Posts Tagged ‘citizen science’

Possible game interface for iPad

Mineral Identification App for iPad

Since Apple, Inc. announced the release of the iPad two weeks ago I’ve been reading a lot of comments and blogs about how useful this device might be in education. Some excellent posts are being written on the possibilities. Here’s one: http://www.edutechnophobia.com/2010/02/six-ways-the-ipad-will-transform-education/ I haven’t weighed in on the issue myself yet because I’ve been so busy preparing the first few podcast episodes that I keep promising for this site. But more on them later. As for the iPad, providing they add some capabilities such as USB, Flash support, and multi-tasking, I believe it will be a platform of great benefit to science teachers in the following ways:

1 – Replacing expensive textbooks: All of us who have been classroom teachers know that printed textbooks have become outrageously expensive and in technology and the sciences they are outdated before they even go to print. Yet having a handy source of general information on a subject that is grade-level appropriate and tied to national standards and comes complete with problem sets and review questions, test banks, on-line resources, and all the other associated items is a very valuable resource for teachers. If all of this can be ported to an e-book format and read on the iPad (with added interactive and multimedia touches) then the purchase of an iPad for each student becomes truly economically feasible for schools, especially when you factor in that it also replaces most needs for student computers and graphing calculators and merges all these technologies into one device.

2- On-line Testing: iPads have the capability of simplifying student assessment by making it readily and cheaply available at any time on-line. Teachers, with appropriate application support, will be able to assign and write quizzes, tests (both unit and end-of-year state tests), and other assessment tools which students can answer directly on the iPad and receive instantaneous feedback. Many states, including Utah where I am located, are moving their end-of-year testing away from pencil-and-paper multiple choice tests to on-line testing that can incorporate many forms of questions and be skills-based and well as knowledge-based. For example, a chemistry test could incorporate a virtual lab situation as a test question. Which brings up usage 3:

Interactive periodic table

Interactive Periodic Table App

3 – Virtual Science Labs: With the accelerometer and gestural controls of the iPad, science teachers and curriculum developers can program virtual labs that mimic a student actually picking up and weighing reagents for a chemical reaction, calculating the atomic weights and stoichiometric ratios, observing and analyzing the results (say of a virtual pH titration), and comparing student answers with accepted answers. Although this can’t take the place of hands-on science labs, it could certainly help to prepare the students for the real experience and help remediate students who miss the day of the lab, and reduce costs and disposal concerns. Virtual labs could also be created for Earth science (a virtual mineral field test kit), meteorology (viewing cloud cover, barometric, temperature, relative humidity, and other data and then predicting the weather), physics (lots of possibilities here), and so on.

4 – Student Collaboration: This is my big area right now – getting students to collaborate with each other to discover knowledge and synthesize it by creating their own content for the use of other students, such as this Elements Unearthed project to develop student-created podcasts of history and usage of the chemical elements. Imagine a group of students taking iPads on a field trip to a local watershed to record measurements of the water and soil, plant and animal life, pollutants, etc. and recording all of this data tagged with GPS data, then uploading it to the Internet and making it available to students worldwide. The iPad therefore becomes a remarkable enabling tool for citizen science. Imagine these same students using a wiki page to collaborate on writing up their results, or Google docs, or even sharing an iPad as a group to write up their findings in Pages and as a Keynote presentation, with supporting spreadsheets from Numbers. I have seen some amazing things done in classrooms through my work with NASA and my frequent attendance at science and technology teacher conferences using technologies that are far less capable than the iPad (including PDAs, GPS devices, etc.). Given teacher creativity, the appropriate types of applications, and an enabling technology like the iPad, and the educational possibilities are endless.

5 – iPads as Game Platforms: Games in education? This scares a lot of teachers, but it doesn’t have to. Just talk to the educational people at Apple, Micrsoft, and Sun Microsystems (to name a few) – and I have talked to them – and you’ll be amazed at what’s coming and how it can engage students in education through doing something that’s intrinsically fun. Education doesn’t have to be boring – in fact, it’s much more effective if it is fun. Now we just need to have the imagination to create the educational games and content. I have a few ideas, and I’m trying to talk to some software developers about some apps that would be ideal for the iPad and would help teachers to teach and review concepts in chemistry, physics, and other sciences. My media design students were assigned, as part of their learning of Adobe Director and Lingo programming, to design, create, build, and program a game on such topics as Mars exploration or the history of AM radio. They were simple yet powerful (and fun) games that could easily be ported to the iPad and used by other students. Imagine if we have students create iPad apps for other students . . . now that would be powerful learning, for both the creators and users.

I have much more to say on these issues, and others are already saying many of the same things. I am attaching a .pdf file with more complete examples here:


Meanwhile, the podcast episodes are still coming – I have prepared the full 45-minute version of Dr. Scerri’s interview on the history of the periodic table, which is now ready to export, and will begin editing it according to the scripts I’ve worked out into two 15-minute videos with some great images and animations to go with them (all ready to go). The three episodes on Greek matter theories and two on beryllium mining/refining are also coming but will take more time. I need to have at least 5-6 episodes complete and available by the time I present at the National Science Teachers Association conference in Philadelphia in March.

Read Full Post »

Panoramic photo of MATC

Panoramic photo of MATC

   So far, The Elements Unearthed Project has operated out of Mountainland Applied Technology College (MATC) where I teach courses in Media Design Technology. My students have worked on this project as part of their coursework in media design; by forming teams and planning and executing a complex professional-level project, they are learning marketable skills, which is the main mission of our school. As such, the expenses for this project have been covered by my school program budget.

   However, the time is now here when this project must move away from MATC and find its own way; if I continue to pursue what is essentially my own idea and have students work on it further, I would risk running into conflict of interest issues. Also, to do this project justice will take more than the part-time work I have donated so far; it will require an almost full-time effort by me as well as much effort by other people, such as team mentors and project advisors. It can’t just be my project any more but needs the involvement of additional people to guarrantee success.

   That’s where you come in. Those of you who have begun to read this blog (and the stats show that your numbers are growing) can help this project in several ways. You can contribute through (1) commenting on these posts; (2) acting as evaluators and beta testers for our scripts and podcasts (once posted); (3) mentoring a team in your local area; (4) acting as a Subject Matter Expert for a local team; or (5) contributing funds through your buisness for the continuation of this project or for team equipment needs. Let’s look at each of these.

   Commenting on These Posts: I haven’t done much to advertise or link this blog into other related blogs, such as Citizen Science, etc. I have been waiting until we have this first round of podcast episodes done well enough to post to this blog and upload to aggregate sites. At that point we’ll have something substantial to show and will need all the feedback we can get, both here in the form of comments on these posts and in iTunes and YouTube and by sending in the feedback questionnaire (here is the PDF link again).

Feedback Questionnaire PDF:    Elements_Unearthed_Feedback

We’ll be ready for this by June 1.

   Acting as Evaluators or Beta Testers: We’ll need more detailed feedback on our scripts and videos than what can be done in a blog post comment. Those who wish to provide such feedback will be given passwords to our wiki site and can start to act as official testers and assessors, adding to and editing our wiki pages. These wiki pages haven’t been updated for a while, but will be by May 27. Here’s a link to our wiki site:

Elements Unearthed Wiki Site

We’ll add the final scripts as new links and ask for comments and feedback. We’ll also post the rough draft video clips and ask for editing advice and other constructive criticism. Anyone can help, especially if you have expertise in the subject.

Francis Leany, our Subject Matter Expert at Novatek.

Francis Leany, our Subject Matter Expert at Novatek.

   Forming Your Own Team: I hope to begin Phase II (see previous posts for the phases of this project) at the start of September by soliciting teams of students and/or community members from specific towns in Utah. Instead of MATC students doing the work, I will travel to these towns and provide necessary training to local teams, then help them set up, plan, and carry out their tours, videotaping, and final editing. If you are a high school chemistry, history, or media teacher or you are a member of a community historical society or similar organization and would like to put together a project on the history of science and chemistry in your own town, then please contact me. I have a link here for the PDF form to apply for a team.

Team Application Form:  Elements_Unearthed_Application

Ideally, the team would have about 6-8 official members including 5-6 students, a teacher, a community leader, and a Subject Matter Expert such as a local historian, museum director, or scientist or engineer at a chemical plant. The students should be either in high school or be highly motivated middle school students. They can be science students, media students, history students, or even art students (we need all these skills). Their parents can also join the team as members; our goal is to make this truly a community-based project, much as citizen science efforts are being formed presently. Consider this to be a citizen history project.

   Contributing Funds to this Project: Since this project is now becoming independent, it will need funding in order to continue. I have applied to various grant agencies, with mixed success so far. I have been turned down by the Sloan Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for an earlier version of this project; the National Science Foundation turned down my initial application but encouraged me to reapply, saying all that is still needed is more sponsorship and better assessment strategies but that the idea itself is sound and very much needed. My major success so far has been my acceptance to a Fellowship this summer at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia (here’s the link) which is supported by the American Section of the Societe de Chimie Industrielle (here’s their link, too). This generous support will allow me to stay in Philly for three months researching the foundations of chemistry and acquiring images and diagrams from CHF’s vast collection of historical manuscripts that can be used for episodes of this project. They are already doing an audio podcast called Distillations (here’s the link) that I highly recommend; I hope our video podcasts will also find a home at CHF in addition to this blog.

   The funds that are donated can be used for the general development of the project (paying for my travel expenses, for example, to visit the teams) or they could be donated to specific teams to help them buy necessary equipment such as video cameras, tripods, microphones, and computer software. For example, if your business was involved in chemical manufacturing, you might sponsor a team to tell the story of your business and industry. You help them with funds and expertise (in the form of a Subject Matter Expert) and provide access to your company for tours and information. Then any video or photos the team shoots, including the finished podcasts, can be used by your company for PR or marketing purposes (although we’ll retain the copyright on the materials). It’s a win-win situation: you help support your local schools (a tax write-off) and get students excited about STEM careers; they help advertise your business. I hope to develop a number of partnerships for our next group of teams. We’ve already had great cooperation and help from such companies as Novatek in Provo, Utah; Holdman Studios at Thanksgiving Point; Brush Engineered Materials in Delta; and Ash Grove Cement in Leamington.

Phil Sabey at Brush Wellman plant; Dec., 2007.

Phil Sabey at Brush Wellman plant; Dec., 2007.

   I will be contacting some specific industries, organizations, and individuals that can be sponsors or advisors for this project. My goal is that before I leave for Philadelphia, we will have several sponsors on board for the next phase.

   To contact me about contributing either your expertise or funds for this project, please e-mail me at:  dblack@mlatc.edu  or you can phone me at:  801-787-0512. I hope to hear from you.

Next time: Completion of Phase I

Read Full Post »

   For our last two entries I have written about the need and rationale for The Elements Unearthed project. In this post, I would like to present our third and final reasoning behind this project, journeying into the nebulous and contended realm of educational theory to present the conceptual underpinnings of our project.


   In the recent (Nov. 2008) issue of The Science Teacher, the editor, Steve Metz, commented on Project-Based Science instruction (PBS): “. . . learning is an active process and students learn most effectively when they are constructing a meaningful product.” He also said that “. . . individuals construct knowledge individually, through active and meaningful interactions with their environment, rather than by passively receiving transmitted information.”


   Student learning activities are often charted out on a continuum or dichotomy with Passive on the left and Active on the right. Such activities as taking notes, listening to lectures, and watching a video in class are passive whereas such activities as open-ended labs (inquiry labs) and research projects, simulations, and student presentations are active. I propose that this scale is only partially complete. Beyond hands-on or inquiry activities is a whole other level of student involvement in learning: students as creators, producing their own knowledge or making content for others. As such the spectrum would place Passive activities on the left as before, but now place Active learning in the middle and Creative activities on the right, where the student becomes responsible for creating material for and teaching knowledge to other students. Instead of being consumers of content or even interacters with content, students become the producers of new content. They become the teachers.


The Continuum of Constructivism Beyond Hands-On

The Continuum of Constructivism Beyond Hands-On




   In the diagram shown, certain educational models begin to fall into place when compared with this new scale of constructivism. On the left of the continuum, the teacher is the center of the classroom and dispenses knowledge with a focus on efficiency – pouring as many facts into the minds of the students as quickly as possible in assembly line fashion. As we move toward the middle, activities and assignments become more student-centered and involve the student actively, getting them out of their seats and into the lab or participating in a simulation. Instead of rote regurgitation of facts, student assignments become more open-ended and subjective, more imbued with meaning and interpretation; requiring evaluation and comparison on the part of the student. As we move beyond hands-on into the realm of student-created content, the student and the teacher reverse roles. The teacher becomes more of a coach or mentor, a facilitator of learning. This side of the continuum requires self-motivated students willing to dig for their own knowledge; having learned how to learn, they pursue their own lines of inquiry and even create their own experiments to uncover new knowledge. They ask questions and find answers, either through original experimentation or primary source historical research. They become scientists and teachers, training their peers and creating original content for fellow students and even for the general public. They now internalize their learning and own it; they won’t forget it or become uninterested or bored with it because they are fully engaged. Instead of writing a research paper that only the teacher will read, their work is actively critiqued and utilized by others. The focus now becomes quality and effectiveness of learning instead of efficiency.


   The effect of students creating their own content and knowledge is profound. Not only do students retain the knowledge they create longer (usually indefinitely) but the motivation and excitement of the students increases. As they see that what they are creating is meaningful and relevant, as they discover the scientist and historian within themselves, not only does their ownership of the knowledge increase but so does the quality and thoroughness of their work.


   I first discovered this effect by accident. As a first time teacher of chemistry at a small school in the Sierra Nevada Mountains called Tioga High School, I was presenting a unit on organic molecules and their naming conventions. Instead of lecturing on all the alkanes, alkenes, dienes, and so on I decided to let the students research this on their own and report their findings to the other students. This type of “jigsaw” activity can be useful as it puts responsibility on the students to find their own answers and learn from each other. I was also the computer teacher at this school, so I opened up the lab and had the students create their reports in the form of a Hypercard stack on the Mac Classics we had in the lab. They were required to present the information with graphics and also to create some kind of quiz or game based on their content that the other students would then take to demonstrate their knowledge. As students got into the project, I was amazed to see that instead of complaining about having to do research, they were actually asking me to open the computer lab during lunch so they could work on their Hypercard projects. They became very creative in how they presented their information but even more so on how they structured the quizzes; they wanted to do things that would be funny or surprising to their peers while also presenting accurate information. In the process, they truly learned the material. Their test scores were much higher on this unit than before.


   At other schools where I have taught I have instituted some form of student-created content made with the intent of teaching other students (instead of just the instructor). At Juab High School in central Utah, students in my chemistry and physics classes created demonstrations and mini-lesson plans on the chemical elements and principles of physics to present to each other for feedback, then perfect and present to students at two local elementary schools and to the public at a back-to-school science night. At Mountainland Applied Technology College, students have been required to look up tutorials on software packages such as Adobe Photoshop, practice them, write up their own lesson plan, and then present it to the other students. In each case student motivation and retention has been excellent. The only drawback is that such activities take more time than traditional rote learning so not as much content can be “covered.” But when the focus shifts from coverage to quality, I find that less is indeed more.


   Now I am not trying to say that the activities and types of assignments on the left are bad. There are times when a great deal of facts must be covered quickly and a lecture with note-taking is simply the best way of presenting the information. For students who are less self-motivated or less mature, the activities on the left and center are effective, and there are times when teachers need to have more control over the content and the direction of students. As students gain more experience and take more control of their own learning, they should naturally start moving toward the right side of the continuum.


   Even in the teaching profession we see this – teachers in training gain facts first in content area courseware, then go through various stages of methods courses and lesson plan development practice before presenting lessons to fellow teachers. They eventually move up to teaching a single class of students for a limited time, then move on to full scope student teaching for a whole semester under the direction of a mentor teacher, then finally gain their credential and full-time employment. If we expect our teachers to follow this process, then why not our students as well? They can become apprentices of knowledge, progressing to journeymen students who create their own content and conduct their own research, eventually progressing to masters who are now totally in charge of their own learning.


   This is what we propose for The Elements Unearthed Project. Student teams will progress from being researchers to scriptwriters to video editors, at each stage trained and mentored by experienced media professionals and local scientists and historians. Not only will they become producers of content, they will also learn to evaluate and present that content in an aesthetically pleasing and factually accurate way. Although the content they produce will be of benefit to many students and teachers worldwide, it is the student/community teams that will gain the most. Local museums will receive high quality media content that they can display in their museums and on the Internet. Local chemical plants and refineries will gain valuable public relations exposure by telling their stories to the wider community. Team members (students and mentor teachers) will gain video editing and scriptwriting skills, as well as the chance to do primary historical research. Communities will gain from increased public awareness of the history and environment of the town. In short, everyone benefits.


   It is our hope that you will support this project by becoming involved directly as a sponsoring organization (a refinery, chemical plant, or museum) or by creating a team of your own to document the history of your area. You can also contribute to this project financially and receive sponsorship credits in the final podcasts and on this blog. Next week we will discuss the timeline and phases of this project and more on how you can get involved.

Read Full Post »

   “Citizen Science” is a movement that is growing around the world. It can be defined as the participation of non-professionals (including students, teachers, and individuals from the general public) who aid in data collection and analysis for scientific experiments. Although usually done under the supervision of a professional scientist, increasingly these amateur scientists even design the experiments and publish the results. There are several excellent examples. I had the privilege, as part of my participation in the NASA Explorer Schools program, to observe students at a middle school in urban Washington D.C. collecting data of loggerhead turtle movements in the Atlantic Ocean (from radio collar frequencies) and correlating that data with plankton abundance and ocean temperature gathered from an orbiting satellite. This program is called Signals of Spring. Other students track migratory waterfowl. I have had the opportunity to see the Telescopes In Education program in operation, where students at schools around the country use software to calculate the ephemeris of star locations on a given night and time, then communicate to a docent at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in California who slews a 24 inch reflecting telescope to view the location specified, then takes photos of that spot using the exposure times and filters the students specify and uploads them to the students’ computers. A 14 inch scope at the site is fully automated, and was being paired with a scope in Australia to view the southern skies. Using this system, students have access to the same data collection and stellar photography techniques of professional astronomers.


   My own students participated in the Mars Exploration Student Data Team program in 2003-04 (described in my second post) to collect and analyze raw data acquired by the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey space probes in support of the rover missions. They looked for atmospheric patterns (temperature, dust abundance, etc.) to predict possible dust storms or other meteorological events that could have disrupted the rovers. They then used their media design skills to create graphical representations and animations of this data, as shown in the image. Four of my students also participated in the Mars Student Imaging Program at Arizona State University, where they were allowed to select a spot to photograph on the surface of Mars using the Mars Odyssey spacecraft’s THEMIS camera. They then analyzed the image for signs of water or geological activity. My students also download and animate 3D altitude data acquired by the Mars Orbiting Laser Altimeter on the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.


   Putting authentic data in the hands of students and the public allows for engagement and excitement in the scientific enterprise. Students and other amateur scientists see themselves as participants and stakeholders, and become scientifically literate. This is one of the major purposes of The Elements Unearthed project.


   Although they will not be collecting new data in the form of a scientific experiment, our collaborating teams will be collecting new historical facts and developing their own interpretations. As citizen historians, they will add to society’s knowledge of the history and processes of mining and chemical production and make this information available to the general public. They will join the ranks of amateur citizen scientists that participate in professional-level data collection and analysis.


Division of sciences by category

Division of sciences by category

   Ultimately, the major problem is the divide in our society between those who do science and understand it and those who merely use the technologies it produces without understanding. We are becoming a technocracy; a population ruled by the few people who design, control, and maintain the technology we rely on. Numbers from the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2007 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates show a total of 1,255,670 physical, life, and social scientists (not including technicians) in the United States and 1,480,050 engineers. Of these scientists, 18.7% are life scientists, 20.4% are physical scientists, and 60.9% are social scientists. Altogether, scientists and engineers make up about .85% of the total U. S. population, or less than one percent. In other words, of 100 elementary students in school, only one of them on average will go on to a career as a scientist or engineer.


Scientists and Engineers compared to total population

Scientists and Engineers compared to total population

   Currently, this less than one percent of the population is the only segment actively engaged in creating science or technology; they are solely responsible for discovering the majority of the new knowledge and technologies our country relies upon. If we were to map out the relationship between the amount of fundamental new science created on a vertical axis and the percentage of the population involved in this creation horizontally, we get another steeply-sloped Pareto curve. For a discovery or technology to be considered “acceptable” professionally, it must be published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal such as Nature. Usually only professional scientists with PhDs and years of advanced training in experimental design and statistical analysis can have any hope of being published.


Most science is created by professionals

Most science is created by professionals

   Yet beyond the narrow band of professional scientists and engineers lies a long tail of semi-professionals or generalists, including college science and engineering professors who are part-time researchers and high school science teachers, as well as amateur or “apprentice” scientists such as college and secondary science students and the “citizen scientists” in the general public. All of these people could potentially be creators of acceptable new science and technology if they were sufficiently trained and the rules were changed a bit. In the chart shown, the total amount of science produced can be represented by the area under the curve. What would happen, though, if we found a way to move the level of acceptability to the right to include science conducted by part-time researchers, generalists, teachers, students, and even “citizen scientists” in the general populace? We would dramatically increase the total amount of science done, and enlarge the depth and breadth of the research conducted. We would also engage a larger segment of the population.


Potential amount of science that could be produced

Potential amount of science that could be produced

    This would have secondary effects. As teachers, students, and the public get a taste of doing authentic, valid science, and become more experienced in data collection and analysis, they will tend to move to the left on the scale, becoming more professional. More students will become excited about careers in science, thereby increasing the number of science and engineering graduates and increasing the total output of science produced which will broaden the curve. As more of the general public gets involved, more people will hear about the possibility, get excited about it, and become involved and the border of participating population will potentially increase. Therefore, small effects in boosting the amount of “amateurs” doing science will have huge benefits in the total amount of science produced.


   Of course, there are many issues to resolve about how to train the amateurs and semi-professionals to do accurate, valid, repeatable science and to broaden the access of these studies to peer-reviewed publication. Podcasting, as in our Elements Unearthed project, can reach a broad audience but to gain professional respect such grass-roots research must be evaluated and mentored by reputable scientists and given the same scrutiny as any peer-reviewed study.


   If may seem daunting to attempt to increase participation in authentic science across the country. Surely our project can’t do this all by itself, but it can make a start and add to efforts already out there. If all we can do through this and other projects is to simply encourage one more student to pursue a career in science and technology out of every 100, we will double the amount of science and engineering done. This should not be too difficult a task. If we can involve the general public in data collection and make them scientists in that they learn to ask questions and observe nature to find answers, we will fulfill a fundamental human need to understand the world. This may very well be the most humanizing activity we can possibly do, and the most beneficially in the long run for humanity. A scientifically literate populace would make better decisions regarding resource allocation issues. Certainly it is a cause worth investing money and effort into.


   Through The Elements Unearthed project, we hope to engage students and communities. We will involve local scientists, engineers, and historians as subject matter experts; train teams of students and community members to become amateur science historians and video content producers; and generally increase the excitement of students to enter careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Through this we will contribute to preserving the history of chemistry, producing a scientifically literate public, increasing U. S. competitiveness, and helping individuals understand the properties and hazards of the materials they use.

Read Full Post »

   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.


Student-Created Content:


   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 now

Science Education Content Creation now

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.

Science Education Content Creation - Expanded

Science Education Content Creation - Expanded


   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.

Read Full Post »

Introduction Audio [m4a]

Fractal cover image
Fractal cover image

   The Elements Unearthed: Our Discovery and Usage of the Chemical Elements is a project developed by David V. Black and his students at Mountainland Applied Technology College (MATC) in Orem, Utah. Our objective is to document the history, sources, uses, mining, refining, and hazards of the chemical elements and important industrial materials. Teams of students are visiting mine sites, refineries, chemical manufacturing plants, museums, and artisan workshops to interview scientists, engineers, historians, and other experts and to tour and videotape the sites. The video interviews, photos, and background research are being compiled into audio and video podcasts and written PDF files that will be posted at this Blog and made available on YouTube, the Apple iTunes Store, and other podcast aggregate sites.

   These podcast episodes will be a step in the right direction to preserve the history of mining and chemical refining; to provide accurate information about how chemicals are made and used (including safety precautions to observe); to encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); and to ensure that the general public is well informed on vital issues such as resource depletion and environmental degradation in order to make sound decisions in the future. We intend that students, teachers, and the public will make free use of these podcast episodes.

   We hope to add you, our audience, as collaborators on this project. We need your help to test and critique the podcast episodes and provide us with feedback on what we’ve done right and what we still need to improve. We will provide a downloadable PDF evaluation form that you can fill out and return to us, as well as post comments on this Blog. We also hope that you will consider forming a team in your own community to document how the elements are used there. We are working on grant applications in the hope of securing funding to turn this into a national project, with teams from all states documenting the history and uses of the elements.

   In future posts, we will talk about who we are, what our goals are in detail, our rationale for creating this project, and our intended timeline for completion as well as how you can help out and get involved. We will also display podcast episodes that our student teams have already created and report our ongoing progress for new episodes. As they are complete, these episodes will be posted here for your feedback before they are uploaded to the broader aggregate sites.

   Please feel free to post comments related to this project including any questions you may have. If you wish to contact me directly, please e-mail me at:  dblack@mlatc.edu. You can also snail-mail me at: David V. Black, Mountainland Applied Technology College, 987 South Geneva Rd., Orem, UT  84058. I have attached a PDF version of our Feedback Questionnaire at the bottom of this post, which you can download, fill out, and return to us at the address above. We look forward to collaborating with you!

   Thank you for your interest in this project!

David V. Black

Feedback Questionnaire [pdf]

Read Full Post »