#BoraZUofA: A thought-provoking week with Bora Zivkovic

Enjoying some Tim Horton’s treats while visiting Joel Dacks’s lab

Just a few weeks ago I waved goodbye to Scientific American blogs editor Bora Zikovic and thanked him for a wonderful week of talks at the University of Alberta. Somehow in just a week we’d managed to chat about science teaching, science blogs, the history of academic publishing, open-access, post-publication peer review, science on Twitter and so much more. It was exciting and exhausting, and my ideas notebook is completely full.

As part of the University’s Distinguished Visitor program, a small group of faculty from cell biology (Joel Dacks), anthropology (Bora’s brother, Marko Zivkovic) and science education (me) brought Bora to town to speak with students and faculty. No matter what the topic, the theme seemed to be: keep an open mind. Be willing to consider new ways of doing things but also remember that they might not be as they first appear.

We opened the week on Monday with a visit to my senior undergraduate science education class. My students were just about to begin a term project using science blogs as inspiration for science teaching. Bora talked to them about different types of blogs (e.g., journalistic blogs like Not Exactly Rocket Science and open science blogs like RRResearch) and the diversity of writers from academic scientists (e.g., Sean Carroll), to graduate students (e.g., Jason Goldman) and professional writers (e.g., Jennifer Ouellette). In this diverse landscape, they were particularly interested in how to assess credibility in blogs and sought strategies both for themselves and their future students. Bora led them through an interesting discussion of how to check for credentials and publications, how to look at blog networks for credibility and how to follow trails of trust from one trusted source to another. He also highlighted exemplary uses of blogs for science education such as Stacy Baker’s classroom blogging and sites that connect researchers and citizen scientists, like SciStarter. They left excited both about their term assignment (when does that happen?) and about the possibilities for using online resources in their future teaching careers. (If you’re interested in more, Bora has shared a full list of all of the sites and posts he referenced during his talks.)

Bora’s first public talk was the next day, hosted over lunch by the University of Alberta’s Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education. CMASTE is a K-12 educational research and development centre that creates and tests curriculum materials and connects researchers and classroom teachers.  Bora’s talk “Teaching and learning through online science” was delivered to a packed room of local science teachers, science education faculty and other interested members of the university community. (Many thanks to Tim Skellett for creating a Storify timeline of the live tweets.)

The talk focused on the increased availability of scientific information to a broader and more diverse audience. Bora highlighted how personal communications, such as letters and informal critique, have always been an important part of science but in the online environment they are more likely to be seen and understood by more people. These show many of the processes of science in a way that journal articles and summary media reports can’t. Scientists and science writers working for a larger audience in more open publications are blurring the lines between science communication and science education. A broad and heterogeneous range of people can now seek out scientific experts to learn from them. The popularity of explainers on journalistic sites really illustrates that hunger to learn, especially about science. He argued that as a result, journalists, especially science journalists, have to be more accepting of that fact that that they’re in the business of education and that the boundaries of science writing are getting blurrier. A couple of great questions from the audience about using blog responses to counter pseudo-scientific and anti-scientific claims rounded out a very productive session.

After refueling with some delicious French food at our local francophone cultural centre, Bora picked up the next day with his second talk “The changing nature of scientific literacy online“, co-hosted by the Departments of Elementary and Secondary Education. With an audience of science and science education faculty and graduate students, Bora tackled the changing form and style of science writing online and grabbing everyone’s attention by opening with this tweet from Sci Curious:

Bora explained that specialized bloggers writing about research in their field add something new to the science news and reading cycle and also to the language of scientific critique. When we think about scientific literacy, how people make sense of the science around them, these changes are significant. One important element is how the processes of science can be shown. When scientists write about their ongoing work  (like Rosie Redfield has done with her follow-up Arsenic bacteria research) or when they take the opportunity to write up the background story of their research (like Jonathon Eisen’s series The Story Behind the Paper does) the real challenges and chronological order of research comes to light in a way that journal articles don’t allow. Blogs and other online venues also offer fewer restrictions in terms of language and formality. That can have its drawbacks but it also lets bloggers use humour, profanity, and sarcasm as a hook to draw people in. Bora argued that those entertaining posts can attract readers who wouldn’t normally consider themselves science readers, but they may end up coming back again and again. The changing landscape of reading and writing online does stop at tone, though. Online writing loses many of the space and paper constraints of hard text and increasingly long pieces have shown wide popularity. The value of long form online writing comes with the recognition that they are repositories of information, resources to be read in depth and shared. Finally, Bora used the example of the Blackawton Bees paper to illustrate the availability of truly different examples of science. The paper, written a group of elementary schoolchildren in the UK breaks new scientific literacy ground not because of the research itself but in what it says about who can do science and how they can write about it. Scientific literacy in schools could mean something very different when those students are writing about original findings for a major journal. Through all of these examples, Bora pushed the audience to think more broadly about the reading and writing possibilities in science and therefore towards a broader understanding of scientific literacy.

After another evening of great food and fun (and wine served in an Erlenmeyer flask!), Bora settled in Thursday afternoon for a final talk: “Navigating the benefits and pitfalls of scientific interaction online.” Bora opened with the provocative statement that the 20th century amalgamation of news sources and balanced reporting led us to be forced into a decision: be misinformed a little or not informed at all. He used our surprise to emphasize that judging current  changes in science communication by the norms of the 20th century isn’t a fair comparison. Much of what is happening now reflects trends from previous eras. The 20th century’s inverted pyramid of science journalism and formal dry structure for journal articles are the anomaly. Well into the past, he explained, all manner of communication strategies, even puzzling letters & anagrams, were used to establish primacy and scientific ideas. Peter Newbury, not so far away at the University of British Columbia, piped into the discussion through Twitter with the example of Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens staking his 1655 claim to the discovery of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, with an anagram. Journals began later as compilations of letters sent to colleagues and societies. They were much more than formulaic accounts of successful findings and included anecdotes, personal details, and stories about successes and failures. He points out that the peer review system as we know it today, and against which so much contemporary science communication is judged, only began to be formalized in the 1960s. Prior to that time, Bora argued, formally sending a paper to other experts before deciding to publish would have been seen as breaking the scientific publishing etiquette. Peer review still happened, it just looked different from the formalized version that became familiar starting in roughly the second half of the 20th century. He argued that the online environment doesn’t change the importance of these processes just sometimes how they’re accomplished, with editors, aggregators, media watch blogs, and commenters taking on many peer review functions. The amount of good quality content doesn’t change just because it’s online, but details of how we find and decide on that quality content may. He also gave examples of how online communities, like Twitter, can be helpful in drawing attention to studies and commenting on their quality. This talk really brought together his message over the week: think openly about challenges and changes in online science.

It had already been a full week at that point but the highlight, for me anyway, was still to come. After three major talks and several other visits to classes, labs and research centres, I let Bora rest up for Friday night. On Friday, with fantastic help and support from Desiree Schell and K.O. Myers of Skeptically Speaking, we hosted Beyond 42: How science can use stories to explain life, the universe and everything.

Bora opens the night with his own story about the value of narrative. (Photo by Marc-Julien Objois)

Held at The Artery, a community arts and culture event space, the evening was filled with stories and music about science. Bora was our host and MC, opening the show by sharing some of his personal narrative of becoming a scientist. He shared some of the ups and downs of that journey and along the way reminded us how important it is to remember the people of science and the convoluted ways that science often happens. Anecdotes may not be data, but they can be a valuable part of sharing the meaning of the data we have. Following Bora were two local story tellers ready to make us laugh and think. Julieta Delos Santos, a PhD student at the University of Alberta, shared a hilarious recollection of one of the smelliest pieces of science lab work imaginable (it almost ended with an evacuated building!) and Greg Henkelman, a high school science teacher and Master’s student, told us of a surprise encounter with a Bison and what it taught his students about getting lost in science. We didn’t constrain the night to formal stories, though, opening things up to some story telling through song. Archaeologist and musician Robin Woywitka and his band the Super 92 not only spiced up the night with great roots-rock, but he also shared the stories behind the songs, stories that featured gold miners, engineers, astronauts and sciencey folks of all varieties. The second half continued with two more stories. Science teacher and PhD student Monica Chahal surprised us by looking at the positive side of students setting fires in the lab, and ecologist and PhD student Courtney Hughes shared a surprisingly personal encounter with a cheetah (personal for the cheetah at least!). Robin picked it back up with another set and there may have even been a little bit of dancing. That’s story telling too, right?

Story teller Monica Chahal shares the surprising value of lab fires (Photo by Marc-Julien Objois)

Beyond 42 put a fabulous cap on an enjoyable and thought-provoking week with Bora. The stories from the event were captured and broadcast by Skeptically Speaking. You can check out the great podcast of the episode. I’ll also be following up with a review of Robin’s musical stories which couldn’t make it into the episode.

I want to extend a huge thank you to Bora for making the trek up to Edmonton and to Joe, Marko, Desiree and K.O. for all of their hard work organizing and hosting. I hope we can do it all again sometime!


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