Last week I wrote about the need for and purposes of our project. This week let’s discuss our approach of training community teams to create the content of this project and why this will be beneficial.
One purpose of The Elements Unearthed project is to train teams consisting of students and community members how to document the history and chemical processes of mines, refineries, and plants in their neighborhoods. Through on-site visits and on-line training resources, they will learn how to set up and use cameras, lights, and microphones; how to write preliminary and final scripts and storyboards; and how to film interviews and site visits, then edit the footage into a series of podcast episodes for use on the iTunes Store, YouTube, this blog, and elsewhere. They will also use desktop publishing software to write well-designed PDF files that can be downloaded and printed. Not only will our audience (primarily high school and college chemistry students) benefit by viewing and using the video, audio, and PDF files the teams create, but the team members will also benefit. They become experts in their subjects; as they learn the science and engineering well enough to pass it on to others through self-created, engaging content, they become the scientists, teachers, and historians themselves as well as learning valuable digital media skills.
Team Composition and Informal Science Education:
This project has aspects of both formal and informal science education; although we expect most of our teams to be centered around high school science classes where a mentoring teacher provides the impetus for the project, we want this to be much more than just another class assignment. In order to help the teams reach beyond what is easily knowable at their schools, and to ensure depth and accuracy, we will require that each team include someone from their community who is an expert at their chosen subject. This person could be a scientist or engineer at a local mine or refinery, an historian or museum docent with historical knowledge about the community, a local artisan who understands and uses materials in a workshop setting, or a citizen scientist who has gained experience with a local environmental concern. These community members will be referred to as Subject Matter Experts.
Altogether an ideal team would consist of about four or five students from a local high school or community college, hopefully with a good mixture of course experience (history, art, multimedia, science, etc.). These students will have specific assignments, such as one student being responsible for writing the script, another planning the video shoot, another capturing and transcribing the footage, another creating B-roll images and animations, etc. All of them will be cross-trained in each other’s areas of specialty as well, but each area needs to have someone in charge. In addition, these students will be mentored by an instructor who will act as the primary point of contact. Finally, at least one Subject Matter Expert must be actively involved in reviewing the script and final video and helping with tours and interviews. Since most of the training, coordinating, planning, filming, and editing will be done outside of school hours and will involve more than just formal teachers and students, and since our podcasts will be available outside regular school curricula to anyone at any time, we feel this project qualifies well under the heading of Informal Science Education.
Having students build meaning by creating content for themselves and others has excellent benefits for knowledge retention and integration. The students who create these videos will learn a great deal about their topics in a manner that will be unforgettable. Students will take ownership in what they learn and have pride in accomplishment by creating professional-quality videos that are also factually accurate. They and their mentor teachers will develop the knowledge base and equipment and software skills needed to pass on what they learn to more students who can document other subjects in their communities. To take the old saying one step further:
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime; train him how to teach others how to fish and you feed a village forever.
Or, as one of our students pointed out somewhat tongue in cheek:
Build a man a fire and you keep him warm for an hour; catch a man on fire and you keep him warm for the rest of his life; catch a village on fire and you won’t have to worry about keeping anyone warm . . .
By turning students into experts and having them teach others, they learn the skills of data collection, interpretation, analysis, and synthesis. They learn how to be historians using direct first-person interviews. They become informed producers instead of consumers of content, actively instead of passively engaged in learning. We don’t just hand them a fish or build them a fire, we turn into the instruments to feed and light up an entire community.
Science Education Content Creation:
If we were to chart the amount of science education content produced on a vertical axis and the number of people engaged in producing that content on a horizontal axis, we find an interesting distribution called a Pareto curve, having a steep drop off on the left trailing off to a long shallow curve that never entirely reaches zero on the right. Currently, most content for science education is produced by a few professional curriculum designers and publishers. Some college courses are created with a professor contributing expertise and an outline of topics then handing the course design over to the college’s Instructional Design department to build the curricular pieces and content. Occasionally a high school teacher might act as a co-author or reviewer of a textbook, yet the vast majority of curriculum, lesson plans, tests, and texts are still created by professionals with years of training. Yet a long tail exists of semi-professionals and amateurs, including teachers and students and even experts in the general public who can contribute content that is equally valid (and much richer in subject matter and variety) than the professionals. If this tail could be tapped, the total content available would drastically increase, as shown by the area under the curve in the second diagram.
By providing more choices and sources for information on chemicals and the elements through generating our own video podcasts, we hope to enrich the education of science students and the general public and make this information more accessible (and less expensive) than it is now. We will use podcasting as our format because it encourages and motivates students to become producers instead of consumers of content without having to worry about publishers, agents, textbook costs, shelf space, and other barriers to access created by the economics of scarcity of our current situation. On-line publishing allows virtually free storage and distribution without limits to the variety of content that can be displayed. There are no shelves to allocate, no exorbitant publishing costs. This pushes the available content down into the long tail and increases choice; anyone anywhere at any time can access and view our podcasts – all they need are an internet connection and a computer or mp3 player capable of playing the videos. Video also allows for deeper information transmission through a visual and audio medium rather than what audio or print alone can do.
The major issue will be whether or not teams of students and subject matter experts can build professional quality videos and written documents that will be technically solid, compelling, and appealing as well as accurate. Our early trials at Mountainland Applied Technology College indicate that it can be done. When amateurs get involved and empowered to create their own content, we see a broadening of the range of quality that is produced. Although there is certainly a great deal of low quality content, there is also the potential for creating materials that are of higher quality than what is done “professionally.” On the chart shown, this is represented by the lines indicating the range of quality. When content is produced professionally it is done by teams of writers and designers and approved by committees and written for the lowest common denominator. Textbooks may be generally of good quality, but they are never great. You wouldn’t read one for fun because it is well written or so gripping that you can’t put it down. Textbooks take so long to write and publish that their content is already obsolete by the time they make it to schools. Yet content produced by individuals and small teams has the potential to be gripping and relevant and topical. It also has the potential to be awful. Our challenge is to provide the training necessary to ensure the former.