Sharing Science with Students

1024px-US_Navy_101013-N-8863V-460_A_fourth_grade_student_from_Arlanza_Elementary_School_looks_through_a_Navy_thermal_imager_during_the_11th_annual_Science

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

My 5th grade Gifted & Talented project was all about the brain. I was fascinated by all of its functions and cerebral folds. I loved how it wasn’t so much the size of the brain that was important, but the complexity of its neural networks. My project included a form core board with light bulbs placed on a hand drawn man, representing the different body regions affected by the fight or flight response. I wonder if my parents could have foreseen that I would later be pursing a PhD in neuroscience and leading a project very much related to my fight or flight poster. What they probably could have guessed is that I would not be in graduate school today if I hadn’t been exposed to science in such a genuine way in elementary school.

You can find me over at the Columbia Daily Tribune today with an article as part of the weekly “Ask A Scientist” column. This project was developed out of the cooperation between Columbia Public Schools and the University of Missouri Office of Science Outreach. Local elementary, middle, and high school students submit questions about science, and MU graduate students work with the Office of Science Outreach to interview MU researchers and write articles to answer the students’ questions. Participating in this project has been not only fun but surprising in several ways. I’ve been extremely impressed by the nature of the questions asked by the students. Some questions probe advanced concepts in fields such as genetics (“If monkeys are our cousins, how much of our DNA do we share?”) and astronomy (“What are dark energy and dark matter, and how are they related?”). I’ve also been surprised by how willing the scientists and physicians at MU have been to sit down and discuss their research with us. These researchers are passionate about their work, and they are excited to share about it with the public, especially K-12 students.

Why is a project like “Ask a Scientist” so important? It gives students a way to extend the knowledge they are getting in the classroom. They are given opportunities to reach out of their textbooks and engage with real scientists doing real science. They are getting a peak into fields like physics and chemistry, the way I got a glimpse of neuroscience in 5th grade. It’s important to realize that these aren’t just students with whom we are sharing about science, many are (hopefully) future scientists themselves, and they may not even know it yet.

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Green Markers and Coffee

Continuing with some thoughts on writing, I thought I’d share this post from The Open Notebook. David Dobbs interviews leading science writer, David Quammen, about his process as he combines his notes from the field and recordings of interviews with scientists into a cohesive, finished piece.  I especially loved Quammen’s statements about beginning the writing process.

Quammen talks about piles and piles of field notebooks he has from his trips.  Somehow these get condensed into paragraphs, which are strung together to form chapters of his books.  He says, “I don’t make an inventory, and I don’t make an outline. I just pile this stuff up there and then eventually, after three years or four years or so, I start writing. I sit down with all these notebooks and sources and I drink coffee until I go into a trance and I start writing.”

He talks about using a green magic marker to put a slash by interesting tidbits of writing while going through his notebooks: “So I don’t know exactly what the structure is going to be . . . until I see what’s interesting and what’s not interesting. One of my organizing principles, always, is Throw out the boring stuff. If it’s important but boring, leave it out — it’s probably not necessary.”

For Quammen, writing begins with piles of notebooks and a green marker to pull out the interesting stories.  For me, it’s more of a half-outline, half-stream of consciousness filled with sentence fragments that eventually morphs into something coherent within the same Word document.  And, like Quammen, coffee is most likely involved as well.

What does the beginning of the writing process look like for you?

5 things I’ve learned while writing my first journal article

In September 2011, my advisor gave me a previous grad student’s project to complete and then write up for publication.  As a one-month-old grad student I jumped at the opportunity to get a publication under my belt so soon. But now, over a year later, I have a real picture of the time that goes into not only data collection and analysis, but into drafts upon drafts of writing and (finally!) preparing a paper for submission to a journal.  So I have some reminders for myself later and in case for some reason these might benefit someone else, here are 5 things I’ve learned while writing my first journal article:

1. Find the right music to get into the mood.  For me, getting the writing vibe going is the result of a ritual. Emailed checked. Facebook/Twitter off limits. Ear buds in. And, most importantly, the right tunes in my ears to get my mind going.  The music I choose when writing varies by the hour. I’ll be jamming to Of Monsters and Men, then suddenly I’ll need to switch to Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 to stay focused. (I’m checking out Milo Greene while writing this post, by the way.) Needless to say, Spotify and I have become best friends this year.  And when I am having listening block, inevitably to be followed by the much dreaded writer’s block, I turn to this blogpost for inspiration.  Now I know that when I’m having trouble “summoning the [writing] muse,” as the post states, I need to make sure I have the right music accompanying me.

2. Get some space. Right before I took some time off for Christmas last year, I was so burned out with writing this paper that I was about to rip my keyboard out and bend it around a tree.  I could literally feel my computer-strained, twitching eyes glaze over while reading over (and hating) what I’d already written.  Much frustrated, I decided to completely forget about the paper for two whole weeks. Turns out, it was the best thing I could have done.  When I sat back down at my desk and opened “Publication draft 12_17_12,” I felt my work ethic flow back into my typing fingers.  Suddenly I cared about writing the paper again, and, even better, I was enjoying it.  Next time I feel the need to dismantle my computer or just plain quit, I’ll get some space from the paper, trusting that later on, it will become my friend again.

3. If you love it too much, get rid of it. To be honest, I learned this lesson in undergrad, but I’ve applied it countless times while writing this paper.  During my junior year at Baylor, I received my first ever C on a paper. After a near mental breakdown (grades used to matter WAY too much to me), I gathered my pride from my dorm room floor and headed to the so-thought evil, C-granting professor’s office hours.  He gave me a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which I still have, and explained why he gave me a C. He said that too many of my sentences, while sophisticated and eloquent sounding, didn’t contribute any meat to my argument.  He suggested that when I spend a lot of time time crafting a lengthy, complicated sentence and come to love it so much that it becomes like a child of mine, I need to kill it.  Get rid of the sentence-baby and replace it with a concise statement that actually has meaning.  Nowadays, when I catch myself lovingly admiring one of my verbose sentences, I know that, instead, I need to be hitting the delete key.

4. When you need to write, read. At times when the words would just not come, I found myself reading through some of the papers from my reference list or browsing through the science posts on my Google Reader.  Just as Erin Podolak said in her blogpost at Science Decoded, “if you want to write well, you must read good writing.” When I come across a really great piece, in which the writing just flows together so perfectly and clearly, I find I’m re-inspired to get my nose back to the grindstone.

5. Sell it!  One of the notes my advisor gave me on my first draft was that my emphasis in the discussion section was way too negative. He said that after reading a paper like mine, a publisher would think “Heck, why publish this at all? Everything was all wrong with this project!” Apparently, I went a little too far while writing about the limitations of the project.  Now I know that alongside a healthy discussion of what could have made a project better, I need to express why the findings contribute to existing literature and inform future research.  I need to sell it, or no one will buy what I have say.

Now onto draft #257.  Not really, but that feels about right.

Tuesday Thoughts: Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens

Although these aren’t the favorite things of Julie Andrews, here are some of my favorite things related to public communication of science that I have come across over the past several weeks. Enjoy.

{Favorite thing #1}
I found the quote below from The Common Sense of Science by Jacob Bronowski on an autism research blog I follow.  I just love it’s pointed depiction of the lack of public communication ability among most scientists:

“[Scientists] have enjoyed acting the mysterious stranger, the powerful voice without emotion, the expert and the god. They have failed to make themselves comfortable in the talk of people on the street; no one taught them the knack, of course, but they were not keen to learn. And now they find the distance which they enjoyed has turned to distrust, and the awe has turned to fear; and people who are by no means fools really believe that we should be better off without science.”

{Favorite thing #2}
I’ve been following the launch of Matter (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/readmatter/matter) for several weeks.  Matter is an upcoming journalism project that focuses on long-form reporting about science and technology.  This publication will be one of the first to bring this type of in-depth, highly quality science journalism to the web. See the link for a video and information about the project.

{Favorite thing #3}
Thanks to Twitter, I was able to check out Brainfacts.org (http://www.brainfacts.org/) the day it launched.  This website, developed in part by the Society for Neuroscience, is a brand new resource for the public to learn about all things brain. What is so great about this particular “public information initiative” is the source of its information.  The  editors to the site are all leading neuroscientists, making the information not only highly accurate, but up to date and relevant.

{Favorite thing #4}
I don’t even remember how I found To Think, To Write, To Publish (http://www.thinkwritepublish.org/), but I’m glad I did. To Think, To Write, To Publish, is a workshop dedicated to advancing the publication communication of science in a unique way. Instead of handing a scientist a press release request or a journalist a microscope, this workshop pairs scientists and science writers, asking them to develop a creative non-fiction story together. With this approach, the stories produced and later published are (refreshingly) both informative and enjoyable to read.

 {This post was originally published at my previous blog, http://postitjunkie.blogspot.com/}