Globalization and emerging economies around the world offer challenges to the economic position and quality of life that Americans enjoy, and experts worry that a lack of scientific and technical understanding in the United States could hamper its ability to lead in the future.1 Formal education and preparation of students from K-12 to the graduate school level and beyond is vital for developing science literacy. However, informal learning opportunities such as family TV viewing or visiting a museum or an Internet website can engage and educate the population more broadly.2 In fact, most Americans learn about science outside of school3 and primarily obtain science and technology (S&T) information from television and the Internet.4
Yet in these informal settings, such as watching television, little primary chemistry content is found.5 Chemists often voice frustration about their inability to effectively communicate their ideas to the general public outside the formal classroom or research laboratory setting. New modes of communication on the Internet such as video sharing (e.g., YouTube), social networking (e.g., Facebook), and microblogging (e.g., Twitter) present new and possibly improved opportunities for chemists to communicate with the public, but it is not clear whom these media formats reach or how effectively they present specific messages. The chemical sciences and technology community could increase its impact on improving general chemical literacy by evaluating current approaches to informal education and learning how best to navigate both new and old media.
ABOUT THIS DOCUMENT
The National Academies’ Chemical Sciences Roundtable (CSR) held a workshop on May 26-27, 2010, to examine the challenges and opportunities to presenting chemistry content on television, the Internet, in museums, and in other informal educational settings. The workshop “Chemistry in Primetime and Online: Communicating Chemistry in Informal Environments” explored how the public obtains scientific information informally and discussed methods that chemists can use to improve and expand efforts to reach a general, nontechnical audience. Workshop participants included chemical practitioners (e.g., graduate students, postdocs, professors, administrators); experts on informal learning; public and private funding organizations; science writers, bloggers, publishers, and university communications officers; and television and Internet content producers. This workshop featured invited presentations, discussions, and a poster session that highlighted key informal education activities in the chemical sciences.
This document summarizes the presentations and discussions that took place at the workshop. Where possible, background references have been provided to support statements made or data described. In addition, the Internet information
1National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 2007. Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
2Philip Bell, Bruce Lewenstein, Andrew W. Shouse, and Michael A. Feder, Editors, Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments, National Research Council. 2009. Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Available online at www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12190.
3J.H. Falk, and L.D. Dierking, 2010. The 95 percent solution (School is not where most Americans learn most of their science) American Scientist 98: 486-493.
5B. Halford. 2008. Stephen Lyons: A television producer’s take on what makes good chemistry for the small screen. Chemical and Engineering News 86(39)41.
provided was correct, to the best of our knowledge, at the time of publication. It is important to remember, however, that information on websites can be transient and is not always validated or verifiable. The reader is urged to follow up with individual guest speakers and their institutions for further clarification of statements made during the workshop or to obtain additional reference materials.
Important Note about Open Discussions: Each chapter in this document ends with a summary of discussion topics introduced by speakers and participants in the immediate session (chapter), as well as all preceding workshop sessions.
The workshop began with an introduction to informal learning and how it relates to chemistry, including how the public obtains scientific information and effective methods used to communicate science more broadly. There were then several panels of speakers focused around media formats and venues where chemistry content is communicated, which form the structure of this document: print, hands-on outreach, museums, video & radio, gaming, and libraries. The workshop ended with a wrap-up panel consisting of four participants, who attended both days of the event and agreed in advance to comment on important messages they heard during the workshop.
Key issues raised during the workshop include the following:
• The deficiency in public understanding of chemistry;
• Chemists’ ability or inability to communicate effectively;
• The need for different approaches to communication for different goals (i.e., promotional, marketing, advocacy, educational);
• The importance of highlighting the human side of chemistry;
• The difficulty in assessing the effectiveness of various communication venues;
• The need for studying and evaluating different approaches to communicating chemistry;
• The importance of formal education in setting the stage for informal interactions with chemistry and chemists;
• The role that technology plays in communicating chemistry in informal environments;
• Losing the “chemistry” when communicating about chemistry applications;
• The need for chemists to connect more with professional writers, artists, or videographers, who know how to communicate with and interest general audiences.
In this session, an introduction to informal education was provided by Kirsten Ellenbogen, Science Museum of Minnesota and member of the National Research Council Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments. The connection between chemistry and informal education was presented by David Ucko of the National Science Foundation. Stephen Lyons, with Moreno-Lyons Productions, discussed the role of documentary films in communicating science and how chemistry is one of the few fields that have been neglected by informal media sources.
Chemistry in Print
This session focused on the ways chemistry is presented informally through literature, print media, and blogs. John Emsley from the University of Cambridge discussed steps to becoming a science writer and explained how the struggles of a chemistry writer may differ from other types of writers. Ivan Amato of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a former writer and editor at Chemical and Engineering News, pointed out how chemistry is ignored by media, but also discussed the opportunities that exist to highlight chemistry, especially through chemical imagery. Joy Moore from Seed Media Group provided insights into how her company has been using print media and science blogs to promote a better understanding of chemistry.
Local Outreach Efforts
This session included personal experiences from local outreach experts and how they introduce informal science to their communities. Jeanette Brown of the New Jersey American Chemical Society (ACS) local section shared her experience as a chemistry ambassador, conducting hands-on activities at festivals and other events, as well as creating educational resources about African-American chemists. Ruth Woodall of the Nashville ACS local section also discussed being a chemistry ambassador and how she introduces chemistry to public audiences, especially young people. Catherine Conrad from St. Mary’s University presented a very different approach to local outreach called citizen science, where nonscientists help collect real scientific data. Conrad explained how she became involved in citizen science and how it has benefited her research as well as her local community.
Chemistry in Museums
In this session, speakers described various approaches to informal learning of chemistry in museums. Sapna Batish of the Koshland Science Museum showed current exhibits featured at the museum and how chemistry content is incorporated into the exhibits. Susanne Rehn of the Deutsche
Museum described the chemistry exhibitions that have existed at the museum for many years and shared the details of, and rationale for, the extensive renovations under way to update and improve the exhibits. Shelley Geehr with the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) discussed the recently created CHF museum, including museum exhibits, special events, and other CHF resources available to the public. Lastly, Peter Yancone with the Maryland Science Center presented the chemistry-related activities at the museum.
Chemistry in Video and on the Radio
This panel focused on the role of video and radio in informal science education. Martyn Poliakoff from the University of Nottingham described how he and his team created the very successful Periodic Table of Videos on the Internet, which features short videos about each of the elements of the Periodic Table. Jorge Salazar of EarthSky Communications described his organization’s efforts to provide a commercial-free way for scientists to communicate their research to the public through audio and video on the radio and over the Internet. Mark Griep from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln discussed his analysis of chemistry content in films and explained how popular movies can play a major role as an informal educational tool for understanding chemistry.
Tools and Techniques
In this session, speakers shared insights on new tools and techniques for communicating chemistry in informal environments. Robert Hone of Red Hill Studios shared his insights on creating educational video games. He explained different gaming design strategies and the strengths and weaknesses of using games as tools for informal education. Deborah Illman from the University of Washington discussed her ongoing efforts to provide communications training for scientists and her recent focus on working with chemists. Andrea Twiss-Brooks from the University of Chicago explained the important and changing role that libraries and librarians play as a source of informal science. She also discussed how the ACS Committee on Community Activities is trying to better collect data and evaluate the effectiveness of its outreach efforts.
Workshop Wrap-up Session
This session included four panelists with diverse perspectives who attended the entire workshop. They were asked to provide impromptu comments on what they heard during the workshop talks and discussions. David Ucko of the National Science Foundation provided a perspective from a government funding agency. Nancy Blount with the American Chemical Society presented views from the main professional organization for chemists. Joy Moore with Seed Media Group commented from the perspective of new media and communications. CSR co-chair Mark Barteau from the University of Delaware provided an academic perspective.