Learning to battle through a primary research article is a rite of passage for all science students. At the journal Science, fully annotated publications become accessible to non-experts, making the task a considerably more pleasant and fruitful experience. Melissa McCartney, at the head of the “Science in the Classroom” project, explains that understanding the process of research is invaluable, for future scientists, but also for every citizen who is faced with the important decisions that science brings to us all.
“I was only going through the motions,” confides Melissa McCartney of some early encounters in her college days – specifically, her first encounters with scientific research articles. “I barely knew what they were for.” A surprising revelation from the now-Editorial Fellow at the journal Science. Or perhaps not: “So many people go to grad school without having read a paper,” she says. But in grad school they expect you to be able to, and it’s a skill you need to learn.” Trained initially as a neuroscientist, Melissa now devotes her time both to making sure that today’s students do not enter their PhD program ill-prepared, and to creating a more scientifically literate populace, capable of evaluating what the research world is presenting them.
Dr. McCartney’s method of choice is a project called “Science in the Classroom” that uses the web to make genuine research articles, in their entirety, understandable by university classes. Accompanying teaching materials and additional information—definitions, links, explanations that pop up onscreen—make them accessible to the average undergrad in an introductory-level course. And the first classes to work with an early prototype were enthusiastic, Melissa says. “Wow,” students marveled, “that’s the first time I’ve ever made it past the abstract!”
Scientific papers are hefty, indigestible things for beginners. Melissa longed to open up the great scientific content they contain when she arrived at Science in 2009. “We have all these amazing articles on novel science. It’s brand new, cutting edge. How do we get it to students? How can we connect with them, show them they can read and understand science?” In addition to helping prepare future PhDs, Melissa thinks about the students who may only take one intro science class, ever. “Even if they don't become scientists, they'll understand how it works.” And that, she says, is crucial for society.
With the support of a National Science Foundation grant, a Science in the Classroom prototype site is now up and running, featuring three annotated publications, from biomedical research, physical sciences and environmental studies. Nothing is “dumbed down” here, and the article titles do little to reassure beginners. “Polarized notum Activation at Wounds Inhibits Wnt function to Promote Planarian Head Regeneration” is probably as complicated as it sounds. But immediately after clicking on a title, a student is met with an “Editor’s Introduction”, a paragraph written in an approachable style, explaining the interest and importance of the subject, aimed at drawing the reader in.
Melissa McCartney writes the supplementary materials, all of which are approved by the articles’ authors. “We've been very lucky,” she says, “all of the authors have been positive and enthusiastic about the project.” The key feature of Science in the Classroom is called the Learning Lens. This toolbox floats alongside an article as the student progresses through it and offers six categories of extra information: Glossary, Previous Work, Author's Experiments, Conclusions, News and Policy Links, and Connect to Learning Standards. When a category is selected, corresponding, color-coded text is highlighted. Clicking on this text yields a pop-up box with, for instance, the definition of a word, when “Glossary” is on. Turn off the glossary and choose instead “News and Policy Links”; the highlighted text will lead you to a pop-up with a link to a related news or policy piece and a short description of how it connects to the research article. Data figures, often impenetrable to non-experts, are provided with more in-depth explanation, and most references cited in the paper are annotated to explain their relevance to the article at hand.
The Learning Lens category “Connect to Learning Standards” addresses national educational standards outlined by, for instance, the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The project’s Advisory Board is filled with members of the education world—teachers, education researchers, scientists who spend a lot of time in the classroom—who evaluate the tools and provide valuable, firsthand experience. It was these education veterans who convinced the Science team to address the learning standards. Teachers have very limited time in their classes to cover all of the points required by the standards. Seeing an immediate connection between Science in the Classroom materials and specific obligations of the curriculum makes it an even more useful and efficient tool for teachers.
The Activities section for each paper provides concrete exercises that help teachers draw the research articles into their curriculum. The best part, for Melissa McCartney, is that the authors have provided actual data from their studies that were not used in the paper. The activities accompanying an article on population collapse in bats, for example, includes video data for more species than were published in the paper. Students have the opportunity to count the animals, just as the researchers did, and analyze their own numbers. “We developed an activity to walk students through creating a graph and seeing how science turns data into conclusions,” Melissa explains.
“We’re not trying to change the way the science is presented in the research papers,” she insists. “Students learning about bats is not the primary concern—it’s about understanding the way science is done. I want them to understand that peer review is a way of checking the process, because, eventually, these students will become voters and they need to be informed about making a decision, about what science is presenting. We want them to learn how to confirm science, and double-check sources, so when they read a newspaper article, they’ll know how it's done, so at any point in their life, they'll be able to understand.”
The Science in the Classroom prototype will be open through December 2012 and its creators hope for plentiful feedback from users on their tool. From January, they will incorporate suggestions and, over the next three years, hope to increase the collection to 14 fully annotated articles. As Science in the Classroom continues to grow, Melissa McCartney envisions it becoming a valuable tool, particularly vital training for tomorrow, for researchers and citizens, both.
Find out more:
Learning to Read, Reading to Learn, Introduction to Special Issue http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5977/447.full Educators Explore Innovative Ways to Harness Mobile Technology in the Classroom http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2012/0716edu_technology.shtml Related Articles: MMORPG Players and Social Sciences http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/09/10/mmorpg-players-and-social-sciences.html Night Science: For a Revolution in Education http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/09/14/night-science-for-a-revolution-in-education.html At Mothership HackerMoms, the Freedom to Be Empowered http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/09/12/at-mothership-hackermoms-the-freedom-to-be-empowered.html