The American Radio Relay League helps teachers and students communicate and learn science via amateur radio. Here, students at Dowagiac Middle School in Dowagiac, Michigan, prepare to capture telemetry from the ARISSat-1 satellite, an amateur radio exploratory educational minisatellite co-sponsored by NASA. (Matt Severin)
Popular electronic devices and programs have turned today’s students into avid communicators. You’d like your students to use their skills to communicate about science. What’s the first step?
“We think that students need something personally important to communicate about,” says Alan Newman, co-principal investigator of the Science Literacy through Science Journalism (SciJourn) program in the College of Education at University of Missouri-St. Louis. Newman, who has spent more than 20 years communicating science as a journalist and editor at the American Chemical Society, is also co-author of the NSTA Press book Front-Page Science: Engaging Teens in Science Literacy. “In SciJourn,” he continues, “we build on the student’s individual interests and concerns and work to make the topic narrow enough so that students can dig in.”
According to Newman, “most students are interested in science, but maybe not the science that they encounter in textbooks. At the start of a SciJourn project, we spend time with a class helping students see that there is science in almost anything they can think of.” He suggests teachers ask students questions like “What interests you? Do you have an after-school job or hobby? What do you do when you don’t do homework?”
After hearing their responses, “we guide students to multiple, credible sources, including websites and people who can help them learn more and address their queries,” he explains.
David Pescovitz and Elisabeth Soep thought about communicating science as they worked with students participating in Youth Radio, an after-school media education program run by a media production company headquartered in Oakland, California. After presenting a talk to these students about his multipronged career as editor-at-large for MAKE, the technology magazine; co-editor of the blog BoingBoing.net; and a research director with the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit think-tank in Palo Alto, Pescovitz says he was intrigued by the students, describing them as “really interested, creative, and productive.” He wanted “to inspire an interest in science among them” through “the intersection of art and science and technology,” he explains.
Pescovitz brainstormed ideas with Soep, Youth Radio’s senior producer and research director, and her colleagues Charlie Foster and Erik Sakamoto. They decided Pescovitz would invite scientists and engineers he knew—“people who were making their own musical instruments, for example”—to demonstrate their work to the students and discuss their career paths. He wanted the students to realize “science and technology and engineering [and math (STEM)] are not just a chapter in a textbook. You can use them to create tools for artistic expression” and other “amazing things yourself,” he observes.
This goal led to the creation of the Brains and Beakers video series. “We created Brains and Beakers to foster dynamic dialogues and hands-on co-experimentation between scientists and young people,” says Soep. “Inventors and investigators come to Youth Radio’s studios…to demonstrate in real-time key principles and discoveries that are central to their work. Youth Radio students, who have studied each scientist’s projects in advance and developed a list of thoughtful and critical questions, both participate in the demonstration and interview the scientist on camera. The youth then create original Brains and Beakers media content, distributing it across multiple on-air and online outlets. The idea is for both the young people and STEM professionals to walk away with new understandings of the work presented, and with an interest in continuing these kinds of conversations.”
In addition to Brains and Beakers, STEM-related content students develop as part of Youth Radio’s Science Desk are “investigative reports that feature original data for outlets including National Public Radio and National Geographic’s News Watch online, and mobile apps that engage and enliven communities,” she notes.
Do these programs succeed in creating science communicators? “We had a breakthrough this year when our series producer, Teresa Chin, [suggested] to the youth team that they think of Brains and Beakers like a nighttime talk show,” responds Soep. “With that frame, they started to imagine how to make the science—and the ‘character’ who came to present it—not only interesting for themselves, but also for outside audiences…Soon science became fodder for a narrative and inspiration for inquiry, and that kept students engaged in understanding the material presented and communicating effectively with others.”
She quotes one student: “I was pretty insecure about science at the beginning. I had gotten terrible grades [in school], which made me feel that I was bad at science or didn’t understand science…I didn’t know much about the subject or know much about the direction. As we continued interviewing people and as we continued to develop the story, it really turned into a strong piece…I hope that people take away from the piece that science isn’t just in the lab—it actually relates to everyone and affects everyone.”
Soep invites teachers to use the free content on www.youthradio.org/brainjuice. “We hope teachers will use our Science Desk content in three ways: to share models of young people engaging with STEM in sophisticated and fun ways; to anchor classroom activities in dynamic youth-made media that explore topics relevant to core STEM curriculum; and to inspire other educators to create their own dialogues and investigations between scientists and youth.”
Talking Science on Amateur Radio
Some teachers have turned to an older medium, amateur radio, to get their students conversing about and learning science. “Amateur radio provides the means for hands-on exploration of radio science and electronics. Radio science is the foundation of wireless technology, and the concepts involved with wireless technology integrate [STEM fields],” says Debra Johnson, education services manager for the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the U.S. national association for amateur radio.
Students “need to understand how wireless technology works” because “these technologies permeate every dimension of our lives,” Johnson contends, adding, “Skilled jobs of today and tomorrow in many industries as well as in telecommunications, medicine, and scientific research rely on understanding” wireless technologies.
Amateur radio operators (“hams”) can help teachers incorporate this type of communication in their classrooms, she says. ARRL also holds Teacher Institutes on Wireless Technology nationwide at no charge. Susan Cundiff, physics and chemistry teacher at Gulf Breeze High School in Gulf Breeze, Florida, who has attended them, says, “I have benefited from meeting new people…and I obtained some great ideas [for employing] activities supporting STEM in my classroom. Through discussions with other teachers, I’ve learned from them about what they do in their classes, and I have new ideas that I would not have come up with on my own.”
Attendee Barbara Vola of Samsula Academy in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, says she “learned about basic electronics, circuit boards, and soldering.” ARRL grants helped her acquire equipment for her after-school club for fourth and fifth graders, who “are learning basic electronics, as well as talking with area hams on the radio. The fifth graders also learn how to solder and assemble a basic circuit board.”
In Colorado’s Cherry Creek School District, Bob Sterner, senior telecom engineer, and fellow ham Paul Veal lead an out-of-school Wireless Technology class for grades 4–8. “Using the equipment donated from the ARRL, we are able to show the students how [radio frequency] waves work and help us communicate. We are also able to use amateur satellites to extend this knowledge beyond the Earth. One of our classes even had the opportunity to talk to the International Space Station,” says Sterner.
Bill Richardson’s Radio and Technology club at Olde Towne Middle School in Ridgeland, Mississippi, has launched “high altitude weather balloons with experiments and radio tracking devices. So far we have launched two near-space balloons to an altitude of 90,000+ feet and encountered one mysterious particle that very few physicists have been able to identify,” he observes. Developing their vocal skills on ham radio “teaches [students] self-confidence, annunciation, and timing,” while “as far as critical-thinking skills are concerned,…many of the students do not venture much outside of the world of a cell phone or Xbox, so in learning the core skills of logical programming and solving situations, they tend to grow in the analytical skills area,” he maintains.
To find hams in their area, teachers can e-mail ARRL’s Education Services office. Johnson also points teachers to http://bit.ly/Q5QZNA and http://bit.ly/RRgtjg.