Social Media as Science Facilitator

The four panelists at “Beyond a Trend: Enhancing Science Communication with Social Media,” an event hosted by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and Science Online NYC (SoNYC) for Social Media Week and moderated by The New York Times Science News Editor Jennifer Kingson, may use social media in different ways, but they all agree that social media creates a new culture around science.

Ruth Cohen, senior director of education initiatives and director of the Center for Lifelong Learning at the AMNH, described several of the museum’s forays into social media. Museum researchers now tweet and make videos about their research. Adults attending monthly science cafes ask scientists questions during the event—turning a one-way conversation into a two-way conversation—and tweet questions to an even larger audience, further broadening the discussion.

Perhaps most notably, middle school students taking part in the Urban Biodiversity Network use smartphones to document the biodiversity around them. The project successfully engaged students who might otherwise have been uninterested in scientific exploration. In another student initiative, participants from an AMNH after school program had a “dynamic and groundbreaking” conversation about sustainability with students from Global Kids on Second Life. The students found an online community while speaking with others with similar interests, all the while practicing scientific discourse.  

On the whole, said Cohen, “Students are learning from their documentation, sharing, and conversations. They develop a scientific interest.” The projects “democratize and demystify science.”

Online science projects have taken off for adults, too, and with impressive results. Participants in Galaxy Zoo added value to raw data from the Hubble telescope; they read up on spectroscopy to understand what they were seeing and published papers as a result. Participants playing the protein-folding game FoldIt have solved real-world problems, like determining the structure of a virus that causes AIDS in monkeys.

Both crowdsourcing and individual voices play a role in bringing science to non-scientists. Through the Story Collider, Ben Lillie works to “normalize science.” The Story Collider invites people to get up on stage (in a “bar basement with no cell reception”) to share true stories of how science has affected their lives. The stories then go out via podcast to an even larger audience.

Lillie began the Story Collider as a way to explore the interaction of science and culture. It “gets people thinking about their own lives,” said Lillie—people hear others’ stories and become motivated to send in their own experiences. “The conversation is happening constantly,” he said.

Matt Danzico has brought people into the conversation through shock value. Last year, Danzico, a staff reporter and video journalist at BBC News, spent his time away from the office working on Time Hack, a blog where he wrote about doing something new every day—from streaking to becoming an ordained minister—and estimated how long each activity took. At the end of 2011, he compared his estimates with the actual amount of time elapsed, and found he had overestimated the year by more than 14 hours. Throughout these hijinks (including a very popular invitation to readers to estimate how long it took them to unravel a roll of toilet paper), Danzico included the “science nuggets behind the activities.”

Carl Zimmer found another way to bring science to readers—through tattoos. When Zimmer put a call out to people to send him pictures of science-related ink, he had no idea what the outcome would be: Zimmer became a “tattoo curator” and author of Science Ink. When they read the book, said Zimmer, “People don’t think they are reading about science, just that scientists are really strange.”

Zimmer’s blog, The Loom, has also opened the scientific conversation to non-scientists. One popular blog post on blue whales’ cancer defenses prompted many readers to ask questions. Zimmer went back to the two scientists who did the research—they agreed to answer every question.

As a rule, said Cohen, “Social media is not a thoughtful environment. [Scientists and science communicators] have to make it that way.”

–Johanna Goldberg

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