Category Archives: Science Stuff

Help Us Present Science at GeekGirlCon 2014

The DIY Science Zone is back at GeekGirlCon this year! We’ll be extracting DNA, making slime and light, creating tiny hovercrafts, demonstrating dice roll science, and constructing to-scale solar systems that you can carry in your pocket. It’s a chance to have people try out science with a team of scientists and science communicators who are in love with science and eager to share that joy with others. Last year we had 350 people come through the DIY Science Zone. This year we’re hoping for even more!

We’ve been fundraising this year, and as part of that, we’ve been performing Acts of Whimsy as a reward for those donations. Because I am a crazy person and like doing videos, I volunteered to create a YouTube science video, only instead of explaining or demonstrating real science, I’d explain an outmoded scientific theory. That’s how I ended up making a very earnest video about phlogiston.

While we’ve reached our fundraising goal of $6,000 (!), anything we raise above that will be used for next year’s hands-on science zone. So if you’d like to help see the DIY Science Zone happen next year, please pitch in. And if you’re in Seattle on October 11th and 12th, stop by and do some science with us.

We Did Mad Lib Abstracts for Science

As part of our fundraising to hold a DIY Science Zone at GeekGirlCon, we promised to perform acts of whimsy as we hit funding milestones. We’ve passed $3,000, which is amazing and means we’re halfway to our goal. (Feel free to donate money at this link to help us reach it, by the way!)

It also means that we’re starting to perform our Acts of Whimsy. We’d passed $2,000 by Friday, so as promised, we played Mad Libs for science. Twice! We chose to mutilate one of my old abstracts and Torrey Stenmark’s thesis. Nicole “Noisy Astronomer” Gugliucci gathered us all into a Google+ hangout last Friday and we were off to the races.

The event veered quickly in a non-work-safe direction, as you can tell from what happened to my abstract.

We report on the observation of a highly degenerate, strongly smarmy Fermi gas of chairs. Fermionic lithium-6 atoms in a kind trap are evaporatively escaped to degeneracy using a taxidermy to induce strong, resonant pony. Upon lovingly releasing the hair from the trap, the gas is observed to run rapidly in the blue direction while remaining nearly big-assed in the axial direction. We interpret the expansion bronies in terms of tart superfluid and collisional tarts. For the data taken at the longest evaporation penises, we find that wooly hydrodynamics does not provide a smelly explanation, whereas vagina is plausible.

Vagina is plausible indeed. What about Torrey’s? It involved dudebros, palladium-catalyzed douche balloon reactions, and oxygen-containing Corgi. Watch the video for more, or grab the PDF of the results.

Since we’ve broken $3,000 since Friday, we’ll do another Mad Lib abstract. If you want to join in the fun later this week follow @NoisyAstronomer for the details. It also means that I have to re-write Prometheus for sock puppets. On the plus side, Dr. Rubidium has to listen to Nickelback, so there’s a silver lining to the socks.

To sum up: Sockmetheus! Dr. Rubidium suffers through Nickelback! Another chance for someone’s abstract to remain big-assed in the axial direction! Best of all, we’re going to get to spread the joy of science to GeekGirlCon attendees. We’re halfway to our fundraising goal. Care to help us reach it?

Help Us Hold a DIY Science Zone at GeekGirlCon and Make Me Fix Prometheus

DIY Science ZoneOne of the things I love to do is to help people discover how awesome science is. One of the best ways, hands down, is hands on: give people the opportunity to commit science themselves. GeekGirlCon agrees, because they’re letting a team of us hold an all-day-long DIY science zone!

Why am I excited about this? Let me count the ways.

We’re offering a range of science activities. We’re extracting DNA and building neurons. We’re offering genetic taste tests and showing you how to find latent fingerprints. The experiments are for a range of ages and cover a bunch of different areas of science. C’mon, who wouldn’t want to make fossils out of coffee grounds, especially in the heart of Starbucks country?

We’re offering them to an under-served group. Despite the great strides made in the last decades, too many people still view science as being for males. GeekGirlCon celebrates women in geek culture, and that includes the sciences. Here’s our chance to help bust the stereotype of science as being a “guy thing”. Any time I can kick against that stereotype, I will.

The attendees will get to see real-live scientists who aren’t lab-coated stereotypes. I tend to forget that most people don’t know scientists personally or ever meet them. Is it any wonder that, when asked to draw a scientist, many kids draw an older white dude with Doc Brown hair? It’s pervasive enough that characters on The Big Bang Theory were going to be in lab coats before the showrunners met actual science graduate students and realized that t-shirts and jeans were more common. One way to combat that stereotype is to let people meet actual scientists.

Our team is diverse. We’ve got younger and older scientists. Most of our team is female; many are not Caucasian. I want people to realize that science is open to anyone. If we had a team that was all older white guys, then the subtext is, “Science really is just for white dudes with Doc Brown hair.”

We can make Dr. Rubidium suffer by making her listen to Nickelback.

See, to make the DIY Science Zone happen, we’re raising $5,000 to $6,000 for supplies, banners, lodging, and airfare. We’ve all signed up to perform different Acts of Whimsy as we raise more money. Our fearless leader has agreed that, for every $500 we raise, she’ll listen to a different Nickelback album live on a G+ Hangout. And she haaaaaaaates Nickelback. She’s even got a “No Nickelback” sign posted on her lab door.

Dr. Rubidium hates NickelbackBut! She’s trying to weasel out of it! People are now marking their donations as being either pro-Nickelback or anti-Nickelback! Because so many people have marked their donations as anti-Nickelback, she’s not going to have to listen to “Curb”!

This cannot stand. Help the pro-Nickelback forces by donating to our cause. Plus there are a lot of other Acts of Whimsey that’ll happen. Live G+ Hangouts where we take our paper abstracts and make Mad Libs out of them. Seelix’s cat dressed up as Avengers! Heaven help me, I promised that, at $3,000, I’d fix the science and logic errors in Prometheus and re-enact the movie.

With sock puppets.

But if Dr. Rubidium has to listen to multiple Nickelback albums, it’ll all be worth it.

Please. Donate money to make the DIY Science Zone happen. For science. For education.

For Nickelback.

I’m Forcing Science and Podcasting on Baltimore for Balticon 2013

I’m headed up to Balticon 47 this weekend to talk about science and podcasting and more science and more podcasting. How can you resist?

You cannot, that’s how. Or not how. Or — look, just come see me make a fool of myself at any of these fine panels:

Your Lying Eyes. Saturday, 5:00 PM, Salon A.
You think you see in high resolution, but you don’t: your eyes & brain fill in a lot of gaps. Find out how visual illusions teach us how we see. A talk on how our visual system really works and how visual illusions let researchers learn more about how we see what we see.

I love this talk, as it’s an excuse for me to wave my hands furiously about the brain and show cool visual illusions.

Disasterpiece After Dark. Saturday, 9:00 PM, Derby

Normally we keep our live podcast shows at about a PG or PG-13. This is where we indulge in pitching terrible movies that are for the over-18 set.

Disasterpiece Theatre. Sunday, 12:00 noon, Derby
Disasterpiece Theatre is an exercise in true Hollywood movie magic. Each week, we take a theme and try to come up with the movies the industry would be most likely to make. The magic happens when we create something dark and terrible; a hideous and inexorable vision of the cinematic future, and you know true despair.

The live version of our movie podcast is always fun. Come tell us what terrible movies you’d like to see us suggest, and then see what we come up with!

Talk To Me: How To Conduct Podcast Interviews. Sunday, 1:00 PM, Chesapeake.
The do’s, don’t’s, and how-to’s of conducting a podcast interview. What technologies are available to let you interview people from across the globe?

I have strong opinions about how to do interviews. Will my other panelists agree? Do I care if they do or don’t? Who knows!

Live Interview with James Gates Jr. Sunday, 3:00 PM, Salon A.

There’s a good chance you’ve seen Dr. Gates talking on NOVA about string theory, supersymmetry, and unification theories. As a former experimentalist, I’m way out of my depth on this one, so there’s no telling what I’ll ask.

Dramatic Voice Acting. Sunday, 6:00 PM, Derby.
The popular Dynamic Voice Acting panel returns to talk about how to best show off your vocal talents.

My first podcast voice acting credit was this year, so clearly I’m an expert. Also this is my fourth panel in six hours. What was I thinking?

Multi-Creatives. Monday, 12:00 PM, Chesapeake.
The demands of multiple artistic pursuits. Learning to do it all without losing your mind.

I was on this last year, and my advice this year is the same: you will lose your mind. Embrace it. Recognize that you can’t do everything, but then ignore that realization and try to do it all anyway.

Be Careful What You Measure

Johns Hopkins has an excellent graduate program in science writing. For thirty years it’s taught people how to write about science, covering both researching interesting science and turning it into prose that sings. Now Johns Hopkins is closing the program.

Writing for a living, especially about science, has never been easy. It’s become harder over the last decade as newspapers have withered, magazines have closed, and the ranks of people interested in being science writers has swelled. Columbia University’s program in environmental journalism closed to new applicants in 2009 precisely because of the weak job market. But that’s not why Johns Hopkins is ending its MA in science writing. It’s closing the program because it has too few applicants. Not too few to make a good class, mind you. It’s that fewer applicants means a higher percentage of acceptance into the program. That makes Johns Hopkins appear less selective. And that can hurt their rankings among colleges and decrease their prestige.

They’re closing the program because of an arbitrary number.

College selectivity, the ratio of accepted students to applicants, is a status symbol. US News and World Reports factors it into their college rankings. Colleges tout their selectivity to attract top professors and help extract money from alumni.

As selectivity has become a more prevalent measure of a school, colleges have done what you’d expect and worked to become more selective. They’ve mainly attacked the problem in the most direct fashion: raise the number of applicants. They’ve marketed aggressively to prospective students to increase applications. They’ve also been aided by the rise of the common application, a single college application that’s now accepted by nearly 500 schools, making it far easier to apply to more schools at once. And it’s worked. College selectivity is on the rise, buoyed by increased applications, and colleges are happily touting how each year’s new crop of freshmen is better than the last. It’s like the Flynn effect and Lake Wobegon combined, where this year’s new students are more above average than last year’s.

Increasing applicants increases the selectivity ratio’s denominator. The numerator is roughly fixed, since colleges depend on a certain student body size to keep tuition income steady and classes filled. So the only other thing you can do to improve your selectivity is to drop programs that detract from that selectivity. That’s what Johns Hopkins did, as Katherine Newman, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins, told Science Careers.

When you measure something, the act of measurement changes what you’re measuring. It’s true in physics, where the observer effect means, at the quantum level, that we can’t observe a physical process without changing it. It’s just as true in the social world. When you start measuring something, people will change what they’re doing to maximize the value of what you’re measuring. We’ve seen it on Wall Street, where status is measured in dollars and traders maximized their returns at the expense of the entire economic system. It’s human nature to game systems. That makes it vital to be careful when you choose to measure and report something. Choose the right measurement and you improve the system.

Pick the wrong thing and you might kill off an excellent science writing program.

One Time Science Tried to Kill Me

When I looked down and saw that I was on fire, I finally admitted to myself that Science was trying to kill me.

Science’s always been a bit dangerous for me. When I was a kid I decided to apply the scientific method to the chemicals in our bathroom closet and see what burned the best. This involved mixing random stuff together in a can and lighting it on fire. After a while that got old, plus my can melted a bit, so I started pouring the chemicals in the open-ended pipe that ran along the top of our backyard swing set and setting that on fire to see if I could make a flamethrower.

I kept this fascination with fire and science for a good long time. In my senior physics class in high school, when we got to the end of the year and there wasn’t anything left that the teacher wanted to try to drum into our heads, he let us play around with the lab equipment. Some of my friends and I decided to explore the scientific question, “What happens if you hold coins over the Bunsen burner for a really long time?” Mostly the coins glowed a bit and then smoked when we dropped them in water. Then my friend Kevin pulled out a penny. We didn’t know pennies weren’t copper through and through, so we held it over the flame. Suddenly the penny turned into a tiny numismatic Terminator, all liquid metal dripping all over the Bunsen burner.

Mr. Smith didn’t let us play with the lab equipment after that.

In undergrad I was a chemistry major until I realized that I hated glassware and titration and that physics involved a lot less of either of those. I still got the chemistry degree, though. I’m no quitter, except for the part where I quit chemistry after being an undergrad. I got chemistry, physics, math, and theatre arts degrees. My major chemistry professor told me one time, “It’s okay that you’re in the major-of-the-month club, but you’re supposed to drop the old ones.”

Anyway, my chemistry classes taught me that Science was dangerous. On the first day of organic chemistry lab, our professor told us we couldn’t wear contacts because it would be very bad if some of those organic compounds bonded to the water in out contacts and made us blind. I dutifully wore my glasses, which was a big deal because I’ve got nearly -10 diopters of nearsightedness. If you’re not versed in optics speak, that means that I run into doors and slow-moving children when I’m not wearing contacts, and I occasionally accidentally set fire to things with my glasses. That organic chem lab was where we distilled the caffeine from a pound of coffee beans. As soon as we finished the professor scooped up the caffeine because we’d made somewhere in the neighborhood of the LD50 amount of caffeine, and also it was cut with toxic organic compounds. The most impressive, though, was when Billy and I let some chemicals we were working on bubble out of our Erlenmeyer flask and onto the Bunsen burner beneath it. Suddenly we were blackening the ceiling tiles above us.

When I went to physics graduate school, my chances to injure myself doing Science increased a thousandfold. Looking at a good physics lab is like staring at an explosion seconds before it happens. I did quantum optics, specifically laser cooling and trapping, so we had optics tables and lasers and power supplies. We had a dye laser, which used an organic dye that we shot with another laser to get the precise wavelength of light that we needed to trap our atoms. The dye in dye lasers is mixed in a solvent and then pumped through a jet nozzle. It goes whizzing through the air to be shot with that other laser. These lasers are maintained by grad students, so they’re always breaking down and spewing dye and solvent everywhere. I was helping our senior grad student Tom clean up one of those spills when he turned to me and said, “You know, the dye container says that the carcinogenic and teratogenic properties of this dye have yet to be determined.”

Then there was the time I was rummaging around our racks of equipment over the optics table when something shocked the shit out of me. I jerked back, carefully climbed up onto the frame above the optics table, and looked at the equipment. There, on the back of one of the power supplies, was a tiny sign that read: CAREFUL. THIS MOFO WILL SHOCK THE SHIT OUT OF YOU. There’s nothing like a warning sign you can’t read. Though I didn’t move the sign to the front. I’d learned the hard way, so everyone else could, too.

But nothing beat the homemade laser we built to trap atoms. I mentioned that we used a dye laser to trap atoms by using a precise wavelength of light. It turns out that if you change that wavelength by a lot, you can cool the atoms even more. But when you’re using a wavelength that’s far away from an atom’s natural frequency, you have to have a lot of light. So we built an incredibly powerful CO2 laser. This thing was like a mad scientist’s dream. Gas lasers like CO2 lasers are essentially one continuous lightning strike in a bottle. We had a big hand-blown glass tube that we put 12,000 volts across at a current that’s high enough to kill you dead. It was fed by gas in giant gas bottles that we bolted to the wall. The two power supplies had been built in the 1960s and leaked PCBs. To start the laser, we shocked it with a Tesla coil to get the lightning strike going. It was a 50 watt laser, which doesn’t sound that impressive until you realize that manufacturers use 50 W CO2 lasers to weld metal. Best of all, a CO2 laser beam is invisible. So you’ve got highly charged electrodes stuck in a glass tube and fed from carcinogenic power supplies, putting out an invisible beam that can cut metal. Oh, and this was a one-of-a-kind bespoke laser, so we had to be very gentle with the laser.

To make the whole thing safe — sorry, to make it kind of safe — we always had a graduate student holding a kill switch. If anything went wrong, he could flip a switch and turn off the laser. So our typical day started off with three of us graduate students working on the death laser. One graduate student would adjust the mirrors that directed the beam, one graduate student would find the laser beam using a special metal card that turned dark when the invisible CO2 laser beam hit it, and one graduate student manned the kill switch.

I was the guy holding the card one day to help align the beam. I told my friend and co-worker, “Mike, the beam’s not centered in the beam stop. It needs to go right.”

So, yeah, giving directions relative to yourself isn’t a great idea in these circumstances. Mike turned the mirror knob and the beam vanished. That’s when I looked down and saw that I was on fire.

I did what any normal person would do: I thought, huh, that’s weird. The beam’s creating circular wavefronts of fire across my shirt. That’s an interesting pattern. Then I yelled. Ming-Shien, my colleage on the kill switch, froze. I had to dodge around him and turn off the laser myself.

Thankfully this was the 1990s, so I was wearing a flannel shirt over another shirt and I wasn’t burnt. But I’d dropped the metal card in my panic. My adviser in the next room heard it and rushed in. “My God!” he said, taking in the scene. “Is the laser okay?”

These days I don’t do a lot of dangerous science. I write proposals and suggest cool ideas that other people get to implement and the most powerful laser I have these days is a wimpy red laser pointer. But occasionally, as part of our robotic helicopter work, I get to go under the whirring blades to check our equipment and I think, ah, yes, this is science, and I feel much better.

Themes From Science Online 2013

I’d never been to a Science Online conference before this year. When I began concentrating more on science outreach I asked some of my friends if there were conferences I could go to to help me communicate more good. They all pointed me to Science Online, so I dutifully registered and attended the conference last week.

It did not disappoint.

Scio13 attendees
Attendees at Scio13. Pic by Russ Creech.
What makes Science Online such a great conference is its attendees. They come from many different communities, but they’re all interested in science communication. You’ve got scientists who blog talking to science journalists. You have video creators and science artists swapping tips on communicating visually. You’ve got teachers and book authors everywhere. And because Scio is organized as an unconference, the attendees help create the agenda and most of the sessions are discussions rather than lectures or panels.

Even with this disparate group of people and many different discussion topics, I kept hearing the same themes echo through the sessions and conversations, leitmotifs of science communication that cut across disciplines. So I did what any good attendee would do: wrote them down so I could blog about them. These are the themes that summarized a lot of my experience at Scio13.

Science is a process and a perspective. The common perception of science is that it’s a collection of facts, a repository of knowledge that we use to answer questions like “why does the moon look so big when it’s near the horizon?” and “is eating eggs really bad for me?” But science isn’t just made of facts piled up like grains of sand. Science is a way of thinking about the world and figuring out how it works. In communicating science, we want to help people understand the scientific way of thinking. We want them to know that science doesn’t stop. There’s always more to know, and what we learn changes old theories. Science is jazz, with new songs riffing on what’s come before.

In addition, science is a human activity. There is no emotionless machine turning grant money into knowledge. There’s just a bunch of people trying to figure out how the universe works. Sometimes they agree; sometimes they disagree. There are arguments and academic slap-fights, and that’s to be expected! People don’t agree perfectly in any other activity. Why should science be different?

If we want to communicate the process of science and make people care about it as a human activity, it helps to ground science in history and in people. Talking about the history of a scientific idea shows how science develops and undercuts the impression that it produces static knowledge. Talking about the people doing science help humanize it. We’re a bunch of hairless apes who’re wired to be social animals. We tend to be more interested in people than in abstractions. It’s why I loved how people responded to the #overlyhonestmethods hashtag: it’s showing a more human side of scientists and lab-work.

NOT THE FACTS!!!!!
This is Nicolas Cage on the deficit model.
The deficit model isn’t the best way to think about science communication. The information deficit model is a common belief about science communication. People are skeptical about science? It’s because they don’t understand enough about science, so fill their heads with facts bestowed from on high. They’re still skeptical? Add more facts! This approach seldom works. In fact, people often dig in when confronted with facts that conflict with what they believe. I hadn’t heard the term “deficit model” before this conference, but the concept nicely captures something I need to take into account when talking about science.

As Perl taught me, there’s more than one way to do it. It’s tempting to think that there is one true and blessed way to tackle whatever science communication problem we’re facing, but that’s not true. There isn’t a single style of communication that’s best for everyone. It’s why we benefit from having as many people involved with science communication as possible. Having artists, bloggers, journalists, scientists, speakers, teachers, video producers, and more means we’ll have a lot of viewpoints and approaches.

Scientists are bad at communication, and why aren’t they communicating more? This is an extreme characterization of some conversations at Science Online, but there was a definite undercurrent of frustration with how often and how well scientists communicate. I was excited to see that Science Online attendees were tackling this problem from both sides. People like me from the science side of the divide were wanting to learn how to communicate better, while those from the communication and journalism side were interested in how better to work with scientists.

Performance, Feedback, Revision. That’s the title of a song by Baba Brinkman from his show The Rap Guide to Evolution. When he performed it at the conference, I realized that it was one of the conference’s theme. It’s both a nifty metaphor for how evolution works and a great guide to how you get better at communicating science.

Respect the audience you’re engaging with. “Respect” doesn’t mean that you agree with them, but that you’re willing to meet them where they are. Preaching from on high may give you a hit off of the pipe of righteous knowledge, but it’ll turn off the very people you’re trying to reach. You climbed up on your pedestal somehow; now climb back down so you can be alongside the folks you’re talking to. Emily Willingham had a great post about how doing so can change minds.

I went into Scio13 with a nebulous cloud of thoughts about how I communicate science. The conference sharpened my thinking and made concrete a lot of what had been abstract about my process. I’m excited to see how the themes I’ve highlighted will make me better at talking science.

How I’d Moderate a Discussion Session at a Conference

A little over a week ago I went to Science Online 2013, a yearly conference for people interested in communicating science, especially online. (Yes, I get the irony in having a conference about online science that took place face-to-face. If it makes you feel any better, it was also filled with printed books.) It’s the first unconference I’d been to. Attendees put the agenda together on a wiki ahead of time, and most of the sessions I went to involved moderators leading a discussion instead of panelists talking amongst themselves. The discussion sessions reminded me of a cross between a fan panel at a science fiction convention and a discussion class at school.

Stephen Granade talking at Scio13
I didn’t moderate, but I did talk at Scio13.
One of the side-effects of attending those sessions was that each one spawned two or three ideas for related sessions, which I’ve put on the wiki for Scio14. That means that I may end up moderating a session. It’s been years since I taught a discussion class, and most of my science panels at science fiction conventions are more lecture than group discussion. I spent a fair amount of Scio13 taking notes on how I’d moderate a session based on the great work the moderators were doing. I ended up with ten guidelines.

Plan with my co-moderators ahead of time. The best discussion sessions had moderators who were comfortable with each other and had worked out ahead of time how they were going to approach the session.

Set a session goal and communicate it. What’s the purpose of the session? Is it a conversation among people working in a field, like the session on being a freelancer? Is it to talk about what techniques do and don’t work for communicating science, like the science deficit model session? Is it to let people vent their frustration before working towards something constructive, like the Chemophobia panel? There can be multiple purposes, and the session goal can change based on audience feedback. In some cases the moderators explicitly developed the session’s goal with the audience, which was great! It helped that those moderators then summarized what we’d collectively decided the session was going to be about.

Have a structure, but be prepared to abandon it. The first Scio13 panel I went to was DeLene Beeland’s and David Dobbs’s on narrative. They had three major topics that they used to give the session a beginning, middle, and end. In a session on chemophobia, Dr. Rubidium and Carmen Drahl made sure that the last 15 minutes were spent on constructive ways to deal with people’s fear of chemicals. But a structure isn’t a straight-jacket. It’s not a Play-Doh Fun Factory for me to shove conversation through to make it a certain shape. It’s meant to guide and enrich the conversation.

Go for a round room setup. Most of the session rooms were set up like a traditional classroom, which meant I spent a lot of time craning my neck and turning around to see someone behind me who was talking. One of the session rooms had the chairs in a circle, and I found that a lot more conducive to conversation. It can’t have been easy for the moderators, and I’m sure such an arrangement would make me more uncomfortable than a traditional room layout, but the benefit for conversation would be worth it to me.

Talk some at the beginning, and then shut up. If it’s a true discussion session, then my job as a moderator is to keep the conversation going and help direct it, not hold forth at length. In the session on talking about what we don’t know, Maggie Koerth-Baker and Maryn McKenna talked for a bit about what they wanted from the session and then let the audience do most of the talking.

Summarize conversation points on a white board or poster board. Some sessions were lucky enough to have Perrin Ireland drawing the major discussion points. In the Outreach in Unusual Places session, Bug Girl and Emily Finke jotted down suggested outreach allies and places to do science outreach on a whiteboard. Doing so helped me keep track of the conversation and is something I’d want to have in all sessions.

Have questions prepared ahead of time. A lot of the sessions I was in started slowly until enough conversation had happened that people were fully engaged and had Definite Opinions to share. Having an open-ended question or two can help jump-start the conversation. And they have to be open-ended. Yes/no questions or ones with a right answer don’t spark an on-going dialog as well as open-ended questions do.

When someone asks the group a question, seek follow-up questions. Discussion groups are many conversations that have to happen linearly, since only one person can talk at a time. That means that comments queue up as more and more people raise their hand to talk. It’s easy to ask a question and then have it go unanswered as the next three people comment on what was talked about five minutes before your question. Some moderators made it a point to say, “Does anyone have a response to so-and-so’s question?”, which helped get those questions answered.

Have a volunteer monitoring the session’s Twitter stream. Space at Scio13 was limited, and a lot of the people interested in the conversation weren’t there. Every Scio13 session had its own hashtag, which meant that non-attendees could comment on the session based on a session livestream or the flood of tweets coming out of the session. Some sessions had a person in the room monitoring the hashtag and relaying incisive comments or questions to the attendees, which added to the conversation.

Watch for people who are working through thoughts, especially dissenting ones. When I taught, I learned to look for people who were disagreeing with what I was saying. You get crossed arms, mutters, head shakes, and the like. In a discussion session, asking dissenters if they’d like to comment can keep the session from being just a group of people who all agree with each other.

Call on people I don’t know. This was a hard teaching lesson for me. I knew who my most engaged students were and felt most comfortable calling on them. Almost half of the Scio13 attendees were there for the first time, including me, which meant that there were a lot of new faces in the crowd. Now that I’ve been for a year, if I go to Scio14 and moderate, I know I’d fall back into old patterns of calling on people I knew and would have to fight that instinct.

Know who in my audience you can go to for a good comment or summary of what’s being discussed. When I’ve run discussion classes, I’ve had to strike a balance between including as many voices as possible and keeping the conversation productive. Having people in the audience whom you know can help steer the conversation can be a life-saver. I’ve gone so far as to seed talking points or questions with attendees before.

I’m hopeful that these guidelines would make for a good discussion session, and I’d love to hear from previous moderators who tried any of these guidelines about how well they worked.

Science and “Science”

Since the new year began I’ve been busy with two projects. The first is attending the ScienceOnline2013 conference this week. ScienceOnline is a non-profit organization that’s all about communicating science over the web. So of course part of that is having a face-to-face meeting! We really are primates with a veneer of civilization. It’s my first time attending, so I’ll let you know how it goes! All I know is that any organization that uses the Impact font in its logo is all about the web.

The second is Fake Science Facts, a collection of the finest facts about science that aren’t actually facts. If Twitter’s not your speed, there’s a Tumblr version of it. I promise to only provide the most entertaining non-informative information about science.

Now This is Science

While I’ve been away doing science things like working on a robot that can read your fingerprints from 10 feet away, Eli and Liza decided to get in on the science action.

Yesterday afternoon they were making popcorn for their afternoon snack. “Can you pop an unpopped piece of corn?” Eli asked. “Let’s do an experiment!” Very soon Eli and Misty were putting an unpopped popcorn kernel in the microwave and re-heating it for a few minutes at a time to see what happened.

Liza, meanwhile, had wandered off to draw on the erasable board that she and Eli use for studying, or so Misty thought. As the kernel was being microwaved a third time, she asked Liza, “What are you doing?”

Liza shows off the results of the popcorn experiment

“This is science. You need a record.” She was busy noting down their results.

To translate, she wrote:

Raoond 1 nufing.
Raoond 2 nufing.
Raoond 3 nufing.

She then proceeded to sign the record as a witness and get Eli to check off his name. Also the smiley face takes away the sting of them not being able to make the kernel explode.

Now I get to explain that they proved their null hypothesis!