How is Technology Building New Audiences for ISE?

Using Technology

November 3rd, 2014

The Diving Deeper, Looking Forward session topics at the 2014 AISL PI Meeting emerged from a pre-meeting survey of AISL-funded Principal Investigators; discussions with PIs and others who have participated in CAISE convenings over the past two years; and input from CAISE staff, co-PIs, and NSF Program Officers. These sessions were intended to stimulate discussions about cross-sector topics and issues that can continue beyond the meeting and generate new ideas for future projects and collaborations. The following blog post is a summary of questions, issues and ideas expressed by the participants in this session.

Technology has become an integral part of learning throughout our personal and professional lives. For informal science education, increased access to technology, as well as new technologies being developed, represent exciting new ways to engage new audiences. This Diving Deeper session at the 2014 AISL PI Meeting explored how NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) funded projects are using strategically chosen technologies to reach their target audiences and engage them in scientific concepts and processes.

The facilitators seeded the session with the following questions:

Sharing statistics about technology-based projects at the 2014 AISL PI Meeting.

Sharing statistics about technology-based projects at the 2014 AISL PI Meeting.

  • When and how do you choose to use technology? What are the current dominant forms and what seems to be fading? How do you decide when to prioritize one strategy over the other? Data shared at the beginning of the session indicated that although TV is still the dominant form of consumable technology, it’s falling—as are print and online platforms. Use of mobile platforms is actually growing substantially.
  • What strategies do you use to evaluate your project? Lots of user data can be gleaned from analytics tools and social media platforms. Evaluators also take advantage of an array of survey, interview, and other tools to assess learning outcomes. But how do project designers and researchers use and apply this data in their work—and in some cases, what are the ethical concerns that need to be taken into account?
  • Where do you find out about new technologies? Sources like PBS MediaShift, Wired, and Mashable were named. Participants also shared ZURB Soap Box, TED Talks, Gamasutra, and Reddit as places to stay on top of new technologies and related trends.
  • How do you use social media to engage your audiences and build online communities? A recent Pew study showed that social media can be deployed in a variety of ways to reach different audiences—Facebook, for example, can be a surprisingly good way to reach adults and women, over other social websites.

Examples of Informal STEM Education Projects Using Technology

Presenters from three active AISL projects set the stage for discussion.

3D Visualization Tools for Enhancing Awareness, Understanding of Freshwater Ecosystems: Led by PI S. Geoffrey Schladow at the University of California, Davis, this project creates interactive visualizations of lakes from around the world using complex data. These visualizations can be used in settings like science centers and museums, but can also be imported to other devices, like tablets. The evaluation strategy for the project has focused on comparing user’s knowledge about physical, biological and geochemical processes and systems present in freshwater lakes before and after using the interactive.

StarChitect: James Harold, the PI of this project based at the Space Science Institute, has developed an interactive Facebook game focused on astronomy. In the session, he posited that there are four things the informal learning community needs to be aware of about Facebook: 1) its reach is huge (1.2 billion people, and 71% of all adults who use the internet); 2) it’s an enormous game platform (Facebook reports that there are more than 250 million active players each month, and the users tend to be diverse in age and gender); 3) the games tend to be longer-term ones that can’t be played quickly—rather, they follow the “appointment game” model, which provides short bursts of gameplay duration (this can lead to serious, strategic thinking that prolongs the game); and 4) Facebook games can be a way to collect huge amounts of data—developers can ask players to provide information on age, gender, “likes” (the pages that appear on a user’s Facebook timeline), education and more.

KQED QUEST: As a public media outlet since the 1950s, KQED in San Francisco has seen its share of changing technology. In fact, public broadcasting began a reaction to new technology—an alternative to commercial television with a special focus on education. Today, KQED aims to reach 7 million potential users in the San Francisco Bay Area by “being where they are”—and they report that 43% of residents engage in some aspect of KQED’s programming. This includes multimedia productions (such as radio and podcasts, online content, and television). They also offer public programs and content developed with a network of community partners from across the region. QUEST, an AISL-funded project, brings together six public broadcasters from around the country who work with educational and scientific organizations in their communities to develop programming on a variety of science and environmental topics. Sue Ellen McCann, PI of QUEST and a CAISE Co-PI, discussed a recent effort within the project to develop interactive e-books for tablets (building on KQED audience’s use of mobile devices to access programming, which has gone from 10% of users to 50% in the last two years). QUEST receives the content from community experts—such as earthquake researchers at a local university—and develops graphics, interactive videos, and other features for the book. The books are published using the iAuthor platform, and can be used in formal and informal learning settings.

Observations, Questions and Area for Further Discussion

The variety of ways in which technology and informal STEM learning intersect. Reflecting the diverse nature of the AISL project portfolio, participants in this session reported developing and using technologies in their AISL projects in varied ways. In some cases, technology was the platform through which content was delivered (for example, an augmented reality game) and in other cases, using and understanding the technology was a learning experience in and of itself in the project (such as using DNA sequencing as part of a citizen science project). Many participants were exploring learning research questions through the use of technology on topics such as non-speech sound for the visually impaired, games and badging, learning through social media, laser scanning for thermal imaging to study animal behavior, and developing visual learning software.

How is Technology Building New Audiences for ISE?

Participants agreed that there is a spectrum from passive media consumption to engaging people through technology (a.k.a. digital interactives). Taking the engagement idea further, researchers can use technology for gathering data. Informal learning projects using technology fall somewhere along this continuum, and in some cases, may fall in multiple places depending on the different aspects of the project.

Strategies for assessing reach and evaluating your project. For online content, there are a variety of tools for assessing reach and audience impact—Google Analytics, for example, measures many factors in website traffic, and Hootsuite provides analytics for social media reach across multiple platforms (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.).

Facebook was also mentioned as a powerful place to collect data about users—provided users opt in to providing information about themselves, Facebook app and game developers can assess their users’ genders, ages, locations, interests, and more. Twitter can be used to get opinions and information from users, especially when tied to an event. For example, reviewing a hashtag for a science festival to see how people are reacting to events in real-time. Of course, data collected through these systems is limited and in some cases self-selected, and can only be collected on adults (since terms of service on social media sites typically bar users under age 13 from joining). One person mentioned that working with a teacher can sometimes bridge that gap when he or she is authorized to provide data about their class.

There are also a number of ethical issues inherent in collecting data about users of particular technologies. For example, projects that seek to collect data about human subjects need to go through the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process, and researchers may run into issues collecting data about users under 18. Participants generally agreed that it can be helpful to work with an evaluation firm that has experience with navigating the IRB process. Other evaluation data collection challenges include self-selection and the need to ensure that a good sample size is achieved. Researchers and project designers may seek to test their questions and products using a pre-screened sample as part of a formative evaluation.

Using social media to engage audiences. Social media was named as a (potentially) effective way to reach and engage different audiences. In particular, social media can be a great way to connect the public to scientists who participate in these activities. Session participants raised the challenge of how to create meaningful and engaging dialogue without undermining the content—it was mentioned that some science (like bird watching) is naturally fun and engaging, while other topics (such as climate science) can be hard to understand and even scary. Some project leaders also shared that they use technology to “co-create” knowledge about science through technology—i.e., citizen science projects. And, one PI cautioned that project leaders not seek to “re-invent the wheel” when developing new projects—remember to link to existing sources of knowledge, and use new technological devices and platforms to build on and contribute to what others have already created.

Related Resources

The following resources were shared during the presentation:

Selected resources from the Informal Commons: