From Attacks to Answers Through Engagement

Although you might not believe it from looking at news headlines, recent findings from the Pew Research Center show that Americans overwhelmingly trust scientists, and although topics like climate change and vaccines are highly polarized topics, the public may not be a strongly divided as we think.

While we love to engage in scientific debates, even when we aren’t that informed, talking about less “glamorous” science topics can be mundane, tedious and downright boring.

If you’re a scientist who happens to work in a field with less publicity, how do you achieve effective engagement? COMPASS blogs recently dedicated a whole post to answering this question. Their answer is that you need to show relevance, or the so what of your research and findings. Why science?

While this post was mainly for scientists, the same information holds true for STEM education. The question is how, where, and when can you engage to create a richer and more robust discourse? What we’re often missing in our formal science education is the why.

Yesterday’s post from this blog talked about the Appalachian global warming debate. It’s less of a debate, though, and more of attack messages from both sides. While civilized conversation and compromise may not happen overnight, using relevance to bridge the gaps between policy, culture and science is the type of tactic we need to employ in the coming generations.

What connections helped you understand science, and what future connections do you think we need to make?

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Sno’ Worries about Climate Change

This winter has been especially rough up and down the east coast. We’ve had areas that have snow piled up over 100 inches , coatings of ice in the Carolinas and snow days in the Deep South.

Unfortunately, all this snow has sparked the annual social media storm of posts denouncing global warming because, gasp, there’s snow outside.

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It seems that everyone has seen at least one person making a snow and global warming post, but if you live in Appalachia, you might have seen it more than most. Popular (and powerful) organizations like Friends of Coal are leading the way when it comes to riling up their followers with claims of government conspiracies promising hot, steaming weather. By the way, that’s NOT what climate change claims at all.

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 9.39.11 AM Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 9.37.57 AMI’m not writing a blog post on climate change to argue with you if it’s true or false, though. I’m sure you already know that I stand with the majority of the science community in my beliefs. This blog post is instead to encourage using a controversial topic like global warming to open dialogue.

What is it that makes people distrust scientists? How can we continue to prepare for the effects of climate change? Big storms will continue to be the norm for us. This is a perfect opportunity for educators to tie in STEM topics during the first few moments back from a snow day.

This blog post from the National Center for Science Education demonstrates some amazing ideas for educators when it comes to teaching climate change and incorporating STEM in unexpected places.

While I know that no amount of blog posts will ever change people’s minds about controversial topics that are so deeply rooted in politics, economics and the environment, we might as well take the opportunity to practice discussion and compromise. Bashing each other through political cartoons and exaggerated tweets gets us absolutely nowhere.

My only hope is that we start early and encourage science literacy and cooperation for future generations.

Uncovering Truth Sooner or Later

No matter what field or industry you work in, I’m sure you’re aware of a few less than stellar individuals who end up giving everyone a bad name. Maybe a rude cashier at Target ruined the shopping chain for you, or an overcooked steak at Outback turned you off of steakhouses for awhile. While you recognize that sometimes people are rude because of personal issues, and you’re well aware of easy it is to mess up a steak, how do you handle a mistake that you knew nothing about? How could you even recognize it?

Science is no different than the shopping and restaurant industry in that there are unfortunately a few bad apples. You may of heard of Dong-Pyou Han, an Iowa State University laboratory manager who confessed to spiking samples of rabbit blood with human antibodies to make an experimental HIV vaccine appear to have great promise, or Andrew Wakefield, who falsified the results of his studies on vaccines as a cause of autism. What is different about science, though, is that we, the public, know a lot less about this kind of work than we do most other fields. Very few of us would know what to even look for when measuring the effectiveness of a vaccine, and we rely on studies exactly like Wakefield’s to tell us if we should actually be worried about mediation or not.

Last weekend brought to light another ethical lapse in the science world. Wei-Hock Soon, known as Willie, is a scientist associated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who is best known for his claims that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain global warming. This goes against the more widely accepted belief (97% of scientists) that humans play a large role in global warming.

The New York Times published an article about Soon’s involvement with Harvard, past research points and most importantly, his funding. He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work. Soon also described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.

As another blogger mentioned that it’s important to understand that accepting funding from a corporation for research is totally acceptable. Good research is expensive, and this is fairly common practice, but what isn’t acceptable, is not disclosing this possible conflict of interest.

The best thing to do now is to make sure we thoroughly investigate Soon. Harvard, Smithsonian and the numerous journals he published through need to take immediate and harsh action. In one of my first blog posts, I talked about West Virginia’s attempt at cutting global warming from the science education standards. How can we expect a state held in economic turmoil over global warming to willingly teach it until we can get the science community’s full support?

Like I said before, science is tricky. I’m not an astrophysicist or a climate scientist, and you probably aren’t either. We MUST demand clear and constant communication with the science community, and scientists, you have to understand why we need this. If we ever hope to make the big changes we’re going to need to make in the next few years, we’re going to require lots of honest and thorough communication.

Museums in the Mountains

So far on our STEM road trip we’ve been to a giant radio telescope and a massive, iconic bridge, but now we’re switching gears and checking out some of the smaller exhibits around the mountain state, like museums. While both Green Bank and the New River Gorge Bridge have visitor’s centers, there’s definitely something to be said for visiting a true, dedicated museum.

Museums are great because they cater to visitors of a variety of ages, backgrounds and needs.  They can dedicate all their resources to education and engagement. While Green Bank can show the telescope up close and provide some background through its visitor’s center, the site is still first and foremost a highly sought after research tool. Museums on the other hand, are able to design and construct entire exhibits that are solely for the purpose of education.

West Virginia is home to some great museums, but probably the most popular for science topics is The Clay Center. Located in Charleston, WV, the Clay Center is a pretty reasonable distance from most places in and around West Virginia.

The Clay Center is full of interactive science, technology, engineering and math exhibits that teach visitors about sound, light, color, energy, magnetism, earth science and health.

Photo via The West Virginia Clay Center

Photo via The West Virginia Clay Center

Photo via West Virginia Clay Center

Photo via West Virginia Clay Center

Photo via The West Virginia Gazette

Photo via The West Virginia Gazette

My favorite part of the Clay Center, though, is the ElectricSky Theater, a giant domed screen that acts as a planetarium. While Appalachia is lucky to have some of the darkest skies in the country, being in a controlled environment with someone to point out the particulars of the galaxy is much more conducive to learning.

While you don’t need a blog post to tell you why visiting a science museum is a good way to teach and learn science, I do encourage you to take the lessons taught in a museum environment to other sites you might later visit. For example, once you learn about West Virginia geology and the forces that shaped the state, you can begin to talk about the role of coal in Appalachian past, present and future, or as you learn about the immune system in the Health Royale exhibit, a discussion about the reason for vaccines could easily be incorporated.

A trip to a museum is a perfect jumping off point for families and educators to encourage an interest in STEM and tailor the information to fit every individual’s needs.

Bridging the Gap Between Sights and Science

The next stop on our STEM road trip brings us to another one of favorite places in my home state of West Virginia, the New River Gorge Bridge.

Photo via National Geographic

Photo via National Geographic

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. The gorge is beautiful, has amazing whitewater rafting, is located in one of America’s coolest small towns and is now just a few miles away from a new Boy Scout Camp, but the bridge and surrounding area also offers a great opportunity to learn about science and engineering.

The bridge is actually a modern engineering marvel. It was at one time the world’s longest steel single-span arch bridge and the tallest vehicular bridge in the United States. Now, it’s the longest in the western hemisphere (fourth in the world) and the third tallest vehicular bridge.

The great thing about the New River Gorge Bridge, though, is that you can get up close and personal with it in a few different ways. First, there’s a visitor’s center open year round. There are great panoramic views of the bridge, hikes to overlooks and lots of info about the history and ecosystem of the area. There’s also rich discussion of the actual building of the bridge.  For instance, because of the thick rock on either side of the gorge, tall towers and deep piers were unnecessary for construction . Even the type of metal used was a carefully calculated decision.

Construction of the New River Gorge Bridge.  Photo via WVculture.org

Construction of the New River Gorge Bridge. Photo via WVculture.org

If you’re looking for a bit of a different perspective of the bridge, go below it! There a few cool ways to do this. First, if you’re in town in the summer. Book a rafting trip! You’ll get to check out one of the oldest rivers in the world while heading directly underneath the bridge. This is the best way to truly appreciate the height!

Photo via The Washington Post.

Photo via The Washington Post.

If you’re looking for something equally as adventurous but on dry land, you can sign up for a stroll on the catwalk that spans the length of the bridge. This isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s the best way to get up close and personal with the structure. The tour provides lots of opportunities for photos and questions, but focuses a lot of the discussion on the actual engineering and construction.

Photo via WVUToday.

Photo via WVUToday.

If you find yourself with some spare time, you can travel the old road used before the bridge opened, which takes you directly past some of the massive supports of the bridge. The construction of the New River Gorge Bridge made this 40 minute trip into 45 seconds!

Finally, no discussion of the New River Gorge Bridge would be complete without talking about Bridge Day, a yearly event that shuts vehicular traffic on the bridge down to allow for, base jumping, repelling and vendors. Held every year on the third Saturday of October, Bridge Day is one of the largest extreme sports events in the world. Even if you don’t plan on taking the plunge, though, spectators are invited to stroll the full length of the bridge and take in the sites and sounds.

While the New River Gorge Bridge isn’t quite as science centered as other sites, like Green Bank, WV, with a little knowledge and imagination, it can lend itself well to discussions about the technicalities and importance behind engineering, and all while taking in some seriously cool views.

Silent Science

The first stop on our STEM-filled road trip takes us into the mountains and valleys of West Virginia’s Pocahontas County. It’s called Green Bank, WV, and the area surrounding it is home to the state’s largest ski resort, a scenic railroad tour and even one of the most unique geographical features on the state. Green Bank is worth the trip, though, by itself.

Green Bank is home to the Green Bank Telescope, the world’s largest fully steerable telescope. In fact, it’s the largest moveable object on land! It stands 450 feet above ground and weighs 16 million pounds. To put that into perspective, the Statue of Liberty is 305 feet tall and weighs 450,000 pounds. It’s hard to recognize the size of the GBT since mountains surround it, but an entire full size football field could fit into the dish!

Size comparison of the Green Bank Telescope compared to the National Monument and the Statue of Liberty.  Photo via SPIE.org.

Size comparison of the Green Bank Telescope compared to the National Monument and the Statue of Liberty. Photo via SPIE.org.

The Green Bank Telescope isn’t what you might imagine when you think telescope, though. There’s no tiny hole to peer through and no brightly colored photographs of distant galaxies. Instead, the GBT collects radio waves, the faintest wavelength detectable. Radio waves are so weak that it is estimated that the combined energy from all the radio waves ever collected from space is weaker than a falling snowflake!

This is a difficult concept to grasp, and invisible wavelengths aren’t always the most engaging topic, but the great thing about visiting Green Bank is that the site is super visitor friendly. There are events, daily presentations and even tours. When I say tours, I really mean tours. I was amazed on my first trip to Green Bank at how close I actually got to get to the telescope.

Selfie with my friend Nathan Tehrani, an amazing scientist and communicator, in front of the GBT.  Photo via Nathan Tehrani.

Selfie with my friend Nathan Tehrani, an amazing scientist and communicator, in front of the GBT. Photo via Nathan Tehrani.

Although this photo was taking during a SPOT training weekend, every tour starts with presentations in the visitors center before moving to a diesel powered bus, and ends with the opportunity to stand only a few hundred feet from the telescope!

Notice how I made the distinction about how the bus was powered? That’s because after the visitor’s center parking lot, no devices that might give off interference is allowed near the GBT, and believe it or not, spark plugs can create quite a problem for the super sensitive telescope. Green Bank is located in the National Quiet Zone, or a large area in the United States in which radio transmissions are strongly restricted by law, to facilitate scientific research and military intelligence.

Photo via National Geographic Staff

Photo via National Geographic Staff

While you might not notice a huge difference in signals around most of the quiet zone, once you get close to the GBT, you’ll enter a world without cellphones, wifi, cable and even radio! In fact, the microwave on site in Green Bank is kept in a Faraday cage to block out interference from its use!  The low-tech lifestyle is attractive to some, though.

If you plan on taking a trip to Green Bank, and I hope you do, I recommend camping right up the road at Senea Rocks to take in the dark skies around the area. Also, you’ll want to make sure you don’t need cell service (or a GPS), and you’ll need a film camera, such as a disposable one, if you want to take pictures past the visitor’s center.

So grab your friends and family and a preloaded iPod and check out Green Bank, West Virginia!  If you’ve been before, let me know what your favorite part was!

Seeing is Believing (and Understanding!)

Seeing is believing, and a picture is worth a thousand words. We’ve heard these sentiments before, but just how important is this when it comes to understanding and appreciating science? As it turns out, it may be more important than we ever thought.

When you think Appalachia, whether you live here or not, you probably don’t think science centers, hands-on learning or technology hubs. And while it’s true that the area is no Silicon Valley or New York City, there are plenty of opportunities for engaging with STEM.

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll talk about some of the coolest (and closest) opportunities for learners of all ages to visit and enjoy. Nearly all my past blog posts have talked about the importance of STEM literacy and the need to make science entertaining and accessible. Visiting a site allows for hands-on activities, discussion with experts, unparalleled visual and tangible opportunities and sets the stage for long-lasting memories.

Whether you’re looking for a family day trip, a school field trip, or a weekend adventure, Appalachia has plenty to offer when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I’m hoping you’ll follow along with these posts for the next few days and share some of your memories (or tips) for these sites. I’d also love to hear about your favorite STEM opportunities in and around Appalachia!

Let’s take advantage of low gas prices and the coming warm weather and hit the road!