Moving One Step Ahead

Environment, Sustainability, Renewables, Conservation, Water Quality, Green Building — And How to Talk about it All!

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Lectures Don’t Work for Science

Instinctively, we have all suspected on some level that there must be a better way to teach and share scientific information other than the traditional classroom lecture. Well we now have the science to back that up and approaches to help make some changes!

A new study of undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses showed that scores improved approximately 6% when active learning was included in the classroom. It also found that students in “classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning”. The findings applied across all STEM fields and all class sizes.

The study, a meta-analysis of 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is “the largest and most comprehensive meta-analysis of undergraduate STEM education published to date”.

The authors concluded that when students were active participants rather than passive listeners, they were better able to grasp concepts. Active participation included any activity that required students to engage, from answering questions to collaborating with other students in small groups.

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science recently taught a class on using improv to improve understanding of scientific concepts in a presentation-type environment:

“Scientists need to make abstract concepts clear and relevant to any audience they are talking to,” says Lantz-Gefroh. The exercise “is a playful way of getting them to be vivid and expressive when selling a nonsensical idea and then apply those lessons to talking about their real science.”

This course is one of many the Center is using to help scientists communicate better and to “put aside the jargon and connect with the public in language it can understand”. This type of work and investigation points to growing acceptance of the importance of improving public understanding of the science behind issues such as climate change and other complex topics.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

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Changing the Way We Research and Learn

Recently, I was at my local library, browsing the stacks and looking for a book on — of all things — cheesemaking. When it struck me that it had been a good long while since I had actually visited a library to learn about a new topic. I froze at that realization and tried to recall the last time I had stepped into an actual library, and I came up dry.

Libraries had been my salvation since I was a small child growing up in an even smaller town. Reading was my escape, my route to new worlds and to fulfillment of my autodidact needs. How had this happened? The library was there all through grammar school for school projects and entertainment. Then through college for papers and study sessions. Then as an adult when I wanted to learn a new skill or delve deeper into a topic. Then when I was a parent, to foster in my own children my love of books.

I realized then that, over the years, my research had slowly, imperceptibly shifted to almost entirely online. This most recent foray was no exception. I found a single book cheesemaking, which turned out to be useless with overly complicated instructions and limited images; the videos on YouTube and narratives on various cheese-related websites that I found later were so much more practical and accessible.

But I didn’t decide to write this blog to talk about cheesemaking. I think this incident instead speaks to a larger change about how and where people are getting their scientific information and the format in which they expect to find it. Do school-aged kids even go to libraries to do research anymore? Does it even make sense to do that? Books are outdated as soon as they are published; yet you can find up-to-date information online on virtually ANY topic in an instant.

I have to admit that although I miss the library, and certainly have a great deal of nostalgia for it as an institution, I get a great deal of satisfaction at having this wealth of knowledge right at my fingertips. Now when someone spouts a scientific fact, I can quickly consult the published literature via and find out if what they are saying is supported by peer-reviewed journal articles. Or if an issue is discussed that is a bit over my head, I can school myself quickly with more basic information first to get up to speed.

But do the data support this? Do readers gain knowledge online? A recent article on Slate about how people read online provides some disturbing statistics about how long readers are willing to stick with an article. According to the article, about 40% of readers who land on a web page, leave instantly, and 10% never hit the scroll bar, reading only what they can see. Only about 50% make just past the halfway point.

A Scientific American article took a look at the recent literature on how our brains process information when reading from electronic versus paper sources. Published literature has drawn only a tenuous advantage to paper over electronic. However, research has shown that individuals reading electronic sources lose a certain key aspect of paper reading: mental mapping of information. The idea is that when we read a book, we make a mental map of where in the book we find a certain piece of information. This map is not created in electronic sources, such as e-books, which lack these more tactile navigational features.

But improvements in how web sites are constructed and how e-book readers are designed and used could — and already have begun to — narrow these differences.

Don’t get me wrong, libraries and books are not going away any time soon. Nor should they. But have we come to a time when the use of libraries is diminishing in importance? And if so, how do we ensure that electronic information is not only accessible but able to sustain eyeballs?

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor