April 2013

Teaching science in the 21st century: as easy as 1, 2, tweet

Adam Taylor
Follow Adam Taylor, founder of #scistuchat, on Twitter at www.twitter.com/2footgiraffe.

The Internet has a way of being distracting. The plethora of available information and facile social interactions make staying focused a serious challenge for even the most dedicated professionals, let alone teenagers. But for Nashville-based high-school teacher Adam Taylor, it is exactly those properties that are appealing.
“As a science teacher, I am constantly looking for ways to engage students,” he says. Rather than trying to fight an uphill battle, Taylor is instead using the social-media platform Twitter to incorporate online scientific information into his lessons.
Science at the 140-character level
Taylor’s motivation for turning to social media came about out of necessity. “It is difficult to find scientists and get them into your classroom,” he laments. However, locating experts in the ether of the Internet was much more straightforward. Still, Taylor worried whether the level of interaction that was taking place online was sufficiently informative for high-school science students. A 2011 news story in the journal Nature (1) convinced him that valuable scientific discussions were being conducted in real time via Twitter, exactly the kind of interaction that he was looking for. “Once I found lists of scientists on Twitter, I had my students follow different scientists and start interacting with them. Some scientists even responded to student questions,” Taylor says.
Encouraged by these interactions, Taylor decided to codify them into a formal event. Thus was born #scistuchat, a real-time, moderated question-and-answer session open to the Twitter-sphere. Taylor’s one-off event was a success. “Both students and scientists seemed to enjoy themselves, so I decided to make it a monthly event,” he recalls.
Version 2.0
Now held the second Thursday of every month, #scistuchat has grown to involve students from high schools in Kentucky, New York, New Mexico, Kansas, Arizona and Canada. Even more impressive, the list of participating scientists includes researchers hailing from as far away as Australia, New Zealand and Germany — which, to Taylor, is gratifying: “The goal is to connect students with scientists. I can raise engagement of students with scientific professionals, as well as connect them to the outside world.”
Taylor gets the discussion rolling by coming up with questions on surprisingly sophisticated topics chosen by his students, such as cloning and genetically modified food. In a typical chat, he sends out an initial question (e.g., “What is DNA?”) and asks anyone who is following to respond and include the “#scistuchat” hashtag in his or her tweet. Anyone logged on to Twitter can join the conversation; others can follow along by searching for the #scistuchat hashtag.
As the discussion progresses, students follow up with their own increasingly in-depth questions for scientists (e.g., “How can you change your DNA to change your skin color or eye color?”). This format, says Taylor, “keeps students involved and keeps them from getting frustrated” at not getting responses to all their queries. To keep things moving, Taylor says, each topic is discussed for no more than 10 minutes.
Reaction to the chat has been overwhelmingly positive. According to Taylor, “the students who participate get into it.” They are not the only ones: Past #scistuchat discussions have drawn more than 1,300 tweets in 60 minutes, a rate that had the #scistuchat hashtag ranked as one of the most popular discussion items on Twitter.
Responses from participating scientists have been similarly enthusiastic: Kristopher Hite (‏@thorsonofodin), a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University, once tweeted, “#scistuchat is one of the coolest things I have ever participated in my life.” Khadijah M. Britton (‏@KMBTweets), founder of Boston’s BetterBio, wrote, “This chat rocks!”
Into the great wide open
Taylor sees #scistuchat as part of a larger effort to encourage the use of social media in the classroom.
“Hopefully these kinds of interactions will help students become more interested in the world around them,” he says. To emphasize that point, he recently invited members of the Tennessee state legislature to his class to observe and participate in one of the #scistuchat events. “Our visitors were excited about the level of engagement from the students,” he says.
Ultimately, the raison d’être of #scistuchat is getting Taylor’s students interested in science. “Talking to actual scientists can help to open students’ minds to the opportunities that are out there in the world of science,” he points out.
Getting scientists involved goes a long way toward achieving this goal. “The more scientists we have on #scistuchat, the more students will feel a connection.” Even the smallest interaction makes a difference, he insists. “If nothing else, (the students) will remember the time they had a question answered by a scientist on Twitter.”

  1. 1. Reich, E. S. Nature. 474, 431 (2011).

Geoff HuntGeoff Hunt (ghunt@asbmb.org) is ASBMB’s outreach coordinator. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/goodbyeshoe.

A sampling of recent #scistuchat tweets 
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