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.

Category: Equity in science education, Higher Ed, Informal Science Education, Open science, Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Why Don’t You Love What I Love?

There is an unexplainable phenomenon in the zoo world.  People will pass by an exhibit with an incredibly unique animal in it and  barely give it a glance. Put a human in there, even just cleaning the glass with a squeegee and the next thing you know there is a crowd watching intently to see what the human will do next.  Now imagine this, in front of the komodo dragon cage at the reptile house you have two scientists in chairs roped off so people cannot get too close. A  third is in the cage interacting with a dragon. This is the five alarm fire of the zoo world. People desperately trying to see what is going on, literally  rubbernecking a scientific experiment.  Invariably someone would always ask, “So what are you guys doing?”  I would go into the detailed explanation of the experiment, because they were there and they asked and I presumed they really wanted to know. Plus I loved Komodo dragons and wanted everyone to love them like I did.  It was here I discovered the different degrees of  “wanting to know”.

Author (on left) with Trooper Walsh in a Komodo Dragon enclosure at the NZP. Humans in enclosures always draw a crowd.

Author (on left) with Trooper Walsh in a Komodo Dragon enclosure. Humans in enclosures always draw a crowd.

I found that the majority of the time I was diluting this impressive animal to an understandable set of basic behaviors because the complexity was lost on the general public and they didn’t care about the specific jargon I was using. They wanted the simple bread and butter version of the answer, not the entree.

None of my friends are really that into reptiles, and none of them really care about how many tongue flicks or claw rakes we recorded that day. Believe me, I wanted them to, I desperately wanted them to ask me and genuinely care about my answer. I mean this was a study to see if Komodo dragons exhibited play behavior. Something that is on the more interesting spectrum of the reptile research scale.

Believe me, this sucks. I often couldn’t figure out why everyone didn’t love Komodo dragons as much as I loved them. But 11 years ago I made a conscious decision to change that. I left research to become a high school science teacher because for me it was about getting the awareness out to young people and to champion for an underappreciated group of animals.

So after a decade in a classroom and many, many, many mistakes I feel I have found a decent balance as a science communicator.  I admit I have an unfair advantage, I have real time metrics in front of me on a daily basis. I get to utilize various forms of explanations and see how they are received by my audience. I get to see what works and what doesn’t and then refine them two or three more times that day until I have them perfected.  Not only that but my audience often replies back with brutal and blunt honesty.  High school students will let you know if you are coming across in a condescending manner. A lot of people, and myself included , are unaware that their methods of explanation often have a condescending tone to them. It is not purposeful, but sometimes unavoidable when the person is in the position of explainer. It takes a while to pick up on your own cues and attempt to avoid them.

If you really wanted to get offended, try discussing something you passionately love and put a lot of work into what you think is a great lesson only to be met with yawns, blank stares, glances at the clock, and snoring. It takes a lot of strength to not take it personal, even when it is.

So where does this all fit? Well the one thing a teacher has to know before they begin a lesson is “what is my end goal? What do I want to achieve with my communication? Do I want to explain? Do I want to inform? Do I want to infect? Do I want to extrapolate?” All these come with much different methods of communicating.

In science education I can’t avoid the jargon, but I need to know when to drop it into play. If I throw complex words right out from the get go and say “memorize the words” then I lost them. If I come up with a great analogy or metaphor that the students can relate to and then slide the word in there I have them hooked. I need to sell them on cell division before I introduce mitosis. I need to make them feel like they were asking me if there was a specific word for what I was describing instead of telling them the word and describing what it means.

A subtle trick I use to hook my students is to discuss the material is to pretend I am searching for the right word and let them fill in the blank for me.  This makes them feel like they are contributing to the explanation process and lets me know they are getting it.

My end goal with my students is to get them interested in science.  At this point as juniors in high school it is not important to me that they understand every detail of biology, but that they have an interest in understanding it.  I have seen this with freshman students taking a conceptual physics course. The students are  begging their teacher to learn trigonometry so they can better understand what is happening when they launch a projective off their desk.

Yes, begging to learn trigonometry. Why? Because they were hooked by the bread and butter and  are now hungry for the main course. This is why the first thing I do in Chemistry is drop a gummy bear into molten potassium chlorate. Hook the students with a dazzling example of candy becoming bright light and make them want to learn more.

I truly believe that the role of the scientist is changing. With the advent of blogging, twitter, and social media scientists are becoming accessible to the general public, and we want to be accessible because we love our science and want people to love it as much as we do.  But we need to realize if they did love it as much as us we would be talking to a fellow scientist, not a layperson.

Follow John Romano on Twitter at @paleoromano

[This is an excerpt from a longer blog I wrote on my personal site. It has been edited to reflect the audience of PLoS]

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Do lemurs like to move it-move it? (video)

Lemurs had their 15 minutes of fame, back when DreamWork’s Madagascar came out in 2005. This year it’s time for IMAX Island of Lemurs: Madagascar to shine a spotlight on this primates.

We discussed before how nature documentaries influence the public’s understanding of science, and mostly increase the general public’s science literacy. Which is why I was curious to test the effect of the Madagascar movie: what did it teach the general public? Did it result in the public’s new understanding of lemurs? During my visit to the Duke Lemur Center, I had the perfect opportunity to find out. During  the 40 minute car ride, I asked acting driver and education specialist Chris Smith. And here’s what he told me:

This is the second installment of our participation on Lemur Week. For Part I, click here.

Category: Informal Science Education, Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science Museums, Science teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Do lemurs like to move it-move it? (video)

Sci-Ed joins Lemur Week (video)

Their ghostly eyes are lovely windows to their souls.

Lemurs are primates – they have long tails, tree-climbing hands, and incredible curiosity. At least that’s what I encountered on my visit to the Duke Lemur Center (sponsored by Owen Software). Education specialist Chris Smith led me on an amazing tour. See below:

The Duke Lemur Center offers tours, similar to the one above. Their goal is to raise funds for research (Smith estimated that 10% of the center’s funds come from tours). Most of all, the center aims to educate the public and raise awareness about lemur conservation. And it seems to pay off: in 2013, they received 18,000 visitors (5,000 more than a previous record-breaking year). In addition to tours, the educational department is expanding to bring in even younger visitors, so conservation education can start earlier. The Duke Lemur Center now has a “primates for pre-schoolers program” for kids ages 3-5, and a “leaping lemurs summer science camp” for 6th and 8th graders from all over the country. For the grown-ups, there’s an “evening with the experts” with such curious topics as “are you smarter than a lemur?”.

Come back Wednesday for another video on Duke Lemur Center, when we’ll explore some of Chris Smith’s strategies when talking lemur science to the public.

Category: Informal Science Education, Science communication, Science Museums, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Guest Post: The NBA family tree

Here in Sci-Ed we like to link science with popular topics, so we can draw in some more resistant learners. Atif posted about NHL Hockey for teaching statistics, and I wrote about NFL football (specifically on how football star Robert Griffin III caused everyone to learn about knee anatomy). Today is our guest Dr. Laura Guertin’s turn. Below, she shows us how she combined basketball when teaching geology. Dr. Guertin’s bio is at the bottom of the post. 

Springfield, Massachusetts, is the birthplace of many great things, from Breck Shampoo to Sheraton Hotels to Friendly Ice Cream. But in addition to being the city of my birthplace, Springfield is also the birthplace of the sport of basketball and home to the Basketball Hall of Fame. During one of my family visits, my brother and I took the opportunity to visit this shrine to basketball – a place neither of us had ever visited growing up, despite being raised die-hard Boston Celtics fans.

As we began going through the displays of uniforms and lockers, we came around a corner and I saw this:

nba family tree

My brother, who works for an insurance brokerage firm, looked at this lighted wall and continued to walk on by. But as someone teaching historical geology at the time, a course that covers the 4.6 billion years of Earth’s physical and biological changes, I immediately saw several historical geology concepts visually displayed in the NBA Family Tree!

Let’s review some of what caught my eye… and go with me on some of these…

Evolutionary radiation, or explosion – With the invention of basketball, new burst of diversification appeared in the number of teams. All at once, the environment and ecosystems were present to support the large number of teams that appeared on the far left of the image – think of the Cambrian Explosion from ~540 million years ago, when most of the major animal phyla appeared in a biologic burst of diversification in an incredibly short period of geologic time.

Evolutionary experimentation – As we see in the fossil record of the Early Cambrian Period (~540-520 million years ago), some new life forms appear and go extinct very short periods of geologic time. This is true for short-lived teams such as the Sheboygan Redskins and Providence Steamrollers.

Stasis – Two teams in the NBA are still in the original location where they were founded and have the same name, never relocating because of “environmental” (or financial) pressures. These teams are represented in the continuous bars for the Boston Celtics and New York Knickerbockers (now shortened to the Knicks).

Punctuated equilibrium (or just adaptive radiation?) – During expansion years, when many NBA teams are added in multiple cities at once, you can see a pulse of new life on the scene, or speciation. In contrast, if I were to show you a family tree of the WNBA, we would see an example of phyletic gradualism, with 2-4 teams being added each year when the league was established.

Extinction – Some teams just don’t make it in our world, just like some living species do not survive. This makes a great topic of discussion with students – why do some teams fold? Are there similar pressures that cause species to go extinct? I also bring up how some teams move from one city to another, like the New Orleans Jazz becoming the Utah Jazz, and the Seattle Supersonics moving to become the Oklahoma City Thunder. Why do teams pack up and move to a new city? Does this parallel why species or entire communities of organisms migrate and establish in a new environment? Again, financial reasons are a huge motivator for a basketball team’s migration or collapse, but there are other general reasons that apply to both sports teams and natural living communities as a cause for movement, such as the lack of a supporting physical environment.

Binomen nomenclature – At times, I have students struggle with genus and species names in the Linnaean biological classification system, such as the similarities and differences between Homo habilis and Homo sapiens. By using the city name as the genus and the team name as the species, this has helped students visualize that the Boston Celtics, Boston Bruins, and Boston Red Sox are all athletes (or individuals of a particular “species”) in the same city, but basketball players do not mix or cross over to hockey, who do not cross over to baseball.

Certainly, what I share here is a loose connection between basketball and understanding patterns and changes in Earth’s biologic history. But it is a fun way to bring basketball in as a supplemental, visual tool for getting students to learn and to easily recall these concepts. I have used the NBA (and WNBA) Family Tree every time I’ve taught historical geology, since 2001.  The students react very positively to the basketball references, both male and female students (gender does not seem to be an issue).  At first, I was concerned about the students that are not big fans of basketball understanding the connections, but a student doesn’t need to know the rules of the game in order to understand what the visual is showing.

I think one of the reasons my students are comfortable with having basketball brought in to the classroom is that I teach at a university located right outside the city of Philadelphia. As my campus is a commuter campus without any dorms, the majority of my students were born and raised in the Philadelphia area with the Philadelphia 76ers (which makes it difficult to talk about the Boston Celtics – no brotherly love between the two cities, I assure you!). But teachers can use any team that is closest to their school, or even another sport besides basketball (baseball, football, hockey, etc.). I think soccer would fit very well with these historical geology concepts, and discussing with students how Major League Soccer (MLS) has been successful, yet the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) and Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) leagues have both folded in short timeframes (more examples of evolutionary experimentation, I suppose!).

My take-home message – there’s no need to shy away from bringing sports in to the classroom. Even those students that don’t know the rules can still “play the game” in understanding how the structure and evolution of teams can apply to historical geology and additional biological concepts.


lauraguertinmaineDr. Laura Guertin is a marine geologist and educator that cares deeply about increasing the scientific and geographic literacy of students pursuing non-science degrees. You will typically find her outdoors mentoring undergraduate student researchers and emphasizing the connections between disciplines via technological tools.  Connect with her on Twitter at @guertin

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The Childhood Aquatic

The author's original "The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau" book set.

The author’s original “The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau” book set.

One my earliest memories is sitting down with my dad as he turned the colorful pages of “The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau”. His love for the undersea world was palpable to my young, developing brain. I haven’t thought of these memories in years. Life has a way of getting busy. But recently I stumbled upon these old friends.

I have been trying to organize my life more, so I have decided to tackle my basement.  Boxes upon boxes of material that haven’t been touched for years. My mind is telling me to let them go, but I convinced myself to be absolutely sure there was nothing of priceless value hidden away in those boxes. Who knows, an errant original Van Gogh could be in there.  So there amidst the cardboard boxes was the milk crate containing my “Ocean World of Jacque Cousteau” book set.  I have seen it in its spot a hundred times, but today I noticed something different.  Peeking out ever so slightly from the holes of the milk crate was a very faded, very old, scrap piece of paper diligently holding a place in one of Jacques’ books for the last 25 years.

I became intrigued as it was literally put there by an 8 year old me and hadn’t been touched since, indicating something I found to be of great importance at the time.  So I picked up the book and flipped to the marked page….

“Chapter III. Survival of the Fittest” emblazoned across the top of the page in aquatic blue.  A two toned white and gray map showing the Pacific coast of  South and Central America with a zoomed in window highlighting the Galapagos islands. On the facing page a full color photo of a giant tortoise giving the camera a coy look. This literally marks the first time in my life that I learned the single principle that would dictate the rest of my life.  While the term “survival of the fittest” was coined by Herbert Spencer, the text in the book focuses on Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  I have studied evolution for years and it is now the cornerstone of my teaching career. It was buried in the  pages of a 20 volume book set, but 8 year old me was struck by it, and so marked it for reference.  I sat there, reading over the words, memories I forgot existed came flooding back.  Then, as if scripted, I looked up at the rest of the books and saw many more hastingly ripped up scraps of paper marking various pages of significance to a younger, less knowledgable me.

And as I revisited each page and followed the now unrecognizable path of my 8 year old thought process pieces began to fall into place. My whole life suddenly came into clear and perfect focus.

These books shaped my life.  Going through them as a child, page by page, over and over again, mesmerized by the pictures and intrigued by the words, they began to sculpt and shape my brain.  Sure the initial interest was there before the books, but how many children when asked what they want to be when they grow up say “I want to be a vet” or “I want to work with animals”…..and how many do?

Genes are interesting.  You can have the genetics  for a specific trait but if you are never introduced to an environmental stimuli that gene might never get turned on.  For example, the arctic fox is brown in the summer and white in the winter. The simple reason is that the gene that produces melanin (responsible for brown) does not work below a certain temperature and thus no color is produced and you get a white fox.  If you take an arctic fox and keep them in a warm climate they will never turn white.


Photo Source: http://jwlloyd.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/arctic-fox_winter_summer.jpg

Photo Source: http://jwlloyd.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/arctic-fox_winter_summer.jpg

So I began to wonder, if I never got those books,  would my interest have subsided?

My dad purchased them at a yard sale when I was around 4 years old. I remember, clearly, sitting on our couch with him and flipping through those books before I could even read.  Looking at the pictures.  I have a clear memory of the  joy I would get seeing that shade of green on the cover of the book because I knew that color meant something I liked was in there (is it coincidence my favorite color is green?)

Then I began to think: why of all things did my dad choose these books? I asked my dad this very question and he replied

“My dad and grandfather were commercial fishermen and I used to sit and watch the Cousteau series on TV with my dad. It was a big event in the house. I bought them because I wanted you to have a connection to the sea, but honestly, I think I bought them for myself knowing I would eventually give them to you”.

In the early seventies, at 17 years old  he purchased an old tank, weight belt, and double-hosed regulator at a yard sale for $125. His first underwater adventure was when “my dad’s fishing boat was tied to the pier and the water was about 12 feet deep. My dad tied a rope around my waist and let me go to the bottom.. I walked around, and when I felt a tug I came back up.”

Did I inherit the genes for science and exploration of the natural world from my father? His career path was exactly the opposite of mine, so I always assumed the answer was no.

But something was in there, because  he was scuba diving before it was really a hobby, and something made him buy those books. There was a seed in there that just never got germinated.

Growing up he did not choose his career path as much as it chose him.  Having to work at a young age and not having a lot of money limits your opportunities, as does having a son at 23.  He didn’t have the freedom to choose as much as the need to support.  He became a laborer, was in a union, experienced injustices in the laborer environment and when he did have the opportunity to choose his own path he became a labor lawyer.

No doubt, largely influenced by his years as a laborer.

What if when he was barely old enough to read someone handed him a set of books about the natural world. If his parents brought home a set of books from a yard sale about outer space.  Would that have triggered the same genes that are responsible for my inquisitiveness?  Would that have been the water needed to germinate that seed? What if he brought me home a set of books about outer space, would I have chosen a very different career in science?

Perhaps if he got those books on space, he would have purchased a telescope instead of an old scuba set and I would have grown up watching him peering into space instead of disappearing below the water.

I sat there, having just realized for the first time the real impact these books have had on me. This is the responsibility we have with young children. As parents, as educators we need to make sure those seeds of science germinate. Never underestimate the value of a lego set, an old microscope, a solar system poster, an old set of books, but most importantly, you.


[I previously wrote about these books on a personal blog. This is has been re-edited for the science education audience.]

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Childhood obesity drops 40% in the last decade. Or not really, but who’s checking?

“A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.”
― Alfred Tennyson

Last week, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association received a lot of media attention. The study, performed by Cynthia Ogden and colleagues at the CDC, aimed to describe the prevalence of obesity in the US and look at changes between 2003 and 2012. The study itself had several interesting findings, not least among them that the prevalence of obesity seems to have stabilized in many segments of the US population. However, they made one observation that caught the media’s attention:

“There was a significant decrease in obesity among 2- to 5-year-old children (from 13.9% to 8.4%; P = .03)”

This is where things get interesting, as the focus was not on the 5.5 percentage points difference. Instead of reporting the absolute difference, i.e. how much something changed, news outlets focused on the relative difference, i.e. how much they changed compared to each other. In that case, it would be (5.5/13.9 =) 40%. Which is much more impressive than the 5.5% change reported in the study. So you can guess what the headlines loudly proclaimed:

Headlines from Bloomberg, the LA Times and the WSJ

Headlines from Bloomberg, the LA Times and the WSJ | Click to enlarge, click links to read the articles

The media latched onto this “40%” statistic and ran with it, despite the researchers clearly stating that this was not their intention. In fact, from the paper itself, they said (in their conclusions):

Overall, there have been no significant changes in obesity prevalence in youth or adults between 2003-2004 and 2011-2012. Obesity prevalence remains high and thus it is important to continue surveillance. (emphasis mine)

This makes me wonder how many journalists read the article, how many got to the end, and how many just saw what other people had reported and ran with the same headline and narrative.

Here’s the thing – they’re technically correct (the best kind of correct). Yes, childhood obesity dropped 40% based on that report, and if that is true, that is a dramatic decrease. However, that is one group, and even the researchers themselves conclude this may be meaningless. It begs the question why, and if this is an actual association or just an artifact of something else like the type and number of statistical tests used. But since the narrative had already been written, everyone followed suit, and next thing you know we’re all slapping hi fives and proclaiming that there has been a drop off in childhood obesity that may not actually be something worth celebrating.

Now, had the results been portrayed fairly, two things would have happened. For one, the findings would not have been as positive as they are now. In fact, the headlines would have read “Business as usual: Obesity the same for the last decade” or “Obesity up 20% among elderly women!” (The latter refers to the finding that the prevalence of obesity went up among women aged 60 years and older from 31.5% to 38.1%). Secondly, a much more detailed discussion of the study findings would have happened – why has the prevalence stabilized? Have we finally reached saturation? Are all the people who could be obese now obese? Or is something else going on? But these weren’t the findings that were focused on.

The worst outcome of this media exposure won’t be felt right now. It will be felt in the next study. You see, this study in JAMA was reported all over the media, and millions would have heard about how we’ve finally “turned a corner in the childhood obesity epidemic” (to quote the New York Times). Unfortunately, this may not be the case, and if a new study comes out saying the opposite, this further undermines the public’s confidence in science, even though the researchers in question never made any such claim.

And that, dear readers, is the darkest of all lies.

Ogden, C. L., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B. K., & Flegal, K. M. (2014). Prevalence of Childhood and Adult Obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. JAMA, 311(8), 806-814.

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No time for coats: Jupiter is outside.

I only noticed the cold after my fingers had stopped responding.

I wasn’t able to press the camera shutter button any longer. In that 20 degrees F night, I was standing in the sidewalk with Science Online friends, and I had only a party dress on.

We had attended a few days of SciO14 lectures, when the conference attendees gathered for a party. One of the party guests, astrophysicist Katie Mack, bursts through the double doors and approached us with the biggest eyes I’ve ever seen. She had an ominous look in her face. It was urgent. Through background chatter and music, I overheard:

“Jupiter’s four Galilean moons are visible tonight. We got big binoculars and we are going outside.”

Everyone in an audible radius of Katie immediately followed. No questions asked. No time for coats.


A small crowd of Science Online partiers scrambled outside in the sidewalk. One of the attendees set up the giant binoculars on a tripod. The term “binoculars” does not give it justice: the instrument looked more like a small telescope on stilts. (It’s peculiar how Science Online attendees arrive prepared. In their suitcases I found vials of freshly-collected caterpillars, and supersized mascot costumes. Which gives me an idea for my next photographic project. But I digress).


People took turns shivering and looking through the binocular lenses. Every time someone re-joined the crowd, a “just-seen-a-ghost” expression took over their face. An expression I knew very well.


I had felt it growing up, every time I peered through my telescope lenses. My first time feeling part of the global community when I could, like them, see the same comet. Or, years later, about to witness a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, stood in a Florida sidewalk with NASA fans watching the International Space Station flyby.

You finally understand that something is truly, literally, out of this world.


Europa, Callisto, Ganymede, and Io (my favorite) were all brightly visible surrounding Jupiter. I had never seen the moons before. The scene reached its poetic peak when Katie, trembling (cold, giddy, or both?), narrated the story of Galileo’s discovery.


I was not sure I would be able to describe that moment, which is why I had pulled out my camera earlier that night. I had to flash-freeze the “human behind the scientist” scenes I’ve been observing throughout the Science Online conference. Before, I was secretly shown a squirming caterpillar, heard a first-hand speech on lemur costumed gloves, and got pulled out of a party to watch Jupiter.

Those warm and fuzzy Science Online moments can easily make one forget any turmoil.

This community made me feel welcome.

Later I noticed someone had draped a fleece coat over my shoulders.

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Sci-Ed present at Scio14

Tomorrow, Sci-Ed team members Cristina and John start their journey to attend Science Online 2014. The conference starts on the 27th and is packed with science communication topics (in fact, there are so many interesting sessions it makes it difficult to choose). The organizers call this event an “unconference”: attendees are active participants in open forum discussions.

I’ll attend the Non-English Science Communication panel, and both John and I will attend the video workshop, among several other sessions. We’ll also tour the Duke Lemur Center and hopefully see a sideways hopping Sifaka (fingers crossed).

sifaka Duke Lemur Center

Sifaka lemurs, when on the ground, hop sideways. Photo credit: Duke Lemur Center.


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Guest Post: bridging the work-skills gap

Anna Trainer and I share the love for Brontosauruses. Specifically, of Brian Switek’s “My Beloved Brontosaur“: it was during one of Switek’s readings that I first met Anna. We continued to bump into each other in science writing events, and she quickly became my go-to paleontologist. Finally, it dawned on me that it would be great to have her perspective at Sci-Ed. Enjoy her guest post below, and find more information about Anna’s background on the bottom of the post. 

Last November, I observed university professors, school administrators, and employers from large corporations doing something unusual: agreeing with each other.

They were all attendees of The Close It Summit, a conference designed to find creative solutions for the work-skills gap. They were discussing the work-skills gap, an increasingly prevalent problem in the United States. The work-skills gap describes the discrepancy between the highly skilled, often highly technical jobs available and the college graduates with the requisite knowledge to fill them (a problem that greatly affects individuals in STEM fields). The conference brought together educators and employers to brainstorm innovative solutions for addressing these issues. It was a refreshing experience without any of the blame game that usually accompanies discussions about the skills gap. Both educators and employers recognized that the situation must evolve on both sides of the equation for the gap to be closed. Some of the propositions discussed included developing more intensive on-the-job training, offering co-op and internship experiences for students, and providing apprenticeships for high school, vocational school, or community college students.

The Work-Skill Gap: What is the role of educators?

Employers complain that they cannot find skilled workers to fill their vacancies, even when we were in the midst of the economic downturn. They maintain that the American education system is failing to prepare student for careers in highly scientific or technical fields. The reality is that the situation is complex and there is no simple solution. Although employers often blame the education system, educators contend that it is becoming more difficult to prepare students with the specific job skills when budget cuts hamper their efforts. Additionally, there is debate that the fault may lie not with the education system but with employers themselves. One simple solution often recommended by economists would be for employers to offer higher wages in order to get the skill sets they desire; oftentimes, with so many people desperate for jobs, it became easier to complain of a skills gap then to offer higher salaries. Students themselves, some of whom have earned degrees in STEM fields, are left frustrated at their inability to find good jobs. The problem continues to grow, and meanwhile the gap between the highly skilled and well compensated, and the low skilled and poorly compensated worker continues to widen.  Despite these issues, there is evidence that our educational system is not keeping pace with the demands of STEM careers. In a time where access to education should be more prevalent than ever in the United States, with knowledge and resources readily available at the click of a mouse, what is the explanation for the shortage of science, math and problem solving skills in our students?

What does money have to do with it?

The answers may not be the result of a deficiency on the part of education, but instead may be rooted in economics and politics. From pre-school through college, there are socioeconomic barriers to education. For example, preschool is not available to all students, despite the fact that it has been repeatedly demonstrated to be beneficial, both in terms of school performance and eventual socioeconomic status. Teaching has become less attractive as a career option, with teachers rarely being compensated competitively, combined with funding cuts, large class sizes, and ever-intensifying pressure to raise students’ standardized test scores. Barriers to higher education for individuals are difficult to overcome if they were raised in a low or even middle income family. With the costs of college seemingly exponentially on the rise, many people either decide not to go to college at all, or drop out with their degrees unfinished. The result is a young American populous pursuing jobs that they do not have the skills for, applying at companies who have no interest in using their own resources to train them.

It seems that even college graduates are falling further behind. A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development demonstrated a troubling trend: American students are losing ground to their international peers in math, reading, and problem solving skills. Additionally, current American students are also falling behind earlier generations of Americans on literacy tests, with the current generation testing more poorly than 30 year olds did in 1994.  Another recent report agrees with these trends, citing inadequate education as the driving force behind the skills gap. However, the burden must not be laid solely at the feet of the academic institution. If employers are seeking the students with the best skills for their positions, they need to think of innovative methods for finding and training these workers.

Educators can’t do it alone!

Academic institutions are not designed to be vocational schools. Employers must also be willing to train workers for the jobs they have instead of looking for inexpensive employees who already have the skills. Apprenticeships, internships, and student co-ops are all viable options and should be further pursued across the scientific disciplines, as studies have shown that students with co-op experiences have higher starting salaries and employment rates.  In the meantime, college grads with degrees in the STEM fields will continue working for food in the hopes that the skills they earned in college will be enough for an employer to take a chance on.

The talented and skilled workforce is out there. There are thousands, if not millions, of college grads with the requisite skills for the workplace that are being overlooked by employers. The real difficulty seems to be in getting these individuals connected to the available jobs (and having an employer willing to pay you the wages your skills demand!). Recently, educators and employers have been joining forces to provide students with the necessary training. The Close It Summit is an example of this, but more work is needed, and requires a collaboration of employers, educators, and policy-makers. Opportunities in STEM fields will continue to grow; we just have to ensure that our workforce is given the chance to use their skills, and that those still in school are ready to achieve these opportunities in the future.


  • Barnett, W. Steven. “Benefits of Preschool for All.” National Institute for Early Education Research (2006).
  • Samuel Berlinski, Sebastian Galiani, Marco Manacorda. “Giving children a better start: Preschool attendance and school-age profiles”. Journal of Public Economics (2008)
  •  Munby, Hugh, et al. “Co‐op students’ access to shared knowledge in science‐rich workplaces.” Science education 91.1 (2007): 115-132.

AnnaAnna Trainer is a Biological Anthropologist who enjoys all things related to human evolution and science education. Her recent research includes examining the variation found in the modern human mandible and pondering the age old question of why humans have chins. She has additionally studied hominin occupational behavior in the Middle Paleolithic time period of Central Asia. Anna can be contacted via Twitter at @AnnaKatieT

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