Judging science fairs: 10/10 Privilege, 0/10 Ability

Every year, I make a point of rounding up students in my department and encouraging them to volunteer one evening judging our local science fair. This year, the fair was held at the start of April, and featured over 200 judges and hundreds of projects from young scientists in grades 5 through to 12, with the winners going on to the National Championships.

President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov
President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov

Perhaps the most rewarding part of volunteering your time, and the reason why I encourage colleagues to participate is when you see just how excited the youth are for their projects. It doesn’t matter what the project is, most of the students are thrilled to be there. Add to that how A Real Life Scientist (TM) wants to talk to them about their project? It’s a highlight for many of the students. As a graduate student, the desire to do science for science’s sake is something that gets drilled out of you quickly as you follow the Williams Sonoma/Jamie Oliver Chemistry 101 Cookbook, where you add 50 g Chemical A to 50 of Chemical B and record what colour the mixture turns. Being around  excitement based purely on the pursuit of science is refreshing.

However, the aspect of judging science fairs that I struggle most with is how to deal with the wide range of projects. How do you judge two projects on the same criteria where one used university resources (labs, mass spectrometers, centrifuges etc) and the other looked at how high balls bounce when you drop them. It becomes incredibly difficult as a judge to remain objective when one project is closer in scope to an undergraduate research project and the other is more your typical kitchen cabinet/garage equipment project. Even within two students who do the same project, there is variability depending on whether or not they have someone who can help them at home, or access to facilities through their school or parents social network.

As the title suggests, this is an issue of privilege. Having people at home who can help, either directly by providing guidance and helping do the project, or indirectly by providing access to resources, gives these kids a huge leg up over their peers. As Erin pointed out in her piece last year:

A 2009 study of the Canada-Wide Science Fair found that found that fair participants were elite not just in their understanding of science, but in their finances and social network. The study looked at participants and winners from the 2002-2008 Fairs, and found that the students were more likely to come from advantaged middle to upper class families and had access to equipment in universities or laboratories through their social connections (emphasis mine).

So the youth who are getting to these fairs are definitely qualified to be there – they know the project, and they understand the scientific method. They’re explaining advanced concepts clearly and understand the material. The problem becomes how does one objectively deal with this? You can’t punish the student because they used the resources available to them, especially if they show mastery of the concepts. But can you really evaluate them on the same stage and using the same criteria as their peers without access to those resources, especially when part of the criteria includes the scientific merit of the project?

The fair, to their credit, took a very proactive approach to this concern, which was especially prudent given the makeup of this area where some kids have opportunities and others simply don’t. Their advice was to judge the projects independently, and judge the kids on the strength of their presentation and understanding. But again, there’s an element of privilege behind this. The kids who have parents and mentors who can coach them and prepare them for how to answer questions, or even just give them an opportunity/push them to practice their talk, will obviously do better.

The science fair acts as a microcosm for our entire academic system, from undergrad into graduate and professional school and into later careers. The students who can afford to volunteer in labs over the summer during undergrad are more likely to make it into highly competitive graduate programs as they have “relevant experience,” while their peers who have to work minimum wage positions to pay tuition or student loans are going to be left behind. The system is structured to reward privilege – when was the last time an undergrad or graduate scholarship considered “work history” as opposed to “relevant work experience?” Most ask for a resume or curriculum vitae, where one could theoretically include that experience, but if the ranking criteria look for “relevant” work experience, which working at Starbucks doesn’t include, how do those students compete for the same scholarships? This is despite how working any job does help you develop various transferable skills including time management and conflict resolution. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the negative stigma many professors hold for this type of employment.

The question thus is: Are we okay with this? Are we okay with a system where, based purely on luck, some kids are given opportunities, while others aren’t? And if not, how do we start tackling it?




Disclaimer: I’ve focused on economic privilege here, but privilege comes in many different forms. I’m not going to wade into the other forms, but for some excellent reads, take a read of this, this and this.

The Biggest Sci-Ed Stories of 2013

As 2013 comes to an end, it’s a time for reflection and thought about the last year, and look towards to the future. 2013 was quite the year in science, with impressive discoveries and wide reaching events. I’ve selected my five favourite science stories below, but I welcome your thoughts and would love to hear your thoughts on the top science stories of 2013.

GoldieBlox and Diversity in Science
This isn’t a new issue by any stretch, but it is one of the most important issues facing science (and higher education in general). Diversity in science is essential for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly, it gives us different perspectives on problems, and thus, new and novel solutions. Within the scientific establishment, there have been many stories about discrimination and inappropriate conduct (see SciCurious’ excellent series of posts on the matter, including posts by friends of the blog @RimRK and @AmasianV), and, unfortunately there are no easy solutions.

Perhaps the biggest diversity-related story this year was GoldieBlox. While initially this started as a media darling (who didn’t love the video?), further examination revealed deep-set problems in how they chose to approach the issue of gender representation in STEM disciplines.

There is a lot of change required to reach equality in science careers and to ensure that people are judged and given opportunities based on their work, not their privilege. Lets hope that in 2014 we can start the ball rolling on that change.

Fracking and Energy
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” is a way by which natural gas is extracted from shale or coal beds deep in the ground. This is done by pumping millions of gallons of pressurized, chemically-treated water into the ground, which breaks up the rocks and allows the gas to escape and be collected at the surface. There are large deposits of gas stored in this manner throughout the Northeastern United States and Easten/Atlantic Canada, and, as you can imagine, the economic incentives to extract this gas are huge. In fact, the Hon. Craig Leonard, Minister of Energy and Mines in New Brunswick said:

Based on U.S. Department of Energy statistics, 15 trillion cubic feet of gas is enough to heat every home in New Brunswick for the next 630 years.

Or if used to generate electricity, it could supply all of New Brunswick’s residential, commercial and industrial needs for over 100 years.

In other words, it has the potential to provide a significant competitive advantage to our province.

These economic benefits, however, have to be considered along with potential risks that come along with pumping gallons of water into the ground. The most apparent is how fracking requires an excessive amount of water, which could negatively impact other industries. In addition, this treated water could potentially open cracks into underground water supplies, contaminating our drinking water supply. Finally, what do we do with this water once it’s been used – how do we dispose of it safely and efficiently? These are all concerns that need to be addressed, along with other environmental issues that may arise. There’s no doubt that we need to plan for energy independence, and a way to revitalize your economy is a benefit no politician (or citizen) would like to pass up. However, we have to think long term and plan for the future.

Typhoon Haiyan and Global Warming
Typhoon Haiyan was one of the most powerful tropical storms on record, killing an estimated 6,111 people in the Philippines alone and doing over USD$1.5 billion in damage. Currently, over 4.4 million are homeless – which is almost the population of the Phoenix metro area (4.3 million from their 2010 Census), or the entire population of New Zealand (4.2 million from their 2013 Census). While the immediate threat has passed, there are now other problems arising. Many of the victims remain unburied, and sanitation remains an important concern to prevent outbreaks of cholera, dysentery and other communicable diseases.

Typhoon Haiyan highlights what we can expect with global warming. While the general understanding is that global warming will simply lead to warmer temperatures, that is not entirely true. A “side effect” suggests that we are more likely to see extreme weather events, which include typhoons and tropical storms.

Politics impacting Science and the US Sequester
The US sequester had long reaching implications for federal scientists. For those who rely on seasonal fieldwork, this could have eliminated a full year of research, while those who were reliant on grants being submitted for this season had to reschedule research priorities. However, the effects aren’t limited to this calendar year. From this article in The Atlantic:

It’s not yet clear how much funding the National Labs will lose, but it will total tens of millions of dollars. Interrupting — or worse, halting — basic research in the physical, biological, and computational sciences would be devastating, both for science and for the many U.S. industries that rely on our national laboratory system to power their research and development efforts.

Instead, this drop in funding will force us to cancel all new programs and research initiatives, probably for at least two years. This sudden halt on new starts will freeze American science in place while the rest of the world races forward, and it will knock a generation of young scientists off their stride, ultimately costing billions in missed future opportunities.

It remains to be seen how the effects of the sequester play out. How long the effects last, and whether the US research industry simply stumbles or falls down, are still up in the air.

Commander Chris Hadfield and Science Communication
It’s no secret that I think Chris Hadfield is an amazing science communicator. His videos in space, the way he engaged with youth, and his approach to science in a “this is awesome” sense captured the imagination of the world while he was up in the International Space Station. His personality and enthusiasm for science continued once he landed back on Earth, and he recently released his first book. When it comes to issues around communicating science, one that I feel quite strongly about is that we need more science communicators. We have a few – Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and such. But we need others, and Chris Hadfield helps show the breadth of scientific discovery, and his personality and enthusiasm for science make him a great ambassador for science to young and old alike.


Finally, us at PLOS Sci-Ed are now celebrating our first birthday. Since we launched last year, we’ve had over 180,000 visits and hope to continue growing in the future. A sincere thank you to the PLOS blogs community manager Victoria Costello for her constant support, and finally, a heart felt thank you to all our readers. We hope you continue to comment and share our work with your networks.

So these are my choices for the biggest science stories of 2013. What are yours?

Finally, if you enjoyed this post, consider reading The Biggest Public Health Stories of 2013, over on PLOS Public Health Perspectives!

Using Math to make Guinness

William Sealy Gosset, statistician and rebel | Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Let me tell you a story about William Sealy Gosset. William was a Chemistry and Math grad from Oxford University in the class of 1899 (they were partying like it was 1899 back then). After graduating, he took a job with the brewery of Arthur Guinness and Son, where he worked as a mathematician, trying to find the best yields of barley.

But this is where he ran into problems.

One of the most important assumptions in (most) statistical tests is that you have a large enough sample size to create inferences about your data. You can’t make many comments if you only have 1 data point. 3? Maybe. 5? Possibly. Ideally, we want at least 20-30 observations, if not more. It’s why when a goalie in hockey, or a batter in baseball, has a great game, you chalk it up to being a fluke, rather than indicative of their skill. Small sample sizes are much more likely to be affected by chance and thus may not be accurate of the underlying phenomena you’re trying to measure. Gosset, on the other hand, couldn’t create 30+ batches of Guinness in order to do the statistics on them. He had a much smaller sample size, and thus “normal” statistical methods wouldn’t work.

Gosset wouldn’t take this for an answer. He started writing up his thoughts, and examining the error associated with his estimates. However, he ran into problems. His mentor, Karl Pearson, of Pearson Product Moment Correlation Coefficient fame, while supportive, didn’t really appreciate how important the findings were. In addition, Guiness had very strict policies on what their employees could publish, as they were worried about their competitors discovering their trade secrets. So Gosset did what any normal mathematician would.

He published under a pseudonym. In a startlingly rebellious gesture, Gosset published his work in Biometrika titled “The Probable Error of a Mean.” (See, statisticians can be badasses too). The name he used? Student. His paper for the Guinness company became one of the most important statistical discoveries of the day, and the Student’s T-distribution is now an essential part of any introductory statistics course.


So why am I telling you this? Well, I’ve talked before about the importance of storytelling as a way to frame scientific discovery, and I’ve also talked about the importance of mathematical literacy in a modern society. This piece forms the next part of that spiritual trilogy. Math is typically taught in a very dry, very didactic format – I recite Latin to you, you remember it, I eventually give you a series of questions to answer, and that dictates your grade in the class. Often, you’re only actually in the class because it’s a mandatory credit you need for high school or your degree program. There’s very little “discovery” occurring in the math classroom.

Capturing interest thus becomes of paramount importance to instructors, especially in math which faces a societal stigma of being “dull,” “boring” and “just for nerds.” A quick search for “I hate math” on Twitter yields a new tweet almost every minute from someone expressing those sentiments, sometimes using more “colourful” language (at least they’re expanding their vocabulary?).

There are lots of examples of these sorts of interesting anecdotes about math. The “Scottish book” was a book named after the Scottish Café in Lviv, Ukraine, where mathematicians would leave a potentially unsolvable problem for their colleagues to tackle. Successfully completing these problems would result in you receiving a prize ranging from a bottle of brandy to, I kid you not, a live goose (thanks Mariana for that story!) The Chudnovsky Brothers built a machine in their apartment that calculated Pi to two billion decimal places. I asked for stories on Twitter and @physicsjackson responded with:

Amalie (Emmy) Noether is probably the most famous mathematician you’ve never heard of | Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

There’s also the story of Amalie Noether, the architect behind Noether’s theorem, which basically underpins all modern physics. Dr Noether came to prominence at a time when women were largely excluded from academic positions, yet rose through the ranks to become one of the most influential figures of that time, often considered at the same level of brilliance as Marie Curie. Her mathematical/physics contemporaries included David Hilbert, Felix Klein and Albert Einstein, who took up her cause to help her get a permanent position, and often sought out her opinion and thoughts. Indeed, after Einstein stated his theory of general relativity, it was Noether who then took this to the next level and linked time and energy. But don’t take my word for it – Einstein himself said:

In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.

While stories highlight the importance of these discoveries, they also highlight the diversity that exists within the scientific community. Knowing that the pantheon of science and math heroes includes people who aren’t all “math geniuses” can make math much more engaging and interesting. Finally, telling stories of the people behind math can demystify the science, and engage youth who may not consider math as a career path.

Heading to #SciWri13!

ScienceWriters 2013! A quick update for all our readers – Cristina and I (Atif) will be in beautiful Gainesville, Florida this week for the National Association of Science Writers/Council for the Advancement of Science Writers annual conference! I will be speaking on a panel on Saturday November 2nd titled “Take a lesson from the universe: Expand” in the Dogwood room at 11am. I’m excited to be speaking on this panel, along with some of my favourite science communicators in Alan Boyle, Joe Hanson, Matt Shipman and Kirsten “Dr Kiki” Sanford. Thanks also to Clinton Colmenares for organizing this wonderful opportunity and what promises to be an excellent discussion. A description of the session from the program:

Scientists know science. And they’re good at getting science news. Know who’s not? Non-scientists. Yet non-scientists outnumber scientists, and their attitudes, believes, intellects (or not) and their votes help determine science policies, from funding for stem cells to what’s taught in school. The near-extinction of science reporters at local news outlets has created a gap in a steady stream of legitimate, dependable science news. Yet today there are more ways than ever to reach the general public. This session is about expanding your audience beyond the science in crowd. We’ll talk with two young scientists who are passionate about finding new ways to reach new audiences and we’ll explore ideas for how PIOs, freelancers, staff reporters and even scientists themselves can take a lesson from the universe and expand.

If you see either of us around, be sure to say hi! We’ll be at most of the events, and would love to meet you!

This was published simultaneously on Mr Epidemiology

Sabremetrics and Math: How sports can teach statistics



Mental arithmatic.

Do those words scare you? If they do, you’re in good company. Mathematical anxiety is a well studied phenomenon that manifests for a number of different reasons. It’s an issue I’ve talked about before at length, and something that frustrates me no end. In my opinion though, one of the biggest culprits behind this is how math alienates people. Lets try an example:

If the average of three distinct positive integers is 22, what is the largest possible value of these three integers?
A: 64
B: 63
C: 33
D: 42
E: 48

Too easy? How about this one:

The average of the integers 24, 6, 12, x and y is 11. What is the value of the sum x + y?

A: 11
B: 17
C: 13
D: 15

I do statistics regularly, and I find these tricky. Not because the underlying math is hard, or that they’re fundamentally “difficult,” but because you have to read the question 3 or 4 times just to figure out what they’re asking. This is exacerbated at higher levels, where you need to first understand the problem, and then understand the math.*

Last week, my colleague Cristina Russo discussed how sports can be used to teach biology. Today I’m going to discuss a personal example, and how I use sports to explain statistics.

One of my main objectives as a statistics instructor is to take “fear” out of the equation (math joke!), and make my students comfortable with the underlying mathematical concepts. I’m not looking for everyone to become a statistician, but I do want them to be able to understand statistics in everyday life. Once they have mastered the underlying concepts, we can then apply them to new and novel situations. Given most of my students are athletically minded or have a basic understanding of sports, this is a logical and reasonable place to start.

Hi, I'm Chris Neil and I'll be your instructor today
The mean number of teeth in adults is 32. The mean number of teeth among hockey players is considerably less | Chris Neil picture source: NHLPA

First, a little backstory. The world of sports has undergone a major shift in the past 20 years. While in the 50s and 60s it was a much smaller enterprise, now it is a multi-million dollar business, where player performance is vitally important. When every dollar counts, you use every tool at your disposal to maximise your assets – including recording everything you can (documented in the book and film Moneyball). Shots, goals, assists, batting averages, yards gained, completions, you name it, there are stats available. But it’s not just owners, management and staff who use this information – armchair fans are now using this information to help them draft the best fantasy team possible – as there is a large amount of money to be won by competing in these leagues. As a result, a lot of data is freely available online.

Let me illustrate this with an example. One of the first concepts people learn about is the difference between mean vs median vs mode.

To reiterate: the mean is the average value, the median is the middle value (which is useful if your data are very skewed), and the mode is the most common value. Typically, this is accompanied by an example of birth weight, or something somewhat relateable. However, it’s hard to understand why there is a difference between these numbers as they are typically the same, as much of the “example” data we use is almost all normally distributed, or is skewed because of some other, usually more convoluted, reason. But not so in the case of sports.

Note: All examples use data on all players from the 2010-2011 NHL season. They were taken from Hockey-Reference, which has a great list of stats on the NHL going all the way back to 1917 (!).

Lets start with age and look at the mean, median and modal values. The mean is 26.6, the median is 26.0 and the mode is 26. Which basically tells us that the mean age of players in the NHL is 26.6, the “middle value” for age is 26, and the most common age is 26. Graphically, it looks like this:

The ages of players in the 2010-11 NHL Season | Data from Hockey-Reference
The ages of players in the 2010-11 NHL Season | Source: Hockey-Reference

Those are all very similar, which makes it difficult to see the difference between the values. However, all students have an intuitive understanding of age – they see most players are 20 to 30 years old, and there are very few who continue to play into their late 30s (except Teemu Selanne, who is actually Benjamin Button).

This changes when we look at another important statistic in hockey – goals. In this case, the mean is 7.5, the median is 4.0 and the mode is 0. This is interesting, as it tells us the “average” number of goals scored in the NHL is 7.5, the median, or “middle value” is 4.0, but the most common value is 0, i.e. a large number of people in the NHL didn’t score any goals. The data are highly skewed, and, more importantly, students can understand why, so they can dedicate their energy in understanding what that skew “means” in statistical terms.

The distribution of goals scored in the 2010-11 NHL season | Source: Hockey-reference
The distribution of goals scored in the 2010-11 NHL season | Source: Hockey-reference

Here, the concept of “skew” is very clear, and you can see that the most common number of goals scored in the NHL is 0, i.e. many players didn’t score any goals at all! This is considerably easier to understand than an example on blood pressure, birth weights, or mileage on cars, and takes the intimidation factor out of statistics.

This is one example of how sports can be used to highlight a statistical concept that I find students struggle with. However, here’s where the real power of sports stats comes in handy: You can scale this up to cover advanced concepts. You want to compare means between groups, (i.e. t-tests)? You can calculate the mean number of goals scored by forwards and defencemen and compare them (forwards score more goals). Need to do a chi-square test? Look at the number of forwards and defencemen on each team and if different teams have different numbers (they don’t). Need to talk about regression? Why not model goals scored and how much time on ice you get to see if more time results in more goals. The possibilities keep going from there.**

The thing I like the most about this is how accessible this makes things. Take away the intimidating part of math, and all of a sudden it’s not nearly as scary. You can change sports to pretty much anything else – baseball, football (association or gridiron),  or even other widely available databases – movie revenue by genre, number of albums sold by pop artists, voter turnout in recent elections, whatever connects with your students. Once you’ve made the example relatable and have removed the “fear” part of the statistics equation, math can suddenly become much more interesting and engaging to students. And once they’re engaged, learning will become that much easier.


*I should point out: I’m not against difficult problems, as comprehension is an important skill to develop in order to apply statistics to new and novel situations. But lets leave that for another day, and not start there. The way we teach statistics and math now is like asking a toddler to do cartwheels on a balance beam above a lake of hungry alligators before they can walk.

**If you would like me to provide webinars/slideshares on statistical concepts in future posts, let me know in the comments.

Making good use of Hollywood’s bad science

Maybe it was destiny, but when I was a freshman in high school in 1997 the movie Dante’s Peak, starring Pierce Brosnan, was released.  Why was it destiny?  For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, it was about a seemingly quiet volcano near a small town, which begins to be become active and subsequently produces a cataclysmic eruption that decimates the town.  I went on to get my M.S. in geology, focusing on volcanic hazards.

I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.  Pierce played a volcanologist from the United States Geological Survey, who despite his boss’s insistence that the volcanic activity was nothing more than a stomach rumble, had a gut feeling that the volcano was going to be the next Mt. St. Helens.  And of course, he was right.

Movie poster for Dante's Peak, the movie which might have caused me to pursue volcanology, perhaps under false pretenses.  Image Fair Use through Wiki.
Movie poster for Dante’s Peak, the movie which might have caused me to pursue volcanology, perhaps under false pretenses. Image Fair Use through Wiki.

However correct Pierce was in predicting the eruption of Dante’s Peak, it was years later that I learned the movie was not the most scientifically accurate.  I left the theater believing that all volcanoes had hot springs that would boil people alive, erupt basaltic lava flows (think Hawaii) and dacitic pyroclastic flows (a la Mt. St. Helens) at the same time, and cause a lake to become so acidic that it would dissolve a grandmother’s legs as she pushes her family to safety in a boat.  Granted, many of the events that happened in the movie might happen at a given volcano, but not all at the same time.

Just two and half month later Volcano was released.  In this movie a volcano erupts in Los Angeles along a transform fault (unheard of), not a convergent of divergent tectonic settings, like the Cascades and Dante’s Peak or the East African Rift, respectively.

Sure, movies have that creative license to add drama, but not everyone knows where the line is between truth and fiction.  This is a great teaching moment to point out inaccuracies, because left unattended these moments will lead to misconceptions.

Benefiting from Science Misconceptions in Movies

More recently on our radars is probably The Core, released in theaters in 2003 during my junior year in college.  By the time I saw this flick, I had taken a number of geology courses and knew a few things about how the Earth functions.

As geology students, we were obviously curious what this movie was about.  When the movie made it to DVD, we got together and watched it as a group, laughing about giant diamonds and how seismic waves would actually travel through a molten core.  As fun as the movie was to watch in a group, drinking some beers of course, it was a great learning experience.  Each of us would try to be the first to identify something as inaccurate or wrong, and if we were wrong, shame on us.  Where we weren’t exactly sure how accurate something was, we would debate it, using the knowledge we had learned in class.  Here is a little overview of the good and bad science in The Core.

For those of you interested in the astronomical side of science misconceptions, Phil Plait comments on several examples on his webpage Phil Plaits’ Bad Astronomy.

Not a misconception: these giant gypsum crystals were found in Mexico, not on the set of The Core. Photo by Alexander Van Driessche
Not a misconception: these giant gypsum crystals were found in Mexico, not on the set of The Core. Photo by Alexander Van Driessche

Over the decades, there have been a number of other science-inspired movies.  Having a geology background, it’s a little easier to for me to pick out the instances in geology-themed movies where there is something wrong or inaccurate.  Unfortunately, it’s not the same when I watch a movie like The Day After Tomorrow, Twister, Outbreak, or Contagion.  I know there is at least some truth to these movies, but for any non-specialist, identifying where creative liberties were taken, if any, is very difficult.  I imagine that for someone with a minimal science background it is even more difficult.  Nonetheless, these are just a few movies in a near-endless list where learning opportunities abound in identifying and correcting misconceptions.

In schools, why not have biology students write a report about the inaccuracies in Anaconda (although just a few years ago titanaboa was unearthed).  Open the semester of a climate science course with a discussion about misconceptions in The Day After Tomorrow.  Finish a course on paleontology with a competition of who can identify the most dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1, 2, or 3) that were not from the Jurassic period.  The Tyrannosaurus Rex happens to be from the Cretaceous period, after the Jurassic.

Science and Science Fiction

About two months ago, fellow Sci-Ed blogger Atif Kukaswadia, posted a great piece about using science fiction movies as opportunities to learn science.  In particular, I enjoyed Atif’s reference to an MIT paper on comic book superhero physics.  Both science-based and science fiction movies have their place in learning environments for identifying the right, wrong, plausible, impossible and inaccurate.  Some questions that science fiction movies offer are “Is that possible?” or “What is required to make that possible?” Science-based movies let us ask “Is that true?” and “How do we know that is correct or incorrect?”

Cristina Russo, also a Sci-Ed blogger, commented on how documentaries and nature films may also create some misconceptions or be misleading.  Among other points, this piece takes a closer look at pieces meant to promote conservation, yet use storytelling techniques to make a more compelling movie.

Scientific inaccuracies abound in movies and TV, and all for the sake of good entertainment.  This is fine.  Although they do inspire students be become scientists, there are also unintended consequences.  After watching The Core, it’s not likely that someone out there is going to try to get to the Earth’s core by building some supposedly indestructible vessel, but it is likely to leave the idea in impressionable minds that the Earth is something it is not.  This is where we need to identify these misconceptions and turn them into learning opportunities.

If you have any favorite scientific inaccuracies in movies, I would love to hear about them.


Science and Storytelling: The use of stories in science education

Last year, I had a chance to speak at TEDxQueensu . My basic premise is this: Science is awesome, but science needs to do a better job of communicating that awesomeness to non-scientists. We’re sitting on the frontiers of human knowledge, and yet we cannot get others as excited about this issue that we’re very, very passionate about. It’s something I’ve touched upon within the world of science fiction, by having celebrity spokepeople for science and even by using humour to engage non-scientists. After reading up on inspirational leadership, I realized that the way we can communicate science more effectively is to cast off the typical way we view science for academic purposes (ie the peer reviewed manuscript/IMRaD) and consider it as part of a whole.

We need to tell the story of science – the background, ie. why your research happened, and then the consequences, ie. why your research matters. An academic presentation works very well when your audience knows the background to the area, but when talking to non-scientists, or even those outside of your immediate area of study, you have to take a step back and tell them why the research even matters before delving into your specific study.

Since I gave the talk above, there have been several more (high profile) events held. There was a panel held at ASU for their Origins Project which featured such scientific superstars as Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the panel spoke about the “the stories behind cutting edge science from the origin of the universe to a discussion of exciting technologies that will change our future.” In addition, Tyler DeWitt spoke at TEDxBeaconStreet about making science fun, and his own experiences as a high school science teacher.

And of course, there are many books on scientific discovery, including The Ghost Map, describing the cholera outbreak occurring by the Broad Street Pump (described here on PLOS Blogs Public Health Perspectives), and Inside the Outbreaks, describing the work of the Epidemiologic Intelligence Service of the CDC. Both use stories to illustrate what was going on, and more importantly, engage the reader. For the general public, or those who may want to just get a general “feel” for a subject, this works very well.

Now here’s where things get tricky. I’ve talked about telling a story, but you can’t use your typical approach to storytelling when it comes to *teaching* science. Communicating with a non-science audience, ie those who pick up a book on science at their local Chapters/Indigo/WH Smith, is very different to engaging students at the secondary or post-secondary level. Scientific storytelling, as it relates to teaching and education, should engage the audience and help them ask questions about the science: Why did this happen? What would we do next? How is this possible? As Stephen Klassen from the University of Manitoba says:

“Science stories differ from stories in the humanities in at least two critical aspects, namely, the purpose of the story and the role of the reader or listener. The central purpose of the science story is, after all, to improve the teaching and learning of science, not to just entertain or to communicate a message as is the case for a story in the humanities.” (Klassen, 2009)

The article then delves into the specifics of what a scientific narrative should include. This includes literary devices such as “event-tokens,” ie the key incidents that you structure your story around, and the role of the narrator, who decides what is and what isn’t important, as well as the order in which facts are revealed. I won’t go into those here, but if you’re interested, I thoroughly recommend giving the article a read.

Perhaps one of the big criticisms many may have at this point is that teachers simply don’t have time to come up with stories, and that is a fair criticism to raise. However, this is changing, and websites such as “The Story Behind the Science” are creating stories that can be used by teachers to help illustrate specific concepts. Most importantly, these stories are being evaluated to ensure they are effective teaching tools. I particularly like the point raised by DeWitt above, where he mentions creating a Wikipedia-like site where teachers can put up their class ideas, and others can use those in their own teaching. As Open Access publishing and Creative Commons licensing becomes more prevalent and more well known, this should encourage people to put their content online where others can benefit from their experience and creativity, while still retaining credit for their ideas.

At the end of the day, the idea of a scientific story is an interesting one, and it is one that famous science communicators have used to great effect with the public. However, we have to ensure that the focus of these stories remains the science, and that does not get hidden beneath narrative fiction.

Klassen, S. (2009). The construction and analysis of a science story: A proposed methodology. Science & Education, 18(3-4), 401-423.
Clough, M. P. (2011). The story behind the science: Bringing science and scientists to life in post-secondary science education. Science & Education, 20(7-8), 701-717.

Facing the research-practice divide in science education

Science education researchers and science teachers have much to offer each other. In an ideal world, knowledge would flow freely between researchers and educators. Unfortunately, research and practice tend to exist in parallel universes. As long as this divide persists, classrooms will rarely benefit from research findings, and research studies will rarely be rooted in the realities of the classroom. If we care about science education, we have to face the research-practice divide.

How did it get this way?

When we talk about research and practice, we’re talking about academics and teachers. In the most typical case, we’re talking about professors of education working at universities, and teachers working at K-12 schools. The divide has its roots in historical and current differences between researchers and teachers in their training, methods, work environment, and career goals that have led to misunderstanding and mistrust. In a 2004 paper titled “Re-Visioning the academic–teacher divide: power and knowledge in the educational community” Jennifer Gore and Andrew Gitlin describe the state of the research-practice divide through the lens of the two groups of people involved, and the imbalance of power between them. Historically, they argue, the framework of science education research has been that researchers generate knowledge and materials that teachers need, but rarely recognize the need for teacher contributions. This assumed one-way flow of knowledge has certainly sparked animosity between the groups, deepened by cultural differences associated with differing career paths.

Of course, some people have been both K-12 teachers and academics in their careers. To get this perspective on the issue I reached out to a colleague, Assistant Professor of Science Education Ron Gray (Northern Arizona University). Ron has been a middle school science teacher, a teacher of science teachers, and is now a science education academic. When I asked him about the experience of transitioning from teacher to academic, he recalled:

“I don’t believe I had seen a single primary research document in education before earning my doctorate.”

Most K-12 science teachers are fairly disconnected from the research world once they leave universities and enter schools. They lack university library access, yet currently many of the best journals in the field, such as the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Science Education, and the International Journal of Science Education are not open access, and require a per-article fee to read. So how does research reach most teachers? I talked to a few science teachers about where they encounter science education research studies — many used science and education pages on Facebook, one got papers sent from an administrator, and some read practitioner journals. Many science teachers are members of the National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA), which publishes practitioner journals and holds national and area conferences where teachers can hear about research findings. NSTA plays an invaluable role in working to connect research and practice. However, for perspective, NSTA has about 55,000 members, most but not all of which are practicing science teachers, but there are currently about two million practicing science teachers in the U.S.

The disconnect also stems from unfortunate misperceptions of professors by teachers and teachers by professors. Both groups often discount each other’s knowledge bases and workloads. Professors can harbor elitist attitudes about teachers, discounting the value of practical classroom experience in determining what works in education. Teachers frequently claim that professors suffer from “Ivory Tower Syndrome” — the assumption here is that professors live cushy lives, sheltered from the realities of schools, and therefore can’t produce knowledge that is useful in today’s classrooms. A high school teacher quoted by Gore and Gitlin explained:

“A lot of what [researchers] think is based on the past and they are out of touch. And so we call it the Ivory Tower. Welcome to our world.”

When I asked high school science teacher Laurie Almeida how she perceived the credibility of science education research, she responded:

“Somewhat credible. I work at a difficult school, so I feel that some of the research is way too out of touch with the reality of my school.”

An ivory tower of sorts. Sather Tower, U.C. Berkeley. Photo by Bernt Rostad.
An ivory tower of sorts. Sather Tower, U.C. Berkeley. Photo by Bernt Rostad.

There is sometimes truth to the ivory tower criticisms; Gore and Gitlin noted that in some academic circles, the more closely research is associated with practice, the more devalued it is. Furthermore, science education research is far from perfect. Small-scale studies with limited applicability are published more frequently in science education than they are the natural sciences. This trend hasn’t escaped notice from teachers either. When I asked about the perceived credibility of science education research among teachers, science teacher Toni Taylor told me:

“Too often I see ‘research’ that includes only a small sample population which makes me question the validity of the research,” and “Sometimes I feel like science education simply tries to reinvent the wheel.”

However, a lot of the mistrust between the two groups is based on their misunderstanding of each other’s professions. Teachers do not always appreciate that many researchers are often in the classroom regularly, conducting classroom-based studies and collecting data. This “back of the class” view can be highly illuminating, and is a valid way to know classrooms. Some researchers got their start as K-12 teachers. And higher education is certainly not immune from classroom management issues or over-filled schedules. Professors have stress — just ask the #realForbesProfessors (this hashtag exploded on Twitter following the publication of a Forbes article claiming that professors have one of the least stressful jobs). Similarly, researchers can forget that experienced teachers have a wealth of knowledge about the specific interactions of classroom context, pedagogy, and subject matter.


What can be done?

My conversation with Professor Ron Gray about what academics can do to better connect with teachers aligned well with calls in the literature for more researcher-teacher partnerships. He said:

“The best way would be to get back in the classroom but the tenure process just doesn’t let that happen.”

His response highlights the rigidity of teacher and researcher career paths. Even a former teacher who switched to the researcher path can’t switch back again without ultimately losing “traction” in both careers. Perhaps we should question the wisdom of entrenching people interested in science education in one narrowly-defined career trajectory or another. Instead, career advancement could reward the accumulation of diverse but synergistic experiences. Science education is a multidisciplinary endeavor, involving science, social science, and communication skills — why shouldn’t our career options reflect this?

Similarly, certain aspects of teacher training might be due for a change. Teacher education could be a crucial time to break the mold  that has placed researchers as producers and teachers as consumers of research. Gore and Gitlin suggest that student-teachers at the undergraduate or master’s levels could be attached to ongoing education research projects as research assistants. They would become intimately familiar with the purpose and methods of educational research and could become significant contributors to it. This would take some restructuring, as many programs focus on more “immediate” concerns such as classroom management, but the benefit could be the production of teachers who recognize the value of research and feel capable of making contributions to it.

The open access movement in scholarly publishing could also have a crucial role in breaking down barriers. Toll-access journals can function as practically impenetrable “ivory fortresses” where valuable knowledge is locked away from practitioners. However, open access will likely prove necessary, but not sufficient in closing the research-practice gap. Teachers I’ve spoken to are very positive about open access but guarded about how much more time they’ll spend reading research articles. Time is a huge issue for teachers. But the alternative — locking up research findings in places where both time and money can be barrier for teachers — is certainly not helping to connect research with practice.

For the short-term, most education research articles are still in toll-access journals. For those without easy access to the primary literature in science, research blogs have become an incredible resource. However, the science education research blogging community pales in comparison to the science research blogging community. While teachers can find the latest science news and engaging resources to share with their students by following the science blogging community, they are not as likely to find quick-and-easy write-ups of science education research findings that are relevant to their pedagogy, curriculum development, assessment practices. As the Sci-Ed blog establishes itself, I hope that my fellow writers and I can attempt to partially fill this role. And I hope that many others in science education continue to follow the research blogging model.


Jennifer M. Gore & Andrew D. Gitlin (2004): [RE]Visioning the academic–teacher divide: power and knowledge in the educational community, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 10:1, 35-58.