Shrew poo and worm goo are science too

Last week I had the pleasure of being a speaker at Buck Lodge Middle School’s Career Day. Several public schools in Maryland, where Buck Lodge is located, and other states organize important events like these to get students thinking about future opportunities. Do you remember what it was like to be in middle school? To the middle school me, a career seemed distant, vague and, frankly, too overwhelming to really think about. But the big question was always on my mind: What do I want to be? As I told the students at Buck Lodge, at the time, I knew I enjoyed writing and painting and found science fascinating, but that was the scope of my “career path.” I chose a high school and college known for their science programs—seemingly small decisions that actually said quite a bit about my true interests. But it wasn’t until a couple years into college that my advisor told me about a career in science writing; the more I learned about it, the more I knew it was the right fit. I was able to learn about the latest research and share it in creative ways. As I tried to express to the students, this is why I chose science: It can be fun, weird and important all at once, and it can show you a side to the world you never knew existed. So when I explained my career to the students at Buck Lodge, I wanted to show my excitement about the two main components of my job: science and writing. The science part was, naturally, what the students found most entertaining. At the beginning of each class, I asked the students how many of them liked “science, any kind of science.” Usually a sprinkling of hands rose. Then when I asked how many students liked animals or bugs, the hands shot up. “That is what I do,” I said, “I write about animals, bugs, plants, bacteria and how they all interact with each other and their environment. This science is called ecology.” The students inevitably wanted to know about the “coolest” or “weirdest” thing a (ecological) scientist has studied. I asked them if they had heard of the water bear. In one class, the students logically guessed a water bear is a bear that is particularly good at swimming. But the room erupted in “Ew!”s and “Gross!”s when I explained that the water bear is a microscopic animal living in mosses and wet environments all over the world—that they may have actually touched a water bear and not even known it. The students continued to comment on its translucent cuticle...

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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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