on time spent on research. In a response, Janet Hodder and Alan Shanks, professors at the University of Oregon and co-PIs on an NSF GK-12 grant, say that in their experience, public school outreach makes students better able to explain their work: “Most notably, we have seen a considerable increase in the ability of our students to successfully explain their research to diverse audiences. Students are able to gauge the information suitable for each audience, and they understand how to present their research findings in an organized and clear manner.” Hodder and  Shanks acknowledge that participation in outreach takes time, they’ve noticed that although students supported on GK-12 grants spend 15 hours a week teaching and preparing for their classes, they are no slower to finish their dissertations than other students. It’s a great development that agencies like NSF are encouraging this behavior – scientists and the public alike can only stand to benefit. Messinger, O., Schuette, S., Hodder, J., & Shanks, A. (2009). Bridging the gap: spanning the distance between high school and college education Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 7 (4), 221-222 DOI:...

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