The Seven Wonderers of Beakerhead: Telling stories about science

The Seven Wonderers of Beakerhead (Photo courtesy of Raj Bhardwaj @RajBhardwajMD, used with permission)

The Seven Wonderers of Beakerhead (Photo courtesy of Raj Bhardwaj @RajBhardwajMD, used with permission)

In the warm glow of vintage stage lights, with a full house packed into worn leather and velour seats, a woman approaches the mic almost tentatively. “I used to be a dancer”, she says, “and I would probably be a lot more comfortable on this stage if I were dancing”[i]. It wasn’t a typical opening line for a science talk. (more…)

Call for papers: Personal stories from women in science

Me and my daughter admiring a penguin at the Calgary Zoo.Diving headlong into motherhood this year has meant less blogging (obvious to anyone who subscribes here…), but it has also made me think a lot more about the scientific life that I would hope for my new daughter and girls like her. Currently her research interests include ceiling fans, her toes, her soother, the dogs and the penguins at the Calgary Zoo. But should she be interested in pursuing science as a career, what would I want her to know?


How do students figure out whom to trust in a scientific controversy?

Scientific literacy is a difficult idea to pin down.[i] To some people it means having a basic level of scientific understanding, though nobody fully agrees on how much understanding is needed or even which specific ideas should be understood. To others, it is more important to understand the core processes of science, which can be applied to any area of science. Again the problem exists of figuring out exactly which processes are most important (and which are distinctly scientific).[ii]

Even when people disagree about what it means, there is almost always this common thread: scientific literacy somehow involves preparing students and adults for the science they will encounter outside of school, very often in media reports. George DeBoer highlighted this in his history of scientific literacy: (more…)

When it comes to scientific words, simple is harder than it seems

[Yes, it’s been a long time since I posted something new. One reason is that I’ve been busy preparing for a big move. You can read about it here.]

After our discussion about using dry ice with 8 year olds had died down, this year’s crop of space camp counsellors asked a question that plagues almost everyone who teaches, writes about or in any way works to share scientific information: what are the right words to use to explain difficult concepts?

Questions like that come up every year in my undergrad science ed classes and in almost every science communication workshop I’ve ever attended. And they’re hard questions to answer. The answers always depends on exactly who the audience is and on the purpose of the article, video or lesson. But the message often boils down to: Scientists and science communicators of all kinds need to cut the jargon and explain things simply.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. (more…)

Why is it so hard to give up on hoping that facts speak for themselves?

“Helvetica emerges in that period in 1957 where there’s felt to be a need for rational typefaces which can be applied to all kinds of contemporary information whether it’s sign systems or corporate identity and present those visual expressions of the modern world to the public in an intelligible way.”*

This is one of the opening descriptive passages of Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary Helvetica, which traces the meaning, history and importance of the near ubiquitous typeface. Think of a corporate brand that has a sleek minimal brand image? Chances are the typeface is Helvetica, from the AAs of American Airlines to the very recognizable G in the Gap, all Helvetica. Even the New York subway signs, designed by Massimo Vignelli, are Helvetica.  But what does that have to do with science communication and education? (more…)

Don’t worry so much about being the right type of science role model

What does it mean to be a good role? Am I a good role model? Playing around with kids at home or in the middle of a science classroom, adults often ask themselves these questions, especially when it come to girls and science. But despite having asked them many times myself, I don’t think they’re the right questions.


Learning about science education from the experts: Kids

By far the best panel on science education I’ve seen recently was given by a few of the most important people in the field: kids.

I met them at LogiCon, an Edmonton-based science and critical thinking outreach event held annually at The Telus World of Science. The two-day meeting, April 14-15 this year, was open to all science centre visitors, adults and kids, and featured talks by researchers, writers, educators and more. There were talks on scientific topics, from vaccines to particle physics, and scientific thinking, such as how to evaluate claims in the media. One section of the conference was devoted to sessions for families and kids, and of course that’s the part I couldn’t resist attending. (more…)

#BoraZUofA Linkfest: A collection of the sites and posts referenced in Bora’s talks

Scientific American blog editor Bora Zivkovic‘s visit to the University of Alberta was a wonderful whirlwind of talks on science education, science communication, open science, peer review and the scientific publishing industry. I’ve summarized his talks in an overview of the week. If you’re interested in a more in-depth look, Bora has also shared a list of links to the sites, posts and people he mentioned or used in his talks (or intended to use in some cases). It’s a terrific guide to exploring these issues online. (more…)

#BoraZUofA: A thought-provoking week with Bora Zivkovic

Enjoying some Tim Horton's treats while visiting Joel Dacks's lab

Just a few weeks ago I waved goodbye to Scientific American blogs editor Bora Zikovic and thanked him for a wonderful week of talks at the University of Alberta. Somehow in just a week we’d managed to chat about science teaching, science blogs, the history of academic publishing, open-access, post-publication peer review, science on Twitter and so much more. It was exciting and exhausting, and my ideas notebook is completely full.

As part of the University’s Distinguished Visitor program, a small group of faculty from cell biology (Joel Dacks), anthropology (Bora’s brother, Marko Zivkovic) and science education (me) brought Bora to town to speak with students and faculty. No matter what the topic, the theme seemed to be: keep an open mind. Be willing to consider new ways of doing things but also remember that they might not be as they first appear. (more…)

Role modeling through personal stories isn’t as easy as it sounds

I got very brave a few weeks ago and participated in a storytelling event as part of Science Online 2012, an annual science communication conference held in North Carolina. Instead of the usual guest speakers and awards ceremonies that haunt most conference banquets, this was a partnership with The Monti that brought members of our own online science community together to share intimate and often funny parts of their lives. It was a nod to the spirit of the conference, which encourages open sessions and audience contributions over slide presentations and lectures. That’s why it’s my favourite conference of the year, and it works because it’s a conference filled with fascinating people: science writers, researchers, bloggers, artists, programmers, physicians, teachers, and librarians all interested in science in the online world.