Archive | August 2011

In my free time, I’m re-writing the lyrics to mmmbop to be N-BOC

This month has been pretty exciting in the realm of increasing communication of science to the general public. From the call for scientist to engage in the political rhetoric, by featuring Congressmen that have degrees in physics, chemistry and engineering in the NYtimes. To @sciencegeist and Decian Fahy’s great article in Nature Chemistry for scientist to, among other things, participate in the new communication landscape like Twitter and I’d also like to add, edit Wikipedia!I feel that underlying these efforts to increase the general public understanding of science is to improve and increase peoples uptake of science in what are termed “informal learning” environments.

“Most people, most of the time, learn most of what the know outside the classroom” – George Tressel.

Recently, the National Academies released their workshop summary from the Chemical Sciences Roundtable workshop held in May of last year to discuss the state in which chemistry was being presented on television and radio, the Internet, in museums, and various other informal learning environments. The summary can be found here: Chemistry in Primetime and Online: Communicating Chemistry in Informal Environments.

While we know that informal learning happens through the avenues listed above, one of the main conclusions from the workshop summary is that there is a lack of longitudinal studies on the influence of this type of learning, for example, in encouraging students into STEM fields. I am curious to follow up on the report that comes out of Roundtables like these in the future that will address the recommendations for how to carryout such longitudinal studies.

I want to add that perhaps an example of a policy implication to getting more of this type of data is for more follow up to the broader impacts portion of NSF grants. To require collaborations with faculty to study informal learning environments to team up with faculty with NSF grants that require “broader impacts” to generate longitudinal data.

Another topic that was discussed at the Roundtable is that Chemistry is not really being covered on TV!? What a great avenue to embrace then! Although, I am curious, now that Breaking Bad is becoming so popular, what is its effect on chemistry? I can tell you a personal antidote, when a HS student found out I was a chemist, he immediately asked me if I’ve ever made crystal meth. Now, at the time and still now, I have only seen season 1 of the series and suffice to say, I didn’t know how to respond. Perhaps, in addition to the “well, of course, no”, that I responded with, I should have also said, “but the process of recrystallization is a technique that I nearly carryout daily” so to give this hs student a better idea about what it is that chemist do on a daily basis.

To insert a side-note here: this weekend at ACSDenver there will be a talk from the Science Advisor for Breaking Bad in the Presidental Symposia. If someone goes to that talk, please share your views in the comments section of this blog!

The Roundtable did not discuss the TV show Breaking Bad. But it did bring to my attention several projects on increasing the prevalence of chemistry on TV. There were suggestions to take advantage of Youtube as “In 2008, the New York Times reported that more and more office workers are using their lunch hours to watch short videos over the Internet, “video snacking”. And that “chemistry teachers are hungry for video sources, particularly those that show chemistry at work today”.

One video featured in the summary was a short video on Dan Nocera’s water-splitting catalyst. Showcasing that Internet videos are easy to disseminate and a great way to communicate chemistry’s role in the big captivating questions that are of interest to everyone.

A few others that I myself have found to be entertaining and do a great job of taking advantage of how short videos can engage the viewer in topics related to chemistry:

The EFRC at the University of Texas studying new energy materials, such as solar cells and lithium-ion batteries. Because these centers are funding by the Department of Energy, these short videos are actually a great way to expose the taxpayer to what type of research their tax dollars are going to.

The ACS has started to produce a few short videos about common experimental techniques that chemists often use, for example, the inside of an NMR. An NMR is very important for many chemist in that it is one of the ways that allows us to identify (or strongly support) that we have made the molecules we claim to have made. It is an extremely fascinating instrument, as prior to the NMR, molecules were identified using a thermometer.(1)

The summary also mentioned an exciting movie being developed and is set to be broadcast on PBS this year (for the International Year of Chemistry) called the Search for the Elements. I have not been able to find any more information about the movie other than what is mentioned in the report. But keep a look out for it and I will do the same in order to help promote it! The film sounds like a great project to promote the intrigue and mystery inherent in the discovery of the elements of the periodic table (as there have been a few books in the last couple of years on this, there is yet to be a movie).

Informal learning environments are more than television or short Internet videos. But I have mentioned these in this post as I feel that this is a medium that chemists are not quite taking full advantage of to bring chemistry to the general public. Especially with today’s technology, every nearly has all they need to make a good video on their personal computers! Although the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education(2) ranks Documentary/Film and Public TV and Radio as low in STEM Understanding, it does rank high in informal education. Increasing television along with other parts of the landscape of informal learning, can both increase STEM understanding of the general public and Informal Education.


Roberts, J.D. J. Org. Chem. 2009, 74, 4897-4917. DOI: 10.1021/jo900641t


Falk, J.H.; Randol, S.; Dierking, L.D. 2008 The Informal Science Education Landscape: A Preliminary Investigation. Washington, D.C.; Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education.

An Academic’s Experience at Wikimania

Since I was doing a significant amount of tweeting about Wikimania, I thought that it would be good to do a quick post about the conference. As my first conference not (directly) academically focused, it was nice to form these new unique connections, to see and meet so many people committed to an amazing cause. Sure the media goes after the comedic aspect of edit wars and vandalism but deep underneath that are a group of people who voluntarily commit time, efforts and talents to make it so that accurate information is freely available to as many people as possible.  It also never ceases to amaze me how this even works the way it does.

“Making fun of Wikipedia is so 2007.” Sue Gardner

The Wikimedia Foundation has educational initiatives, research into how to encourage experts, and projects focused on the global south.  Their mission is what I ideally wish every institution could strive for.  **

I was especially intrigued by the Wikimedia Foundation’s research on expert contribution. As a few of you might have remembered, there was a call for readers of various academic journals (Nature, Science, Scientific American) to fill out a survey about their anticipated contribution and interactions to Wikipedia. The results from that survey were presented at the conference and are available at: MetaWiki. One of the major conclusions is that many experts would more likely offer their expertise to reviewing articles rather than contributing to writing articles. It is perhaps strange – but similar to the system of peer-review – that editorial responsibility although seemingly to have a small direct benefit for the amount of time spent on it, may actually be a means for Wikipedia to gather expertise.  I am excited for the follow-ups that the foundation will be doing to gather more data on this finding and means of executing an initiative to gather more expert contribution.

It was also exciting to learn that the Department of State developed and runs an internal wiki called Diplopedia, and has been presenting their progress at Wikimania for the past few years!  I have not written too much about the Wikipedia Educational Initiatives that I have had the opportunity to be a part of in this blog yet (which I should alleviate soon), but along with the communication skills gained in using Wikipedia as an educational tool, the technical skills on how to use a wiki will also be beneficial and it is great to see the Department of State illustrate this with the internal wiki they are developing based on Wikipedia.  When information can be easily shared it saves time and resources as new employees can quickly be caught up and benefit from experiences of other employees.   Part of me always thought that this type of system would be deployed through out industry but that is definitely not the case. I have had a few friends express stress and frustration with the disorganization and lack of resources to be adequately caught up on projects.

In addition, I also learned about a requirement for some submissions to RNA Biology to also submit a Wikipedia entry to be considered for publication. This is really exciting to hear as I am an advocate of increasing expert contributions to Wikipedia. Now this apparently has been required since 2008, so the efforts I heard about at Wikimania were how to get more journals to be on board with the same type of requirements. RNA Biology is a very limited examples because there are quite a few restrictions to the types of articles that require a Wikipedia article, and so there is some need to discuss how to expand the guidelines to other tracks and to perhaps convince the editorial boards of other journals to require similar requests. What do you think? How do you feel about the movement towards open science? What are your fears?


***As I am at the point in my life where I am debating about the benefits and drawbacks of walking away from the Ivory Tower, the chance to get to see the workings of an institution like Wikipedia and all of its projects reminds me of how I had once thought that academics worked the same way.  And the hope that because it exists, one day maybe academics will work this way, and if so I would want to be a part of it. But also, because what I have experienced so far is not this beautiful ideal, I also do not see the Ivory Tower changing soon enough.