ASBMB UAN Chapters Awarded Funds to do Outreach

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To paraphrase, former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, all outreach is local. In that vein, the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee has undertaken a number of initiatives to promote and organize science outreach activities in local communities across the country.

The most recent venture was a novel partnership with the ASBMB Undergraduate Affiliates Network, a chapter-based consortium of over 90 institutions. Participation in science outreach is a requirement for individual UAN chapters, so the partnership was a natural fit. But to really spice the pot, the Public Outreach Committee worked with the UAN to develop a grant program that would allow individual chapters to apply for up to $500 to facilitate student participation in outreach activities.

Ultimately, chapters at seven schools were approved for funding this year. Some are continuing programming that they have been part of previously, while some are starting programs anew:

  • HENDRIX COLLEGE: Will bring student presentations and biology tutoring sessions to underserved students at Wonderview High School.
  • THE UNIVERSITY OF TAMPA: Will conduct molecular biology experiments alongside students from Tampa Preparatory High School. (Chapter link)
  • THE UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO: Will use amino acid builder kits to teach fundamental concepts in biochemistry to local middle school students from underserved communities.

While this program is only one part of a broader effort to involve ASBMB members in science outreach, the dedication and passion of our undergraduate members are encouraging indicators for success. Even better, participation in these activities will instill an interest in outreach that will (hopefully) endure throughout their careers, wherever they end up.

Read more about the program here.

A National Day of Making

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Sometimes you don’t need to wear an athletic uniform to be featured in a photo-op with the President of the United States. Sometimes you can just be a scientist. Case in point: the inaugural White House Maker Faire on June 18. A mix between show and tell and a science fair, the Maker Faire showcased, in the words of President Obama, how to “learn by doing,” demonstrating the practical applications of science and math.

White House Maker Faire“What on earth have you done to my house?” exclaimed Obama to the eclectic group of invitees, comprised of professional and amateur scientists and engineers of all ages, as he examined the dozens of inventions scattered throughout the White House. “Smart” furniture, 3-D printers, LED devices and life-size robotics were among the featured creations on display. Meanwhile, virtual participants from around the world joined the fun online, posting pictures and videos of their own additions to the Maker Faire mix.

That disruptive mindset is a particularly appropriate attribute of the Maker Faire movement that began in 2006 in the California Bay Area. Advertised as a “family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness”, the Maker Faire is a gathering place for inventors, creators, designers, scientists and artists, who all convene to share their work and their process. “We are all makers,” claims Maker Faire founder Dale Dougherty. This year, over 100 cities will host their own versions, culminating in the World Maker Faire in New York on September 20-21.

Importantly for the STEM community, events such as the Maker Faire provide an unparalleled opportunity to bring their efforts to the general public. Combined with the now-annual White House Science Fair, the Maker Faire is part of a broader trend that has seen the Obama administration be a continuous champion for STEM. With this kind of support, the President might be in line for an honorary lab coat.

Away From the Numbers

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The public wants what the public gets/But I don’t get what this society wants

-The Jam, “Going Underground”

 

Science and Engineering Indicators 2014Earlier this year, the National Science Board released the 2014 version of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report, detailing trends within the STEM community. In addition to data about STEM degrees, patents, and research budgets, the Indicators include a chapter on public attitudes and understanding of science and technology, providing an intriguing look at how the scientific community and its efforts are viewed by the general public.

First, the good news: people generally have positive views of scientists. 41 percent of Americans surveyed expressed “a great deal of confidence” in scientific leaders, ranking them second only to military leadership, ahead of members of the Supreme Court and (not surprisingly) politicians. Four of five of those surveyed would be happy if their child became a scientist, and over 80 percent indicated some level of interest in science.

Less encouraging are the statistics showing what the public understands about science. Fewer than half of those surveyed feel that they have a solid understanding of what scientists actually do, and 50 percent of respondents “strongly agree” or “agree” with the idea that scientific work is dangerous. Furthermore, in spite of the increase in both formal and informal efforts focusing on enhancing science education, knowledge about scientific concepts seems not to have increased very much over the past few decades, with respondents answering fewer than six out of nine questions about science correctly.

Science and Engineering Indicators: Figure 7-6

These data echo an oft-heard complaint from those within the scientific community that the public doesn’t “get” science. Countless hours have been spent, and volumes of words have been spilled, pondering what can be done to increase public understanding of science. Perhaps a better question for the scientific community to ask instead is, what does the public actually want from scientists? Should we assume that they want to hear what scientists have to say, or that they want to know more about science?

Maybe, instead of dogmatically telling the public what they should know, the scientific community should spend some time figuring what the public wants to know. As several recent discussions have emphasized, effective science communication, on which successful outreach relies, necessarily requires a two-way dialogue. Maybe, instead of trying to make sure that everyone everywhere knows everything about science, we should listen to those who have argued that instead of striving for universal public scientific literacy, science outreach efforts should focus their energy on generating public appreciation for, and awareness of, science.

Maybe then, the next version of the Science and Engineering Indicators will provoke less angst about what the numbers say, and more introspection about what people actually say.

 

Scaling the Summit

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Broader Impacts. The mere mention of these two words provokes intense reactions from scientists. For some, they are a burdensome requirement unilaterally imposed on the research community by the National Science Foundation; others see Broader Impacts as a necessary attempt by the agency to justify use of taxpayer money to fund the scientific enterprise. One thing that everyone seems to agree upon is that integration of Broader Impacts within the grant funding process has been difficult, suffering from vague guidelines and inconsistent implementation.

Broader Impacts Summit 2014

In an attempt to strengthen collaboration, scholarship and policy related to Broader Impacts, leaders from the field converged last week on the NSF’s backyard of Arlington, VA for the 2014 Broader Impacts Summit. Featuring three days of presentations, panel discussions and informal conversations, the Summit hosted a mixture of Broader Impacts professionals from universities, informal science institutions, and professional organizations alongside NSF staff.

Two major themes ran throughout the meeting: what does a successful Broader Impacts program look like, and how can the different types of Broader Impacts activities and proposals be properly evaluated? A major frustration for those involved with Broader Impacts has been the massive confusion as to what type of activity actually constitutes Broader Impacts. Keynote speakers Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark and Freeman Hrabowski, President at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, both defined their vision of successful Broader Impacts as being achieved through the seamless integration of scientific research within local community structures. Providing grist to this mill, several presenters gave examples of how their individual programs were doing just that, ranging from the K-12 community outreach program run by the Yale Pathways to Science program to state-wide engaged scholarship activities at Iowa State University, while also explaining how such programs could be used to motivate scientist participation and engage broader communities.

Unfortunately, the NSF itself has been reluctant to provide too prescriptive a framework as to what they consider Broader Impacts to be, concerned that including explicit standards and definitions would hamper the process by excluding activities that happen to fall outside of these borders. Sadly, this reticence continued at the Summit, with agency administrators from top to bottom refusing to do more than call on the community to develop guidelines on its own, on the assumption that a bottom-up approach would be most equitable.

BIIS14 Session

Beyond creating confusion over what to include in Broader Impacts proposals, such lack of guidance also was also seen be conference attendees to be harming attempts at proper evaluation. To help improve the evaluation process, attendees debated how reviewers on grant panels could be adequately prepared so as to be able to properly evaluate the Broader Impacts portion of proposals. Individual panelists from the community were able to point to resources and strategies that they used in their evaluation efforts, though these relied on a wide range of metrics, suggesting that a unified evaluative framework is still lacking.

The grass-roots, piecemeal manner in which individual Broader Impacts programs have developed and grown is simultaneously both the source of inspiration for the Summit, and one of the overarching issues that the Summit was aiming to rectify. By bringing together leaders and program organizers from across the country, the Summit is a fantastic first step towards allowing the community to collectively move forward to address the issues that have been raised.  BIONICTo continue with the development of this process, conference organizer Susan Renoe from the University of Missouri happily announced that a Regional Coordination Network proposal had been approved for NSF funding starting in 2015. The RCN grant will allow for support of future summits along with providing more opportunities to bring together different stakeholders, expanding the pool of participants, and furthering development and dissemination of Broader Impacts resources.

There is still a mountain left to climb in terms of improving the Broader Impacts framework; at least now the community has left base camp.

For a sample of Twitter activity during the Summit, visit: https://storify.com/TheGeoffHunt/biis14

 

Free Your Mind at EB2014

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Scientific conferences have a way of taking something that is inherently fun and exciting and dragging the life out of it. Between the endless menagerie of talks, posters, workshops, discussions and networking events, it becomes nigh impossible to maintain that sense of exhilaration that exists when you first set foot inside the conference center.

Instead of accepting that scientific meetings are a necessary evil, to be endured rather than enjoyed, try to look at a conference as a chance to take part in some activities that you wouldn’t normally get to do. If you happen to be coming to EB2014, ASBMB is offering a wide variety of opportunities for you to break out of the normal conference routine, and, you know, have some fun:

Outreach poster session

Aspirnauts

The Aspirnauts- stars of the 2013 ASBMB Outreach Poster Session

Have you heard the word “outreach” and been unsure what it means? Get a better sense by checking out our special science outreach-themed poster session, directly following the ASBMB Opening Lecture on Saturday April 26. Sponsored by the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee, the session will feature posters from ASBMB members showing how they do outreach, describing the different events and activities with which they are involved. Oh, and there will be refreshments.

 

 

 

Science communication workshop

Want a chance to practice not talking like a scientist? Come to our workshop “You Can’t Say That on Television (or to Congress, or to students)” on Monday April 28 at 12:30 PM and get insight and advice from a panel of expert science communicators who will work with you directly to improve your communication skills. We’ll have bloggers, policy wonks and education experts, all at your disposal.

 

Science café

FoldIt logo

On Monday April 28 at 7:30 PM, swing by Southpaw Social in the heart of the Gaslamp District  to take part in our public science café, “Game Changer: How a Computer Game Can Turn You Into a Real-Life Hero.” Brian Koepnick from the University of Washington will lead an interactive, hands-on exploration of FoldIt, the video game that doubles as protein structure research. We’re opening the doors to all comers, so don’t be surprised to find yourself sharing a computer with someone with absolutely no scientific background. How’s that for a different conference experience?

Of course, we still encourage you take in all the science you possibly can during the meeting. But if you do ending up having even a small craving to try out something unique, come join us for our outreach events and re-discover why you came to love science in the first place.

 

For more about special events at EB, visit: http://www.asbmb.org/Meetings_01/2014mtg/2014AnnlMtgProgInfo.aspx?specialevents=t

To learn more about the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee, visit: http://www.asbmb.org/PublicOutreach/

Social Science

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How should science be taught in the 21st century? In this month’s ASBMB Today, authors Morgan Thompson, Jon Beckwith and Regina Stevens-Truss argue that, in contrast to the traditional siloed approach, modern training in science requires perspectives that incorporate public discourse and consider the societal context of scientific research. Their solution is the Science and Social Justice Project, a joint collaborative between Kalamazoo College and Harvard Medical School that “seeks to identify, connect, and coordinate scholars doing science and social justice teaching and research.”

The idea of applying such an inclusive approach to scientific training is one that is gaining traction throughout the scientific community. Sonny Ramaswamy, Director of the Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture program, has argued that science communicators should be involved in research projects from beginning to end, in an effort to bring broader social, ethical and political perspectives to experimental design and interpretation. Meanwhile, collaborations that address the overlap between scientific and societal issues have become more common and more formalized. Numerous institutions now feature such programs, including Princeton University’s Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy and the Stanford University Program in Law, Science & Technology.

Without Borders Conference

As the Science and Social Justice Project grows, the project leaders hope to get more and more scientists involved in their effort. A major step will be the WITH/OUT — ¿BORDERS? Conference, held September 25-28, 2014. The conference will create “conversations on emerging epistemologies, radical geographies, critical solidarities, and transgressive practices that transcend and theorize across disciplinary and academic/activist borders.”

The role of science within popular culture is rapidly expanding. Ensuring that upcoming generations of scientists and non-scientists are able to freely converse and navigate between their respective areas of expertise will improve not only science, but society as a whole.

Making the Windy City a Little More Windy

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The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is a hodgepodge of talks, presentations and workshops from across the scientific spectrum. In recent years, the theme of science communication has featured prominently throughout the meeting. This year’s version, held last month in a frigid Chicago, continued that trend.

The meeting kicked off with the annual International Public Science Events Conference (IPSEC), attended by outreach and public science professionals from across the globe. With an overall theme of incorporating science into popular culture, IPSEC 2014 featured several sessions focused on strategies for going beyond standard outreach activities to reach non-traditional audiences. A wonderful example was presented by Mark SubbaRao from the Adler Planetarium, who worked to have astronomy images displayed in various public spaces around the greater Chicago region, including in subway trains, at O’Hare airport, and even in local penitentiaries (he is still awaiting feedback from the Blues Brothers). Examples of other novel outreach approaches abounded, from the collaborative Discover, Explore and Enjoy Physics and Engineering (DEEP) program at Texas A&M University to the hipster gathering that is Nerd Nite.

Once the AAAS meeting began in full, an entire session track dedicated to communication fit alongside scientific themes like Physics and Astronomy. One of the more notable sessions, sponsored by COMPASS, featured a wide range of stakeholders discussing different approaches to incorporate science communication into student training programs, continuing the discussion that was begun at the initial #GradSciComm meeting held last December. Officials from both the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Science Foundation outlined actions being taken by the federal government, such as novel funding opportunities and prescriptive programmatic recommendations, while university-based speakers Karen Klomparens (Michigan State University Graduate School) and Rachel Mitchell (University of Washington- ENGAGE) talked about their experiences with science communication training programs at their individual institutions.

A crowd favorite was a session, hosted by the Center for Communicating Science at SUNY-Stonybrook, focusing on the use of improvisation tools to facilitate communication. An overflow crowd of more than 100 attendees swarmed into the session room to take part in various exercises, such as silently working with a partner to carry an invisible sheet of glass around the room (without breaking it!), that demonstrated the critical non-verbal aspects of communication.

For science communicators (at least of a certain age), the unquestioned highlight of the meeting was Alan Alda giving his plenary lecture “Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science” to a packed room of meeting attendees. Alda spoke of the need for scientists to engage with the general public, describing his (often-times frustrating) interactions with scientists while hosting Scientific American Frontiers, as well as his personal classroom experiences that served as inspiration for the creation of the Flame Challenge.

The theme of public interaction extended beyond the session rooms, with several different public science events taking place that gave meeting attendees a chance to put their communication skills to use through science-based interactions with people from the local community.

Chicago families check out the American Society of Plant Biology booth during Family Science Days at AAAS2014.

Children and parents crowded into Family Science Day to learn about meiosis using poker chips, use a 3D printer to make miniature self-models, and help generate indoor tornadoes. Other public facing communication events included a science café on dark matter, hosted at the Adler Planetarium, and a live filming of StoryCollider, a science podcast/storytelling platform.

As science communication becomes ever more integrated as part of the scientific process, these types of activities and sessions will feature regularly at scientific meetings and conferences. ASBMB will feature its own platter of events at the 2014 Experimental Biology meeting next month, including a science communication workshop and a public science cafe (check out our full lineup under the “Public Policy and Science Outreach” header: http://www.asbmb.org/Meetings_01/2014mtg/2014AnnlMtgProgInfo.aspx). So the next time you go to a meeting, try to see what you can do to communicate your science without using a poster board or PowerPoint presentation. You might be amazed at what is out there.

Paying it Forward: Inspiring the Next Generation

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By Shaila Kotadia (@shpostrapheaila)

Scientists presenting in a classroom can result in lifelong inspiration. During an outreach visit, my colleague, Carley Corrado, demonstrated the awe one could invoke in students. She visited a classroom of 2nd graders and organized an activity to blow up a balloon, stick it in liquid nitrogen, and then pulled it out. Simple enough, but what would happen to the balloon? More importantly, what did the elementary students think would happen? The students all predicted the balloon would pop in the liquid nitrogen and covered their ears in anticipation. Instead, it shrank. When the balloon was pulled out of the cold temperature, it began to grow again and the students stared screaming and could not believe their eyes. They had to touch the balloon to make sure it was real. Afterwards, Carley asked what the students wanted to be when they grew up. In unison, they answered “A scientist!”

A few years before this inspirational moment, Carley and I met one day under the warm California sun. We were both selected as outreach officers of the Women in Science and Engineering organization at the University of California, Santa Cruz. There were opportunities to conduct educational outreach at our current institution but none deeply connected to our respective departments and none aligned with our vision to inspire students in the classroom. Thus, we set out to lead our own outreach project. There were no constraints; just two people who wanted to change the lives of students by showing them the wonderments of science.

Outreach volunteers Keelan Guiley and Carley Corrado with 5th grade Earth Science  students at Sacred Heart School in Saratoga, CA

Outreach volunteers Keelan Guiley and Carley Corrado with 5th grade Earth Science students at Sacred Heart School in Saratoga, CA

I was motivated by my first outreach experience in graduate school. After another friend and I spoke about our projects and how basic research helps to lead to cures to diseases, one student, wide-eyed and about 12 years old, asked if his whole family was going to get cancer because they were overweight. In that moment, I realized the difference I could make by entering a classroom and just talking about what I do for a living. Carley had been motivated to pursue a scientific career because of the mentors she met along her path to becoming a scientist. She had tremendous gratitude for the advice she had been given. Thus, she wanted to give back and lend her knowledge to inspire a student to find their path like she had.

We set off on our journey, brainstorming ideas for school visits, gathering volunteers, connecting with teachers. Eventually we made it into a few classrooms and tested our set-up. After many visits over several years, our outreach program evolved into a short presentation by each scientist volunteer followed by questions about anything, both professional and personal, from the students and then hands-on activities that promoted inquiry. Through our visits, like the example above, we noticed how we could inspire students to love science as much as we did.

I was also pleasantly surprise by an unintended consequence from our program in that not only did we inspire the young students but also our peers. I was fortunate to have an undergraduate student that I mentored in the lab go on a visit with me. Later, she took on the role as an outreach leader. It was amazing to see her flourish and listen to her stories about her own excitement of running a visit and the excitement the students expressed. It was even better when she moved on to her next position and said she hoped to continue the outreach efforts at her new institution. It was like re-experiencing my first visit to students in graduate school and remembering how it feels to inspire others.

Tomorrow Never Knows

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It was fifty years ago this week that Beatlemania broke here in America. The confluence of factors that combined to propel the Beatles from unknowns to pop culture icons may seem light years away from having anything to do with science; yet developments within the scientific community show some surprisingly odd parallels.

Alberts MBOC

Image credit: Garland Science

The Beatles were great communicators, using their intrinsic musical talent and skill to make an intense connection with the public. However, even they required some refining in order to go from the repetitive (though undoubtedly catchy) “Love Me Do” to the intricate wonders of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Similarly, most scientists could benefit from refinement of their communication abilities, in order to become maximally effective at communicating with the public. In her column in the February issue of ASBMB Today, Meena Selvakumar talks about how Portal to the Public, a training program founded by the Pacific Science Center, works to prepare scientists to engage with audiences at informal science education institutions. Project staff lead traveling workshops that bring their communications expertise directly to local communities, working to make scientists into well-rounded communication experts.

As The Beatles expanded their songwriting craft, they came up with increasingly creative outlets for broadcasting their music, such as films, concept albums, even playing a concert on a London rooftop. Science outreach activities are becoming just as ingenious. As an example, the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington D.C. is currently showcasing two exhibits that highlight laboratory science in unique ways. The first, described by Sapeck Agrawal in her recent article (also in the February issue of ASBMB Today), is the Q?rius exhibit, which showcases microscopes and their power to illuminate science at the sub-micron level. The exhibit excels in particular at bringing the museum’s specimen collection to life, allowing visitors to pluck up samples and take a deeper look under a microscope.

Image courtesy: National Human Genome Research Institute and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Image courtesy: National Human Genome Research Institute and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Upstairs from the Q?rius exhibit is “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code”, which opened in 2013 to highlight the anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. In the exhibit, visitors can learn about the pros and cons of genetic testing and investigate details about the human genome. There are even live scientists, draped in standard-issue lab coats, fielding questions from visitors, and theater pieces that dramatize the scientific events that lead to the decoding of the genomre.

So while scientists are likely not vying to be bigger than Jesus, could embracing this musically-inspired approach to science communication possibly help inspire a similar bout of hysteria about science (Sciencemania anyone)? As The Fab Four might have put it had they been scientists: “The knowledge you take is equal to the knowledge you make.”

Use Your Words

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By Shaila Kotadia (@shpostrapheaila)

Imagine stepping onto the turf at CenturyLink Field, home of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, engulfed by the loudest crowd in the history of sports, and trying to get them to cheer for their arch-rival, the San Francisco 49ers. That was essentially the situation in which science personality Bill Nye found himself earlier this week, when he ventured into the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY for a debate on evolution with Museum president Ken Ham. Beyond the ramifications for evolutionary biology, the debate presented a fascinating example of an effort to communicate science to a non-expert audience.

Many within the scientific community criticized Nye for even participating in the first place, pointing out that he is not an expert on evolution, and that by agreeing to debate Ham he was justifying the position of creationists. Nye, however, relished the debate as an opportunity to communicate about science, pointing out that he hoped to “draw attention to the importance of science education here in the United States.” His performance serves as an insightful guide for how those interested in science communication can perform under the most difficult of circumstances.

Given that the event featured back-and-forth statements without interjections, it was difficult for each participant to react to opposing viewpoints. However, Nye gave a master class in how to keep cool in the face of hostility: rather than reacting negatively, he listened to what the other side had to say and responded in a level-headed manner with confidence and facts that reinforced his position. Nye also made good use of his delivery, throwing in colloquialisms and jokes, and using intonations that engaged the audience. This kept the tone of the debate relaxed and friendly, removing the aggression that sometimes overshadows intellectual components.

Furthermore, Nye was able to use examples from his own life to make his presentation more relatable. Both scientists and non-scientists have loved ones who have been diagnosed with cancer or heart disease or diabetes; making a personal connection is an effective approach to softening the nature of the audience, helping to persuade them to be more objective and eliminating unrecognized biases.

In the end, Nye both won and lost the debate. While his points were made with fervor, he tried to fit a lot of science into minimal time, likely making it difficult for the average viewer to really digest all of the facts. When explaining complex scientific concepts, it is best to keep it simple and to the point, and then fill in details as questions arise. Nye also faced a difficult opponent who refuted his arguments with a “if you can’t see it, then you can’t believe it” attitude and constantly referred back to the Bible when asked questions about unsolved scientific problems. Given such stubbornness, scientists need to recognize when there is difficulty reasoning with the other side, and do their best to lay out their story clearly and concisely.

But from an outreach perspective, Bill Nye was a clear winner. Whether or not creationists were converted to evolutionists or vice-versa is immaterial. Scientists are often told that they must communicate their science to the public. Refusing to engage with different audiences leads to confusion, mis-information and distrust, all of which make our jobs as scientists even more difficult. Take the opportunity to learn from Bill Nye about how you can use your words to help others understand the beauty of science.  If more scientists stood up to promote and defend science, then this debate might not have even been necessary in the first place.