Category: Education

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In an innovative science education initiative, five scientists vie for popularity with school-age students from across the US by answering their questions online, and in real-time chats, in an effort to be the “last scientist standing”

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Last Thursday, the second annual University of Michigan Innovation In Action competition concluded, with six stunning student pitches for startups that could make a significant dent on the health and well-being of communities. It was a great example of what can be achieved at the intersection of public health, entrepreneurship, and the creativity and energy that students can bring to real-world problems.

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From Risk Sense: Six months ago, Risk Bites launched as a somewhat quirky YouTube experiment in science communication. Twenty-seven videos on, how are things going?

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Risk Bites – my new foray into the world of YouTube informal education – was officially launched a few weeks ago (although the transition from “unofficial” to “official” simply meant posting new videos more regularly!).  The channel is an experiment in overcoming the tedium and seeming irrelevance of much academic online content by unbundling the things that I research and teach and talking about the interesting stuff in an engaging and accessible way. Is it working?  It’s too early to say yet.  I’m getting good feedback from my peers.  But I have yet to crack how to get a much wider pool of eyeballs onto the videos (any offers of publicity here gratefully received – the url is http://youtube.com/riskbites – just in case you need it!).  What I’m really looking for is a growing number of subscribers and viewers who are entertained and informed by the videos. That said, I’m learning a lot from the experience.  The workflow is admittedly crude (idea, script, voice-over, storyboard, film, edit, post – all fit into an already packed schedule).  But that in turn means that the videos can be nearly as responsive as writing a blog post – as last week’s response to the Sandy Hook shootings showed.  In fact, the whole feel of the exercise is very much like the early days of writing posts for 2020 Science. Filming Risk Bites (click the image to see the video) The big difference though is the challenge of taking my work on risk and evidence-informed decision-making and dividing it into very short pieces that create a coherent narrative.  A 1 – 2 minute video allows for between 200 – 400 words, which isn’t a whole lot to handle the intricacies of the science of human health risk.  Even seemingly basic concepts like dose-response need

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A guest post by Candace Rowell MPH. Candace is an alum of the University of Michigan School of Public Health Department of Environmental Health Sciences, and a former contributor to Mind The Science Gap.  She is currently a research associated with the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute in Doha, Qatar. The traffic in Doha is horrendous. Ask anyone who lives here. It might take you 45 minutes to commute a mere 15 km. The summers are brutal – the temperature bounces around the 50⁰C mark and the humidity threatens to drown you on the doorstep. Yes, this is Doha;

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YouTube intrigues me.  Having been dragged into the YouTube culture by my teenagers over the past two years, I’ve been fascinated by the shift from seemingly banal content to a sophisticated social medium. But what has really grabbed my attention is the growth of YouTube as a unique and powerful platform for informal education which is being driven not by the educational establishment, but by an emerging educational counterculture.

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Tomorrow, my 16 year old daughter is leaving her home in the US for the UK. She’ll be there for the next two years while she studies for her A levels.  It was a heart-rending decision for my wife and I to agree to her living apart from us in a different country.  But the stark reality is that my daughter’s high school education here is just not good enough to prepare her for a British University – and in two years’ time, that’s where she wants to be.

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YouTube is gearing up to transform the way we learn.  At least that’s the message that came across loud and clear at this morning’s VidCon breakout panel on education. In an overflowing room of well over two hundred conference goers, head of YouTube Education Angela Lin led a panel of five leading video makers in a lively discussion, that gave a compelling glimpse of the future of online education.  And it was a future that didn’t feature too many conventional lessons or institutionalized videos! As the panel included John and Hank Green (SciShow, CrashCourse and a gazillion other things) I was expecting a room packed to the brim with their incredibly engaged teen fans – which it was.  An odd audience you might think for a panel on education.  But this was a serious, intelligent and engaged crowd, eager to listen to the panel, ask questions and provide their own insight on online learning.  Joining the Green brothers were physics blogger Henry Reich (minutephysics), science YouTuber Brady Haran (The Periodic Table of Videos), Mike Rugnetta, host of the PBS Idea Channel and Vi Hart of Mathemusician and the Khan Academy. What was notable was that these panelists are all a) successful online educators (extremely so in some cases), b) not formally trained in teaching (to my knowledge) and c) not representing mainstream educational institutions (not counting PBS).  This is important, because there was no doubt here that the excitement and impact surrounding online education is occurring outside conventional educational circles – and in many cases leaving them standing.  John Green talked about this emerging online education community as being “disruptive,” while brother Hank talked about a “new kind of learning.” And everyone the panel agreed that education content on YouTube is where online music was five or six years ago,

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I‘m over half way through the first day at VidCon 2012, and thought I would jot a few notes down on the science scene here.  OK, so maybe 7,000 people haven’t come to the Anaheim Convention Center to hear the latest on the Higgs boson and other interesting science stuff (although you’d be surprised by how many of them are interested), but after last year, I’ve become increasingly interested in how YouTube is developing as a platform for science communication, education and engagement. After last year’s experience of a distinctly counter-culture nature, I wrote this: Next year, VidCon will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center in LA, and I suspect will attract a much larger crowd than this year.  As planning gets underway for the event, it would be really good to see participation from some of the big names in science communication on YouTube, and a greater integration of science and technology YouTube communities into the program. I doubt very much that Hank Green – the driving force behind VidCon – is a sufficiently avid reader of 2020 Science that he read this and acted on it.  But nevertheless science has clearly moved up the agenda this year.  This in part reflects a massive increase in science content and viewership on YouTube over the past year – including the launch of Hank’s own channel SciShow.  It also reflects the fact that grass roots and alternative science communicators on YouTube are – not to put too fine a point on it – smokin’ it when it comes to connecting with today’s youth. In this morning’s opening main stage session, Henry Reich (MinutePhysics) gave a packed audience in the Anaheim Convention Center Arena a quick lesson in quantum mechanics and the paradox of Schrödindgers cat.  And it went down a

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Here’s an introduction to the “wonders and worries of nanotechnology” that I think is rather brilliant: It’s part of a series being produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota for the Nanoscale Informal Science Education network (NISE Net). The series is designed to stimulate discussions addressing the societal and ethical implication of nanotechnology – but in an accessible and non-threatening way. Keep your eyes peeled for further episodes with Mindy and Denny – having read through some of the draft scripts, I think you will enjoy them!

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Credit: James King Last semester, speculative designer James King worked with myself and a small group of science and public health students at the University of Michigan to explore how a fusion of science and creative art can lead to new insights and modes of communication.  The exercise was part of the A World of Surprises project – a project James is working on as the Witt Artist in residence at the UM School of Art and Design. Part of the aim was to take these science-grounded students out of their comfort zone, expose them to some radical new ideas and perspectives, and see what happens. The results were impressive!  Once the students realized that they weren’t bound by the rigid limitations of their science education, they became enthused over using creative techniques to tell science-grounded stories that connected with people on a far deeper level than just the facts would allow. Today the group presented the fruits of their final assignment: to produce a piece of creative work that captures the tension – in narrative form – between imagined catastrophic risks and experienced mundane risks. As a group, we were interested in the tension between the catastrophic consequences often imagined to arise from human endeavors, and the mundane reality that often develops. I’ll try to showcase all of the projects over the next few weeks.  They were all, in their own way, quite brilliant.  Coming up in future posts there will be: The Tale of Rhino Banana (a brilliant story of a technological breakthrough that runs up against public resistance); Salutary lessons from the struggle between evil and the divine in the middle ages; A visual juxtaposition of comparative risks related to Fukushima; and A new-future story of technological sophistication and mundane consequences. (I’ll add the links as they

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In a little over a week, ten of my University of Michigan Masters of Public Health students will embark on an intensive  science blogging course – and they need your help! Every week for ten weeks, each student will take a recent scientific publication or emerging area of scientific interest, and write a public blog post on it that is aimed at a non expert and non technical audience.  And as they do this, they will be evaluated in the most brutal way possible – by the audience they are writing for! The blog is Mind The Science Gap (mindthesciencegap.org, or mtsg.org for short), and the course is designed to use the medium of science blogging to develop more generally applicable communication skills. This is where you come in:  We are looking for people who are willing to read and comment on the posts each week, and help the participants hone their skills.  You don’t have to be an expert in what is being written about – you just have to have an opinion over whether the pieces connect with you or not, and how they could be improved.  Even comments as short of “I liked this” or “I don’t get this” are tremendously helpful in indicating what works, and what does not. Whether you are a public health expert, a science communicator, or simply someone who enjoys reading about science and health, please consider checking into the blog regularly and commenting on what you read.  If you can commit to leaving a couple of comments a week, please consider becoming a mentor – check out the blog’s Mentor page for details.  Even if you can’t, please do read the posts and comment when you get the chance. And please do spread the word – the more readers and the

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Two years ago I posted links to ten (relatively) mindless online “games” as a bit of fun, and as something not too taxing to indulge in over the holiday break.  Having reached that point again where anything more intellectually challenging than tic tac toe makes my head hurt, I thought I would revisit and update the 2020 Science Compendium of Mindless Games. The only criteria for inclusion: an ability to retain my attention for more than 10 seconds, minimal thinking required, a high smile-factor, and absolutely nothing of overtly educational value! Just in case you are looking for something a tad more intellectually stimulating, you can always try the Royal Statistical Society Christmas Quiz instead! Have fun, and Happy Holidays!

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A couple of weeks back I had the pleasure of moderating an American Chemistry Society webinar on the Chemistry of Fireworks with pyrotechnics guru Chris Mocella.  It’s not quite emerging technologies, but Chris gave such an engaging talk that I thought I would post it here.  It’s a great intro to some chemistry basics, and perfect for high school chemistry classes You can read more about the ACS webinar here.

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A question for you: How many science literacy/communication/engagement metaphors can you see in the photo below? Answers on a metaphorical post card in the comments area below please – I’m really interested to see what you come up with! The photo by the way is the header image for a student science blog that will be launching in January – I’ll be writing more about that in a couple of weeks.  The blog is called Mind the Science Gap, and is designed to improve the science communication skills of public health masters students.

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I picked up a new toy this weekend. (If you want to cut to the chase and see what I’ve been doing with it, please head straight to the end of the post). I’m fascinated by the combination of old tech (essentially “chalk and talk”) and new media that Sal Kahn has been successfully using to teach mathematics and science on-line.  The basic approach he uses of writing and drawing while talking is as old as the hills.  But he successfully enhances this through “debundling” topics (breaking things down into small digestible chunks) and making his digitized chalk and talk lessons freely available as short online videos. Chalk and talk is a way of teaching I still find effective, as it forces me to develop ideas at a measured pace, while allowing my students to follow the thought process and take notes. But it’s an approach that is increasingly out of vogue as educators feel they have to pander to today’s tech-savvy and social media-immersed students.  So inspired by Sol Kahn, I’ve been looking at ways of combining this approach with new online tools to provide teaching resources that extend what can be achieved in the classroom. My first approach was to look at Kahn’s setup – essentially using a drawing tablet and software as a digital blackboard, and recording short videos to teach specific concepts and skills.  But after just a few minutes, I realized that this was a learning curve that was too steep for me (put it down to age!) – tablets have a remarkable ability to make everything look like it was drawn by a 3 year old, until you get the hang of it! Then I came across pencasts.

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I’ve been up to my eyeballs this past few weeks in stuff, and haven’t had as much time as usual to post here.  So this weekend I thought I would take the easy route and post a couple of videos from the recent Symposium on Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation. These were back to back panel discussions that were designed to set the scene for the symposium by helping to distinguish technology reality from technology hype.  They make interesting viewing, as well as providing what I thought was a rather interesting take on significant areas of technology innovation – especially the second panel. The full set of symposium videos can be viewed here. Enjoy Techno-hype or techno-reality? Mark Banaszak Holl, UM Associate VP, Office of Vice President for Research.  Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Dean for Entrepreneurial Programs, UM College of Engineering.  Paula Olsiewski, Program Director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.  James Bagian, Director of the UM Center for Healthcare Engineering and Patient Safety. How are new technologies changing the world? Gil Omenn, Director of the UM Center for Computational Medicine & Bioinformatics.  James Baker, Director of the Michigan Nanotechnology Institute for Medicine.  Ann Marie Sastry, CEO and Co-Founder of Satki3.  Jörg Lahann, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering, University of Michigan.

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Two years ago, I wrote a piece about ten things that inspired me to become a scientist. One of those was my high school teacher.  We never kept in touch, but through the miracle of the web, that post eventually came to his attention, and we connected again. The other day he unearthed a photo harking back to the year we overlapped at Pilgrim Upper School and emailed it to me – bringing memories flooding back: The occasion was Mr Tranquada’s – Tim’s – last day teaching us, as he prepared to move on to another appointment.  As a class of 14 year olds we were gutted, and bought the only gift we thought suitable for such a great physics teacher – a Newton’s Cradle. You can get a sense of how inspirational Mr Tranquada was by looking at the comments on the back of the photo – remember, this was a physics class: Tim moved from Bedford in the UK to teach in Milton Keynes in 1981, and then on to Chelmsford in Essex.  From there he became a National Strategy Secondary Science Consultant for Essex – a job he says really enjoyed and during which he felt that he was giving something back to the system through supporting Schools and their Science Teachers.  He is currently enjoying his retirement! It really was a blast from the past seeing the photo and the comments, and remembering what it was like being young and inspired. But what really got the nostalgia flowing – I was the student who took that photo, thirty years ago.

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Blockbuster movies aren’t usually noted for their scientific accuracy and education potential.  But since its release last week, Steven Soderburgh’s Contagion seems to be challenging the assumption that Hollywood can’t do science. The other day I posted a piece about how director Steven Soderburgh and screenwriter Scott Z Burns’ attention to detail and plausibility left me with a sense of optimism after watching the movie, despite its disturbing theme.  This was due in large part to the involvement of three science experts – Ian Lipkin (Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columblia University), Laurie Garrett (senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations) and Larry Brilliant (President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund). Larry Brilliant is well known for his work on eradicating the smallpox virus.  He was also a past Executive Director of the philanthropic arm of Google, and is currently President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund. Yesterday afternoon, I had the chance to chat with him on the phone about the movie, his involvement, and his thoughts on its importance. What was quickly apparent in our conversation is that the idea of using film as a medium to help people better understand the threats epidemics and pandemics present is one that Brilliant has long been interested in.  While Executive Director of Google.org, he supported production of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Final Inch – a film about the historic global effort to eradicate polio. Given the success of the documentary in bringing a global issue (and public health success story) to the attention of millions of people, Larry was interested in how the medium of film could be further used – in particular to alert people to the plausible threat presented by pandemics, and the measures that are necessary to curtail their global impact.

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There’s been quite a bit of chatter about the “Brian Cox Effect” in the UK recently, as interest in science seems to be on the rise.  But I haven’t heard anyone talking about the “Charlie McDonnell Effect”. Maybe it’s because Charlie appeals more to a growing movement of teens who just want to immerse themselves in awesomeness, rather than science advocates on the lookout for the next Carl Sagan.  Maybe it’s because Charlie doesn’t fit the mold as science communicator extraordinaire – he didn’t even go to University for goodness sake!  But like it or not, 20 year old Charlie McDonnell is reaching out to millions of teens when it comes to science, and engaging with them in ways few others are even getting close to! Charlie McDonnell was lauded in today’s Sunday Times as the first Brit to hit 1 million regular viewers on YouTube (the story’s behind a paywall I’m afraid).  You may remember that I highlighted him as someone to look out for in the recent roundup of Science and VidCon. Amongst the many things he talks about on his YouTube channel, the Sunday Times piece specifically mention his interest in science.  To quote the article, “Among his latest releases is a four-minute video called Fun Science, in which he plays his ukulele while singing in rhyme about how sound works. It has had 1.7m hits.” Here is that video, which at the time of writing has has 1,804,281 views, and received more than 21,000 comments: This is pretty significant when it comes to connecting teens with science (it was only posted two weeks ago).  Charlie’s YouTube channel – charlieissocoollike – currently has 1,194,000 subscribers, and has received over 172 million views.  More importantly, there are millions of teens the world over who listen to what he

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2020 Science is the creation of Andrew Maynard - a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan. Andrew spends his time obsessing over effective science communication; the responsible development and use of emerging technologies; and how understanding risk can help inform smart decisions.  

As well as writing a regular column for the journal Nature Nanotechnology, He posts regularly here at "2020 Science", and on Twitter as @2020science.  He also produces short, entertaining, and (hopefully) informative videos on understanding health risks on his YouTube channel Risk Bites

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