“If you are not on a superhighway these days, it is going to be really hard for people to find you”
This session explored opportunities for expanding informal chemistry education. Robert Hone, Red Hill Studios, discussed advanced video gaming; Deborah Illman, University of Washington, spoke about a targeted writing program she has developed for chemists; and Andrea Twiss-Brooks, University of Chicago, talked about the traditional and changing roles of librarians and libraries in supporting informal learning.
Robert Hone said that Red Hill develops museum exhibits, documentary films, online games, and more. It also does work for a large publishing company. For example, his company did the latest run of chemistry tutorials for the Zumdahl (general chemistry) books.
Hone discussed the current grants of Red Hill Studios. One is from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create BioArcade, currently on PBSkids.org. The other is a Reese Grant for the studio to look at how to make games adaptive for different needs. For example, Red Hill builds physical therapy games using current game platforms, such as for people with Parkinson’s disease using the Wii and the Wii Fit for kids with cerebral palsy. “It’s very rewarding work,” Hone said.
Red Hill calls the educational games it develops “games that matter.” The studio has focused on games because there is a lot of interest right now. “I think there is a lot of work, good foundation work to be done. I think the field really has been moving along pretty much on the level of ‘if it sells it’s good,’ and I think there is a research foundation that could be built,” Hone said. Hone explained that in the past education and gaming were thought of as two different and unrelated activities, but that is changing.
Red Hill is currently involved in seven different projects, including the physical therapy games, cognitive games for multiple sclerosis, and games for integrated pest management, which is an NSF grant for the University of Arizona. The studio is also working with CISCO on networking training, the California Science Center, college-level math games for Addison Wesley, and an informal biology-based game for PBS, which Hone mentioned earlier.
The basic way that games work is to match ability and difficulty: as the ability rises, the difficulty should increase. Hone recalled how the founder of Electronic Arts (EA) once described a computer game like a tennis match where the score is 7-6, 6-7, 7-6. The game needs to be difficult and challenging. He said, “If it is easy, it is boring.” However, if it is too hard the player will be frustrated and drop out. He said if that match of difficulty is achieved, the player gets into a flow state, which is a highly mindful focused state. Games are addictive, because they keep putting kids back into a flow state.
Another metaphor Hone said to consider, in terms of easy or matching difficulty, is skiing. “When you are learning, you want a very easy slope, but you can’t stop there. You have to build the slopes for the expert skier,” he said, “you are building a whole mountain for a game. You are building everything from getting started, all the way to the most difficult. Then you give them a progression, because if you get them hooked, you want to keep them hooked. You want to keep them going.”
One of the ways to do that is to build a series of individual levels, such as easy, medium, and hard, or it can be many levels. Hone gave an example of a game Red Hill released that had 60 levels, instead of 3. This is common for consumer video games, which often have 40, 50, 60 levels. He said consumer games “plan for that; they build the mountain, they don’t just build one slope.”
In the Lifeboat to Mars game, Red Hill created two simulations. One is about microbial function; the other is about ecosystem dynamics. There are a series of levels for each game in which the player must complete the levels in order. In the microbial system, the player has to understand that he or she is going to need mitochondria to process food; otherwise there is no movement to the next level. He said this is called a forced progression. Since the game was launched in early January, Hone said more than 100,000 game levels have been played. In addition, players are provided the tools to build their own levels and upload to PBS for other kids to play. Hone said that more than 1,200 levels have been built.
Another model that Red Hill is considering is something called concept maps. For example, Hone said, “You would have to learn about mass, and then you have to learn about speed before you can learn about momentum. You combine the concepts—and not just in a linear path.”
Hone then presented some things to consider when trying to make games interesting. One of the challenges is there are many different ways to deliver feedback to the player. He said that “the worst thing you can do is give the answer away. They want the thing to be tough. They are struggling at it; you give them the answers, is like telling them ‘who done it.’ You want to hold that back, you want to create that challenge.” Hone said people who want to design games often worry that they will be too hard. It’s important to give the players a chance, so they will try again. At the same time, he explained, “if they fail, they are not just going to walk away. It is a game. There is an expectation that sometimes you are going to fail and you got to try again.”
It is also not necessary for the player to always master or focus on the intended educational goal, said Hone. Sometimes, neutral gaming elements can be included that simply keep the player engaged. For example, Red Hill created a game for Dragonfly TV, in collaboration with Twin Cities Public Television and funded by NSF. The goal of the program is to move around a space station and try to fix things, with only a limited amount of fuel. To make it more challenging, a timer was added in the face of the oxygen tank. The player then has to balance doing the task quickly, without using up all the fuel. Hone said, “We created a situation where you can’t optimize for one or the other, you have to look at the combined optimization. That makes it a game.” He explained that the timer is a noneducational component, but it makes the game.
Hone mentioned some ideas for possible chemistry games, especially targeted at middle school age, because kids at this age are not cynical and are more open; they will play games over and over again. They are also still at a place where it is possible to cover enough science to make it worthwhile. For middle schoolers, he suggested to
• Tie games to climate change or energy use,
• Use age-appropriate graphics and content,
• Develop or adopt learning progression (e.g., American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS] Atlas),
• Build sets of levels that cover the learning progression, and
• Create tools for players to build their own levels (modding).
Hone also emphasized that after going through the trouble to make a game to access on the Internet, it is important to put the game on a well-trafficked site. For example, Red Hill has a strong relationship with PBSKids.org, a popular website for children. “If you are not on a superhighway these days, it is going to be really hard for people to find you,” he added.
The high school or college level can also be targeted. Hone mentioned work Red Hill is doing with Benjamin Cummings Houghton and games for Addison Wesley. For this age group, he suggested to
• Align with educational publishers,
• Tie into existing textbook as additional practice,
• Assign the game as homework,
• Design games as formative assessments of conceptual understanding (with reporting back to the teacher), and
• Create tools for players to build their own levels (modding).
Hone cautioned that games are not yet appropriate for teaching content. He said, “I think it is not as time efficient as other instructional technologies … if you play Civilization you will not learn history as well as reading it in a history book.” While games augment other forms of education, they are not going to replace anything just yet, he added.1
“We are doing the assessment inside games very carefully under the hood so we don’t wreck the designer-player contract,” Hone said. In a formal instructional environment, students are being assessed all the time with quizzes and tests. They can be given a couple of questions right after being delivered some content to make sure they are paying attention, but this cannot be done the same way in a game. The approach has to be different.
Hone warned, “Please don’t shoehorn things into a game.” Games have their purpose, they’re good for either practice problems or forms of assessment. He said, “Don’t try and pick your hardest topic that you can’t teach any other way, and think just because it is a game that will make it easier. If it is hard in the other environments, it is probably hard as a game.” Games that provide supplemental learning opportunities can increase student engagement. He added that games
1For the recent report on this topic, see National Research Council. 2010. The Rise of Games and High Performance Computing for Modeling and Simulation. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Available online at www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12816 (accessed January 27, 2011).
in general should be simulation based, because then the marginal cost of creating an additional level is low.
Hone noted that people are just beginning to understand that the Internet is a great distribution system as well as a great listening system. He said, “That is why Google is so powerful; they are listening, they are not talking.” By listening, examples can be put out there; then the responses can be monitored. He added, “Put a challenge and see how they react to it.”
For example, Hone said that his studio plans to put out two different versions of a game to PBSKids. They arranged to run trials where one-half of the kids using the site are going to see version A and the other half are going to see version B. There will be about 5,000 kids per version. He noted, “When you go into a classroom and you get 5,000 [participants] you would be doing this for a decade, but online you are able to get those kinds of numbers fairly easily.”
Questions and Answers
Paul Barbara, University of Texas at Austin, asked Hone if he considered whether there could be effective video game or cyber models that would have some of the advantage of things like the FIRST Robotics2 and the FIRST Lego Leagues, where there is a competition to build something to solve a specific practical problem, such as moving people in cities or building a prosthetic.
Hone replied that he is a big fan of FIRST Robotics and that he thinks it could work. He mentioned a collaboration Red Hill has with PBSKids.org to build an “ecocity” that is sustainable.
Barbara then asked Hone whether there are actual problems to solve where many people are needed to help solve them that could be part of a video game.
Hone responded that he is familiar with the concept, but that to ask kids to cure cancer is probably setting the bar a little too high. “I would say that what you are doing with games for kids should be something that gets them excited about the field so they pay attention in class,” Hone said.
Deborah Illman talked about the Chemistry Communication Leadership Institute she created at the University of Washington. The project is funded by the NSF Chemistry Division, with the goal to cultivate a new generation of chemistry communication leaders. The approach builds on what she has found to be the most effective strategies from her experience teaching science news and fiction writing at the University of Washington (UW), for the past 10 years. Illman has combined these in an “intensive, hands-on, week-long sort of boot camp, with the goal of not only giving students a grounding in some communication techniques, but then equipping them with some resources and curriculum materials to bring back to their institutions to share with others during the following year and beyond.”
The idea for the institute was motivated by the International Year of Chemistry in 2011, and also by the fact that over the years she has noticed that chemistry lags behind the bio- and health sciences in enrollment in the University of Washington writing program. Over a recent 10-year period, Illman analyzed the disciplines from which the students in her three courses on science news and on fiction writing were coming. She found that students in bio-related sciences were the largest subscribers, at 25 percent of the 465 students enrolled. At the same time, she found that chemistry students were only about 4 percent of the class enrollment, or about 20 students over a 10-year period. She note that that number “is actually double what it would have been if I had not gone over to the chemistry department and talked to the advisers and tried to rustle up some chemistry students to take these courses.”
Yet one thing that surprised her is that most of the students who come to these courses to learn about writing for general audiences were from the sciences and engineering. They was a slight majority there, whereas other units such as communication, journalism, English, creative writing, economics, history, et cetera, comprised about 42 percent of the participants over the years on average.
Illman then extracted some of the approaches used in her classes, combined them into a week-long experience, targeted a group of postdoctoral researchers in chemistry from across the country, and held the first Chemistry Communication Leadership Institute, sponsored by NSF, the American Chemical Society (ACS), and UW, in September 2009.
An informal survey of the institute participants showed that 20 percent of them had heard a little about the structure of news writing before, but none of them had ever heard of a public information officer or knew anything about the process of communicating through journalists, such as using a press release. By the time they finished the course, they had written and revised an actual press release, and also had a chance to learn and practice a range of other communication techniques.
The topics Illman and other presenters covered in the week-long experience included the following:
- The science communication process
- Challenges of communicating chemistry
- Understanding the journalist’s world
- Public information officers and press releases
- Newsworthiness and the structure of news writing
- Using digital media to reach broader audiences
- Writing for radio and podcasts
- Freelancing and writing the query letter
- Writing and editing processes: structure and clarity
For the classes, Illman was joined by Ivan Amato; Robert Service from Science; Alan Boyle, who is the science editor from MSNBC.com; Jim Gates, a reporter from KUOW (the local National Public Radio [NPR] station); and two public information officers from the University of Washington.
One of the techniques and activities used in the program was for students to create a press release. Authors of two papers originated at UW were brought in to answer questions from the students, who then wrote a press release based on the interviews. The class critiqued the press releases along with the headline. The headline is a critical part, because it makes the students focus on why anyone should care about it.
Students also had to write a freelance proposal, which they did with the help of a radio reporter. They also worked on a 90-second elevator talk, which was recorded and played back and critiqued. One unique activity students did was participate in interview simulations, which Illman said was probably the most successful part of the whole program.
Illman explained to workshop participants about the rationale for the activities she selected and the rationale for her approach to teaching science news and nonfiction writing more generally. She has worked with a lot of science graduate students over the years, and has noticed that the most frequent problems encountered in the writings of science researchers have to do with issues of audience. They tend to use a lot of jargon, familiar terms used in unfamiliar ways, too much technical detail, inadequate explanations and metaphors, and inappropriate selection and ordering of information. The activities she put together for the chemistry communication institute are exercises that address all of those issues.
Illman has also found that most science graduate students (based on informal polling in her writing classes) have either very little or no contact with nonscientists on a daily basis. As a result, there is very little opportunity for students to develop mental models of what general audiences know or do not know and what is appropriate information to share with them. “In fact, they come to me and they ask me, ‘How do I know what my audience knows?’ That kind of got the ball rolling and thinking about it,” Illman added.
Illman talked about the interview simulations. The students served as journalists and prepared an interview guide they could use with some real scenarios and real content that Illman selected in advance. They were to interview sources, played by experienced actors from a consulting firm specializing in high-stakes communication training. She said she supplied the actors with real scenarios based on actual press releases, which they researched and rehearsed. The scenarios chosen depicted commonly encountered source personality types—the reluctant source, the tangential talker, the wary source, and the “deriving everything from first principles” source. The actors depicted these personalities in relating the content for their scenario and rotated through small groups of postdocs; the postdocs played the journalists, interviewed these sources, and then did a debriefing.
The interview simulations were the most highly rated of all their activities. They said it helped a lot to walk a bit in the shoes of the journalists. Overall, the institute received high ratings from all the participants. They all said they would recommend the institute to others and would be more likely to engage in communication in their careers as a result of the program. Illman provided quotes from a few institute participants:
• “The guest speakers introduced me into a world which is completely in the dark for most researchers; knowing the process of publication and how it works was extremely valuable.”
• “The most important aspect for chemists is the lifting of the veil on how science news is published, what are the steps and motivations, who are cleared in the process.”
• “I feel like I have a writing network now.”
After the institute, the postdocs created many freelance products, which Illman showed. For example, an article by postdoc Adam Tenderhold titled “Scientists Develop Method to Identify Tissue During Surgery in Real Time” appeared in the Vernal Express in October 2009. Illman gathered updates from the participants as part of a midyear review of the program where she interviewed all the participants to see what they had been doing. There were a number of freelance pieces, some of them for Illman’s magazine, Northwest Science and Technology; one for the Scripps Publication; and another for a Utah newspaper.
Illman also attempted to quantify the kinds and numbers of activities, and the number of people directly and indirectly affected by the postdocs’ sharing the institute content with people at their institutions. She found that about 225 people by midyear had directly received the institute content from the postdocs. Then there were a number of indirect effects where the postdocs undertook activities that delivered science and chemistry content to broader audiences—2,800 for example in the outreach projects and events, the freelance writing, and so on. In terms of reaching more general audiences, she noted that the University of Washington website got about 10,000 visits in April. There was also coverage of the program in the media on blogs, television stations, and TV websites—but she said it was hard to estimate the impact of that.
Participants were also asked about the challenges they faced in applying the institute content during the year. One of the major challenges, which they expected for postdocs, was the time constraints of their jobs and job changes. At the same time, she said they noted that the institute preparation
really enhanced their job-hunting skills. Some participants encountered resistance in their departments. Others found it hard to get started in freelancing. There was also the expected loss of momentum once they got back to daily life.
In terms of improvements to the program, a lot of them said they would like periodic reminders. Some of them said they would like help in brokering freelancing opportunities and more guidance on how to share or how to teach communication in the context of chemistry and to show how it is relevant.
Illman said she has a Phase II proposal pending that would offer five more institute sessions over the next 2 years, with the goal of reaching about a hundred chemists. She would also like to transition the institute to a self-sustaining operation, broaden participation to include faculty members who can help institutionalize this information in their departments, and study the effects for a broader group of participants.
The last thing Illman mentioned was another project she is working on that is somewhat synergistic with her writing institute. It is an ongoing NSF project to use mental models’ research methodology to study perceptions of the audience in decision making in science and technology communications. It is meant to prepare experts and novices to figure out how their mental models affect their decision making when they are crafting messages for general audiences.
Questions & Answers
Sharon Haynie was struck by the small number of chemistry and engineering students that participate in Illman’s writing classes. She asked, “Are there curriculum barriers or things that don’t allow them to access—make it hard for them to participate in your course?”
Illman replied, “For the engineers, the answer is a resounding yes. For the chemists, I think it is just not on the radar screen.” She said she hasn’t studied that, but thinks it would be a good thing to try to find out. Every time she went to talk to advisers about it, it would yield about four or five students. She recalled one quarter in which she had five chemistry graduate students in a class of twenty. However, she found that when she did not do the outreach to chemistry departments, the numbers would drop again. In contrast, every quarter without fail she gets biology students. Her hypothesis is that biology students are more attuned to seeing science in a broader context, because they study living systems. She thinks this is an area that needs more research.
Andrea Twiss-Brooks provided some insights on how libraries and librarians contribute to communicating chemistry and supporting informal education. She said that “after listening to all the presentations over the last day and a half, I am seeing this as a tapestry of informal learning. There are lots of threads; there are lots of different types of informal learning that take place.”
Twiss-Brooks noted that librarians in the university environment have a mission to support teaching, learning, and research for all users. Science libraries try to do that across a broad range of scientific disciplines, including chemistry. In considering the special role of libraries and librarians in informal education, she said three themes emerge:
1. Providing spaces for learners and learning and for programs and activities,
2. Providing and organizing authoritative information resources (from print to electronic sources, as well as web-based resources and any other kinds of information resources that may be available), and
3. Providing other skills that librarians have developed for their own use that they can then turn into collaborative efforts with their communities.
For example, spaces include library exhibits, meeting rooms, or other learning spaces, with areas for both individuals and groups and for formal lectures, as well as less formal activities. The information librarians provide includes organizing guides, lists, and various other tools to help inform learners about how to find good-quality information, as well as the types of resources available. Librarians also often provide organizational skills and insights on assessing programs, activities, and services.
Twiss-Brooks gave a specific example of an activity done in collaboration between a faculty member at the University of Texas-Dallas and local public libraries in the Dallas region, called “Contact Science.”3 The way it works is that there is a stand-alone (self-explanatory) kiosk on a particular science topic, about the size of a tabletop, designed to fit into a public library space. Along with the kiosk, there are associated activities, projects, and mentoring for the libraries that install this in their environments (including any specialized or unusual consumables that might be used as part of the activities). The program also contributes selected books to the library that is hosting the kiosk. She encouraged workshop participants to check out the Contact Science website for more details. “This is a fairly new program, but it is a good example of the way that libraries can serve as neutral spaces for activities,” Twiss-Brooks added. Kiosk locations are listed on the website.
Because universities can sometimes be political or territorial, the library often represents a kind of neutral ground, said Twiss-Brooks. It is a great place to have activities where multiple departments may be trying to collaborate to provide a program or service, and rather than having one of
the departments be the home for where the activity actually takes place, it can happen in the library which everyone kind of sees as their friend.
Libraries can also serve as a space for museum exhibits. “Public libraries are distributed around regions and in communities. So this is an excellent way for the folks that might not necessarily have easy access to a science museum to get this kind of high-quality informal learning content,” Twiss-Brooks added. An example she provided was from her colleague Emily Wixson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Wixson does a lot of outreach work, where some of the outreach is programmatic and some is one-time events. She is especially interested in chemical information literacy, teaching people how to use the tools to discover good chemical information, for her own chemistry students as well as for nonchemists and nonspecialists. Wixson says she tries to make chemical information and the chemical literature accessible to nonscience colleagues. She does that by teaching chemical structure building with gumdrops and with marshmallows. She also took place in an edible book contest recently, where she chose to make a chemistry book Crime Scene Chemistry for the Armchair Sleuth,4 which she did to make people aware that there are popular books on science and chemistry for the layperson in the library.
In addition, libraries also put on their own exhibits, highlighting permanent collections, research on the university campus, research of the local community, and other special features. Some examples of science-based library exhibits include one that the Nobel Library at Arizona State University (ASU) did on It’s a Dry Heat: Biological Adaptations for Life in the Arizona Desert; another one ASU did was Remote Sensing, an exhibit highlighting current applications and research at ASU; and another one involved social insect research, which was complete with ants.
Twiss-Brooks said that she and her librarian colleagues also try to highlight resources in their libraries. For example, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, had an exhibit From Alchemy to Chemistry, 500 Years of Rare and Interesting Books. Another example was something she did in her own library, called Something Brewing: The Art, Science, and Technology of Beer Brewing. Often with these exhibits they also bring in lecturers for the opening or for a special evening, and they also try to bring in scientists. For the exhibit on beer brewing, they had a historian of breweries in Chicago that came and talked. She emphasized that they try to feature the science and technology aspect of the materials and the materials from their collection.
Acquiring and Organizing Information Resources
The second topic, acquiring and organizing information resources, is something that librarians consider their core principles and core values, Twiss-Brooks said. She quoted Linton Weeks, who said in the January 13, 2001, Washington Post: “In the non-stop tsunami of global information, librarians provide us with floaties and teach us to swim.” For example, in another example from Emily Wixson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (Figure 7-1), Wixson was involved in an information technology academy at the University of Wisconsin, where she offered a workshop for first-year students. The original workshop she designed was called Jellybean Chemistry, and it looked at chemical visualization on the Internet. Twiss-Brooks said that many examples like these can also be found in public libraries.
Another example Twiss-Brooks gave was the Sci-Tech Library Newsletter at Stanford University, which has different themes throughout the year. It does holiday themes, such as the one she showed about Halloween and science, developed by Stephanie Bianci. Based on the comments and feedback received on the site where it is hosted at Stanford’s Swain Library, they know that this site is being used by general users, home schoolers, and others who are interested in both formal and informal education.
Some other examples of guides that libraries produce involve science, with a speaker providing information on correct citation, how to use bibliographic management tools, and other such resources. Twiss-Brooks said that these topics are sometimes taught in science writing or the writing centers on campus, but they are also often handled by the library.
Libraries provide resources—purchased, licensed, and free—that they collect and organize. One example are books in the “Saturday Science Series,” by Neil Downie5 which is something that Twiss-Brooks purchased for the collection at her school and that is the library catalogue. For example, these types of resources are available to members of the university campus community, who may have children of their own whose science learning experience they are trying to enrich, as well as visitors from outside the university community who use the library.
Sharing Librarian Skills
Twiss-Brooks then discussed how librarians share their skills. However, she warned, there are limitations to what a library can do. As Lily Tomlin said, “If truth is beauty, how come no one has their hair done in a library?” She added, “I don’t think I am going to be offering cosmetology or haircutting services in the library.”
4For more information, see http://www.library.wisc.edu/edible-book/pictures10.html (accessed June 6, 2011).
5For example, see N.A. Downie. 2001. Vacuum Bazookas, Electric Rainbow Jelly, and 27 Other Saturday Science Projects. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
FIGURE 7-1 Acquiring and organizing resources.
SOURCE: Andrea Twiss-Brooks screen shot, chemistry.library.wise.edu/for-your-class/jelly-bean-chemistry.hml (accessed June 6, 2011).
Several years ago, Twiss-Brooks was asked to be involved with the American Chemical Society Committee on Community Activities. Her colleague Grace Bassinger started with the committee creating lists of resources and helping to tie the library into their outreach activities, such as National Chemistry Week (NCW) and Earth Day (Figure 7-2).
Twiss-Brooks explained that being part of the ACS, the members of the Committee on Community Activities are interested in trying to meet the organizational goals. One is to communicate with the public, especially the general public, “the nature and value of chemistry and related sciences.” In the ACS strategic plan, it also states that progress toward the communication goal involves instilling a positive perception of the nature and value of chemistry by participants in ACS activities.
Librarians can also be very helpful in assessing outcomes and impacts of outreach. Twiss-Brooks described her experience with reporting requirements for the Institute of Museum and Library Studies grants program. She said librarians “are very good at counting, we can count how many people went to an event, we can count how much money we spent on the event, we can count how many volunteers we had. But how do we really look at these outcomes for these kind of one-shot events? That was what I took back to my work on the Committee on Community Activities.”
To assess the impacts of NCW outreach efforts in 2009, Twiss-Brooks and the Committee on Community Activities came up with a survey for outreach participants. They tried to include some core questions that would at least try to capture whether there was an impact on attitudes toward chemistry as a result of these events, with the target audiences being elementary and middle school and some high school students. They were given a 20-question survey, to reflect on their experiences after they just spent the afternoon making “flubber” or other chemistry activities.
One of the core questions of the survey was, “Before coming to this event today, I thought that chemistry was: (choose one) bad, boring, okay, interesting, awesome.” The second core question was, “After attending this event, I now think that chemistry is: (choose one) bad, boring, okay, interesting, awesome.” They also collected demographic information, such as male or female, age range, whether they learned something new, and whether they would come to another event. The survey was initially piloted with five
FIGURE 7-2 American Chemical Society Committee on Community Activities Programs.
SOURCE: Andrea Twiss-Brooks, web screen shot.
local sections. The survey seemed to work, and the kids seem to understand what was being asked, so the committee then expanded for the next NCW Celebration to 17 local sections, with 1,369 completed surveys.
From the survey, they found that most of the responses were from children who were attending the event, although Twiss-Brooks said they did get a significant number of responses from adults as well. However, what they found most interesting was doing a cross-tabulation of the two core questions. They looked to see if there were significant changes in the answers for before and after attending the event. She said, “We did see that of the 16 responses that said they were bad, they thought chemistry was bad before they came to this event, all but 3 changed their answers to something somewhat better. In fact, the majority of them, 12 of the 16, said it was either interesting or awesome.” There were similar results with the boring and okay responses, but there were also some who responded that they were not changed by the event. Twiss-Brooks added, “We do realize that reflective questions are not perfect, but they were kind of the best we could get since we couldn’t really pre-test and post-test these folks. But they did at least seem to have a positive experience and take something positive away about chemistry from these events.”
The committee is continuing to look for other types of technology that may be suitable for assessing the impacts of these very informal learning activities. One of the things it is just beginning to experiment with are electronic comment boards. Twiss-Brooks showed an example of what she called “American Idol Meets National Chemistry Week,” where they set up a text message board through a free source called “Text the Mob” that was advertised through the Pittsburgh local section. They did not get very many messages, but it was interesting to see what they did get, such as “I liked La Roche College’s table,” “I loved the gummi worms from Duquesne,” or “I liked AIChE’s table).” They are now looking to expand this technique, and possible others like Twitter, at the next NCW celebration, for each of the local section events to see if they can get feedback, she added.
Besides doing assessments, the kind of commentary they have collected has also proved helpful for local sections to show corporate sponsors or museums that host their events that the outreach is having an impact. It helps them to continue to secure both locations and funding for these events, Twiss-Brooks added.
Mark Griep, University of Nebraska, asked Bob Hone about collecting demographic data on the students who play Red Hill games, “How do you know what student is playing what game, and how can you track them?”
Hone replied that they collect basic information on players in terms of their age and gender from PBSKids. They also do parallel testing in classrooms, “so we don’t rely just on online.” They use something called PROS (parallel remote online system) that is like remote sensing, such as data being collected simultaneously by a satellite system and ground troops—there are evaluators who go out into classrooms and see if the classroom data and online data match.
Mike Rogers, National Institutes of Health (NIH), commented that Hone might be on to something with the games. He said, “I have a 14-year-old in middle school, and I would say the vast majority of his screen time now and that of his friends, is on his laptop, not on television. And most of the time they are playing computer games, a lot of different computer games. Some of their favorite ones are role-playing games where they have avatars and they take on challenges and earn points, and they can buy things on the game with those activities. He can actually chat with his friends while he is playing the game, so it is very engaging for him.” Rogers asked, “What does it cost to make games like that? If someone wanted to make a computer game where your avatar was a chemist, for example, are we talking millions of dollars?”
Hone replied, “Let us do a couple of definitions. It is a multiplayer online game, right? You want to make sure you have enough people. Building a great game is kind of like building a great restaurant: if nobody goes in it doesn’t matter how good your food is. You have to promote it, you have to get it out there. I think I would say somewhere around a quarter of your budget is going to be on the promotional side. I will be honest, we have not done a lot of multiplayer games. I am not going to try and give you a number. Could you spend millions? Sure. Could you do something for a couple of hundred thousand? Probably.”
Jeannette Brown commented that “librarians are good with databases.” She said there is a database called “The Faces of Chemistry,” about African Americans in science that was started by a librarian who was in New Orleans at the time. Brown highlighted the value of these databases, but remarked that some databases are not accessible; in some cases you have to be a member of a library community to access them. She asked Twiss-Brooks if that can be changed.
Twiss-Brooks said that besides the licensed databases (those that you pay for), there are some very good free sources out there. Some of her colleagues have put together guides to those free or low-cost resources that are available. There are resources such as ChemSpider, which “is a collaboration of a developer with the Royal Society of Chemistry that has a great deal of free chemical information in it.” In general, anyone can physically go into the library to access the databases at her library; that is, they can use the resources while they are in the library, they just cannot go home and access them remotely. She said, “We help people all the time trying to find resources that are accessible to them, or pointing them to their local public libraries to see what they have got available as well.”
Steve Lyons asked Hone about the Wii board he held up at the end of his talk. He said, “I think you made a sort of fleeting reference to 3D structure. I just wonder if you could fantasize about how Wii might be used to help people in a game situation understand 3D chemical structures.”
Hone imagined a game where the player is outside of a cell and has some kind of chemical that has to get rotated into a particular orientation to fit into the receptor of the cell to open the channel and let a partner’s ship go through the channel, for example. He said there are many things you could imagine learning. Lyons encouraged Hone to make such a game. Hone replied, “Ask a creative director and don’t give me a budget, and I can give you anything.”
Bill Carroll commented to Twiss-Brooks that in listening to her presentation, it seemed that there is a coming convergence between libraries and museums in terms of content and presentation. Another example of this is the Chemical Heritage Foundation, starting as a library and morphing into a museum. He asked, “First of all, is that a correct observation? And second, can you play that out 5 years for us?”
Twiss-Brooks replied, “There are certainly collaborations between libraries and museums already. Many museums have their own libraries; in other cases libraries are working with museums, providing materials from their collections that complement the museum’s collections.” One other thing she mentioned is that museums also are producing traveling exhibits that are very easy for libraries to mount in their own spaces and connect with their own communities. Her library posted one from the National Library of Medicine recently on changing the face of medicine, which happened to feature a University of Chicago researcher, Janet Rowley, and then she was able to do a talk at the library based around that exhibit.
Another thing libraries are delving into is the idea of putting their exhibits online, much the same way museums are. Twiss-Brooks said, “I think we probably have expertise to learn from one another. I think museums will still have a different role perhaps than libraries and sort of packaging and presenting experiences to interested visitors. Whereas libraries at least in my field and in academic libraries are places
where the researchers go to explore the raw material, so to speak, of their interest and then synthesize that for their own use. I think that there is rich potential for collaborations. I think we will both still have our own roles, but maybe there are ways that we can bring those skills together.”
A participant asked Hone how accessible video game creation is at this point, “Presumably there are some tools out there for people like amateurs to make, and is that a possible avenue to make like little applets for a classroom? How accessible and how much time would be involved?”
Hone responded that the tools are available. A lot of the material for PBSKids was built in Flash. He said, “I think the harder challenge is the craft of game design. Having done television, having done instructional activities, I think game design is probably the toughest, because you are juggling not only the technical challenges of the programming, the art challenges, but also this contract of how you keep it interesting, and how you build that mountain of challenges. So I think the tools are there. I think what is probably lacking are people who are skilled in the aspects of game design.”
Brown suggested to Twiss-Brooks that for the next year (2011), which is the International Year of Chemistry, the University of Chicago should do an exhibit on African-American chemists. For example, the library could pull their theses out to display and highlight the work of the pioneering students. She offered to help Twiss-Brooks find material.
Finally, Mike Rogers commented on how easy and effective it is to go to various websites and blogs and pose questions, for example, when planning a vacation. He asked Twiss-Brooks if there are such sites for people who might have questions about science or chemistry? She replied that there probably are, but she wasn’t aware of any. Hone mentioned one site called “Ask An Astronomer” and thought there might be a comparable “Ask A Chemist.”