Social Science

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How should science be taught in the 21st century? In this month’s ASBMB Today, authors Morgan Thompson, Jon Beckwith and Regina Stevens-Truss argue that, in contrast to the traditional siloed approach, modern training in science requires perspectives that incorporate public discourse and consider the societal context of scientific research. Their solution is the Science and Social Justice Project, a joint collaborative between Kalamazoo College and Harvard Medical School that “seeks to identify, connect, and coordinate scholars doing science and social justice teaching and research.”

The idea of applying such an inclusive approach to scientific training is one that is gaining traction throughout the scientific community. Sonny Ramaswamy, Director of the Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture program, has argued that science communicators should be involved in research projects from beginning to end, in an effort to bring broader social, ethical and political perspectives to experimental design and interpretation. Meanwhile, collaborations that address the overlap between scientific and societal issues have become more common and more formalized. Numerous institutions now feature such programs, including Princeton University’s Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy and the Stanford University Program in Law, Science & Technology.

Without Borders Conference

As the Science and Social Justice Project grows, the project leaders hope to get more and more scientists involved in their effort. A major step will be the WITH/OUT — ¿BORDERS? Conference, held September 25-28, 2014. The conference will create “conversations on emerging epistemologies, radical geographies, critical solidarities, and transgressive practices that transcend and theorize across disciplinary and academic/activist borders.”

The role of science within popular culture is rapidly expanding. Ensuring that upcoming generations of scientists and non-scientists are able to freely converse and navigate between their respective areas of expertise will improve not only science, but society as a whole.

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Paying it Forward: Inspiring the Next Generation

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By Shaila Kotadia (@shpostrapheaila)

Scientists presenting in a classroom can result in lifelong inspiration. During an outreach visit, my colleague, Carley Corrado, demonstrated the awe one could invoke in students. She visited a classroom of 2nd graders and organized an activity to blow up a balloon, stick it in liquid nitrogen, and then pulled it out. Simple enough, but what would happen to the balloon? More importantly, what did the elementary students think would happen? The students all predicted the balloon would pop in the liquid nitrogen and covered their ears in anticipation. Instead, it shrank. When the balloon was pulled out of the cold temperature, it began to grow again and the students stared screaming and could not believe their eyes. They had to touch the balloon to make sure it was real. Afterwards, Carley asked what the students wanted to be when they grew up. In unison, they answered “A scientist!”

A few years before this inspirational moment, Carley and I met one day under the warm California sun. We were both selected as outreach officers of the Women in Science and Engineering organization at the University of California, Santa Cruz. There were opportunities to conduct educational outreach at our current institution but none deeply connected to our respective departments and none aligned with our vision to inspire students in the classroom. Thus, we set out to lead our own outreach project. There were no constraints; just two people who wanted to change the lives of students by showing them the wonderments of science.

Outreach volunteers Keelan Guiley and Carley Corrado with 5th grade Earth Science  students at Sacred Heart School in Saratoga, CA

Outreach volunteers Keelan Guiley and Carley Corrado with 5th grade Earth Science students at Sacred Heart School in Saratoga, CA

I was motivated by my first outreach experience in graduate school. After another friend and I spoke about our projects and how basic research helps to lead to cures to diseases, one student, wide-eyed and about 12 years old, asked if his whole family was going to get cancer because they were overweight. In that moment, I realized the difference I could make by entering a classroom and just talking about what I do for a living. Carley had been motivated to pursue a scientific career because of the mentors she met along her path to becoming a scientist. She had tremendous gratitude for the advice she had been given. Thus, she wanted to give back and lend her knowledge to inspire a student to find their path like she had.

We set off on our journey, brainstorming ideas for school visits, gathering volunteers, connecting with teachers. Eventually we made it into a few classrooms and tested our set-up. After many visits over several years, our outreach program evolved into a short presentation by each scientist volunteer followed by questions about anything, both professional and personal, from the students and then hands-on activities that promoted inquiry. Through our visits, like the example above, we noticed how we could inspire students to love science as much as we did.

I was also pleasantly surprise by an unintended consequence from our program in that not only did we inspire the young students but also our peers. I was fortunate to have an undergraduate student that I mentored in the lab go on a visit with me. Later, she took on the role as an outreach leader. It was amazing to see her flourish and listen to her stories about her own excitement of running a visit and the excitement the students expressed. It was even better when she moved on to her next position and said she hoped to continue the outreach efforts at her new institution. It was like re-experiencing my first visit to students in graduate school and remembering how it feels to inspire others.