Guest post: creating scientists in 140 characters

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I first talked to John Romano when he agreed to give an interview for our Sci-Ed story “Anatomy Lesson“. John was just back from ComicCon, and his enthusiasm (in comics and in science alike) was palpable on the phone.  He blogs for Convergent Education, sharing his experiences in science education. Today, we get to hear one of his novel approaches, which illustrates the use of twitter in sci-ed (topic we covered in our three part series).

As a high school science teacher I am constantly looking for new tools to improve my students’ education. The most recent addition to my educational toolbox is live-tweeting. High school students are adept at using smartphones and teachers typically struggle to prevent the use of this technology in class, but the effectiveness of such policies is slim when they are outnumbered 25:1. So I decided to invoke the age old adage “If you can’t beat em’, join ‘em,” and introduce Twitter into my classroom.  The Science Online conference in Raleigh, NC, known unofficially as #Scio13, provided the inspiration.

So I decided, let’s try this in class.  In my high school senior-level class, Evolution & Comparative Anatomy, we often use documentaries to expose students to things like the dissection of animals that most people will never get to see.  I am constantly stopping the video to let them take notes.  It is a very slow and tedious process — one that is on the way out.  Combine this with the constant battle of having students secretly texting, or using social media during class, and the answer was obvious.

 Let them use Twitter to take notes.

***

There are some concerns as an educator when you are using social media in a classroom. In fact it is still a large grey area for many schools on whether or not teachers and students should even interact on social media. So to take care of any problems that might arise, I first spent a whole class period going over the proper use of Twitter.  They each set up a specific “student” Twitter account that I told them would be viewable by any administrator, teacher, parent, scientist, admissions officer, etc.

After these lessons, my class of 16 students was ready to live-tweet their first documentary. Because we were an evolution and comparative anatomy class there was no better show to watch than Inside Nature’s Giants. We had already watched a few episodes of this series and the students were always allowed to take notes and then use these notes on a short-answer test that I would give them afterwards.  (I try to always use open-note tests because rarely is a scientist without the ability to look up information, and with the advent of the Internet grey-matter-recall is becoming a thing of the past.) The students have always scored decently on this, but it was always the same breakdown: individuals who took copious notes scored well, those who were half into it and took OK notes did OK, and those who went from memory alone barely passed.

I set up the video and put my computer on the screen as well with the timeline for our hashtag running in the background so the students could see what was being tweeted.

The results were instantaneous — it was like being plugged into every student’s brain at once. You could see who was participating, who was getting the main ideas, who was extrapolating and asking good questions, and more importantly, the students could see what their peers were thinking.

This was something that really helped, when someone tweeted a fact and half the class also tweeted the same fact it reinforced the students that they were on the right track. I would also tweet along with them to help them see if they were on the right page. The beauty of all this was that it was all uninterrupted documentary watching. No stopping and starting, no asking what was just said, it just flowed.

twitter paleoromano students 1

As you can see in the image above the fact about where animals get their hydration is reinforced by students and the teacher, plus it is stated in three different ways. It also allowed students to add a little of their own personality and humor to the class-sourced notes.

twitter paleoromano students 2 - edited

Due to retweeting and including the hosts in tweets, we caught the attention of other scientists who would chime in with facts, adding to the already huge pile of streaming information we were gathering under our hashtag. For example, our tweeting inspired a scientist to blog about lions after she came across our #INLion hashtag regarding a lion documentary.

 twitter tasha metacookbook

The part that really made me want to high-five myself as a teacher was watching the students’ reactions when they got a retweet by me, a classmate, or another scientist.  The retweets validated their knowledge on the subject matter. Young people (and even adults) live for a retweet by their favorite celebrity or scientist, and seeing a seventeen-year-old let out a “WOOHOO!” when a scientist retweeted their fact on the camel cardiovascular system was one of those moments that made the low pay and long hours of teaching worthwhile.

Then it happened — the host of the documentary started getting involved in our Twitter conversations. Simon Watt, the young, colorful co-host of Inside Nature’s Giants started conversing with us on Twitter answering questions and adding various anecdotes to the documentary.  The students were loving it; it was like having the author of their textbook available for questions. It humanized the two-dimensional scientist on the screen and made him real.

twitter paleoromano simon watt simondwatt

Simon agreed to Skype with the class and we had one of the best hours of my teaching career. The students asked Simon questions, interacted with him, and saw him a as a regular person — someone like them.  It was a bit awkward at first, as Skype sessions usually are, but soon they fell into the flow and they were exchanging laughs.  I think that was a moment where most of those high school seniors realized being a scientist is something they were capable of doing. That those people on the documentaries we watch aren’t unlike them, and if they wanted to they could pursue a career in science.

 twitter paleoromano students 3 - edited

This has always been my goal — to create scientists — and it floors me that a hashtag and 140 characters can do so much toward accomplishing that.

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