What role can philosophy play in science communication? In an interview with PhilSciComm, Angela Potochnik and Melissa Jacquart discuss the benefits and challenges of philosophers engaging in science communication, as well as describe the Center’s upcoming workshop.
In response to recent conversations about increasing diversity in the sciences, graduate students in the University of Cincinnati Department of Geology have begun spearheading efforts to learn about and discuss diversity as well as work to make science more readily available to a wider audience, especially underserved communities. As a part of these efforts, graduate students and faculty have been working to increase the department’s engagement with the local community to bring scientific research directly to students through partnerships with local schools.
Each graduate student and faculty member has designed activities and presentations about their work that are meant to engage K-12 students. Descriptions and contact information related to these activities and presentations were put together into an Earth Science Outreach Program website. For each opportunity, a graduate student or faculty member has committed to visiting classrooms to lead the activity, bringing interesting materials and their own unique experiences. Presentations are free and can be adapted to suit the needs of specific curricula, teachers, and classes.
The group is excited to start working with teachers and is ready to adapt to virtual or in person settings as current COVID-19 conditions change.
What happens when you open the world of science to children? This week, we highlight the efforts of a UC Center for Public Engagement with Science affiliate Dr. Carlie Trott, who told us about her work with K-12 students. Dr. Trott has ongoing projects with youth in multiple communities that address sustainability, climate change, and climate justice. She partners with community groups to engage children in science, incorporating the arts and letting the children’s interests drive the direction that each program takes.
Dr. Trott’s first project was with 10-12-year-old students in partnership with three local Boys and Girls Clubs in Colorado during her PhD program. The children signed up for the program voluntarily, and started by learning about science, but ultimately began planting trees and a community garden. They also advocated for action to be taken on climate change in their own communities as an event. Historic fires, droughts, and floods were happening in their region in the years leading up to the program, and the children made the connection between the science they were learning and its impact on their lives. Climate change was not just an abstract idea; it was happening around them, and they could see it in their daily lives. The air smelled like a campfire, and the air quality impacted whether they could go outside. Because of this, climate science turned out to be the connection that built bridges to make science more approachable (Trott & Weinberg, 2020). Trott’s contact at the Boys and Girls Clubs indicated that the students were more excited about their projects than they had been about any other program, maybe except for sports.
The same events that helped her students connect to science inspired Dr. Trott’s future efforts. Previously, she had been working on a project understanding women’s experiences in atmospheric science. She had already been inspired by climate science and diversity research. But when historic environmental tragedies occurred during her Ph. D program, and it became clear that fires, hurricanes, and droughts were getting progressively worse and would impact some of the most impoverished communities first, Dr. Trott wanted to use her work to make a change.
Dr. Trott’s later projects have built on the concepts she used at the Boys and Girls Clubs, incorporating art, science, and students’ passions. Community groups began reaching out to her after that project about spearheading similar projects elsewhere. In Jacmel, Haiti, Jakmel Ekspresyon (JE) Arts Center worked with her to set up a course in arts and sciences that is currently on its third cycle. Part of this program has students take pictures and measure water quality, and help their community learn which water sources are safe to use. Their students are also advocating for improvements to infrastructure to better provide safe water, as well as helping educate their community about how to be safe in the current situation. Because their passion is obvious to the adults in their communities, the messages that students in these programs decide to advocate for are generally well received and their efforts are supported. Similarly, Dr. Trott is collaborating with a disaster organization in Thailand that is preparing to train schoolteachers to run a program similar to the one in Colorado. After learning about climate change, students will be encouraged to connect what they have learned to real life through photography, and then build and design ways to influence their communities. Because she publishes in open access journals whenever possible, similar groups learned about her work and have reached out about doing the same in Kenya, the Philippines, England, and here in Cincinnati. She is part of a grant submitted to NSF to start her “Science, Camera, Action!” program here, where students observe and photograph their world and design ways to address a problem they see.
When the pandemic ends, Dr. Trott plans to travel to where other programs are ongoing. She will assess their success by surveying students before and after they start, as well as holding “focus groups,” talking to the students about their experiences as a group. She learns more from what they say in response to open-ended questions than close-ended survey items because the young people lead the conversation. Sometimes, she is surprised by what they leave the program with. One group told her that they were upset that adults were not actively trying to make the changes that they had started advocating for. Even though this was not the message that Dr. Trott had intended to teach them, the interaction of the science they were learning with their lives when they went home each day led to their own ideas.
Dr. Trott also plans to start interviewing youth climate advocates for a new study, especially those fighting for climate justice. They want to help the countries that are being impacted the worst, despite contributing the least to the problems and lacking the resources to adapt easily. In the last few years, we have seen more youth taking ownership of issues and speaking up for change for their futures. Children care, they see what is at stake, and they are not distracted by the same priorities and issues that adults are. Dr. Trott hopes to better understand where these youth are becoming aware of these issues, and what has led to them becoming increasingly active.
Dr. Trott hopes that, by introducing students to topics that may not otherwise be discussed until later in their science classrooms, she will capture their curiosity as well as their desire to do something and encourage some of them to ultimately pursue science as a career. She has found that when students’ passions drive their projects, they are motivated to get involved. Around 4th to 6th grade, to the surprise of many adults, students are able to understand emotionally and intellectually challenging topics such as climate change. This is about the age that children develop the ability to think more abstractly. Rather than becoming overwhelmed and disheartened, they are in a stage of life where they want to help. And by introducing them to these topics early, we can prevent them from feeling hopeless as they learn more. In addition to exposing them to science, students are empowered with coping strategies before becoming teenagers.
Dr. Trott’s work to expose students to science and art encourages curiosity, action, and hope. Young students have the passion to act and the ability to understand the problems that they see around them. By understanding their perception of the world and further empowering them to act, we give them the opportunity to reshape their communities, to hope because they know they can drive change, and to create their futures.
The Science Policy Ambassadors, a new student group at the University of Cincinnati, will be hosting an online social on Monday, November 9th at 5 pm.
Affiliated with the Union of Concerned Scientists, this student group aims to provide graduate and undergraduate students opportunities to learn and engage in science policy, and ultimately help them gain experience as advocates for science. The Science Policy Ambassadors aim to help build a network of these opportunities, to create resources for students with an interest in these careers, and promote the opportunities that already exist.
This student group is open to all majors, and hosts six to seven speakers each semester. You can follow them @SPAUCS to get involved, and RSVP for the social hour here.
We are excited to welcome Dr. Ryan Feigenbaum as the Center for Public Engagement with Science’s new Program Director. Dr. Feigenbaum will also serve as the new Executive Director of the Philosophy of Science Association (see PSA announcement here). He combines experience in digital media, web development, and digital humanities with expertise in the history and philosophy of the life sciences. His writing encompasses everything from best practices for the visual aspects of online communication to digital exhibits that explore the intersections of history, science, and art.
Dr. Feigenbaum’s efforts in public engagement include a digital exhibit called “Poetic Botany,” created for the New York Botanical Garden. In this exhibit, Dr. Feigenbaum explores the biology of each of nine plant species, incorporating art and poetry from people who were inspired by these plants, as well as the stories of these artists and scientists. The end result has the potential to reach a broader audience than a physical exhibit would, and appeals to people with a variety of interests.
Dr. Feigenbaum has also written about seemingly less exciting organisms, such as algae. In “Visions of Algae in Eighteenth-Century Botany,” he recounts how scientists discovered and improved our understanding of algae. He begins with the early classification of algae and perceptions of it as unremarkable, and then he walks his readers through the observations of its biology that led to it being more appreciated and sought out by more scientists, and even referenced in literature. He ends with a quote encouraging us to “look again” as something that once failed to capture our imaginations; perhaps this encouragement is useful elsewhere as well.
You’ll find more enagaging writing on Dr. Feigenbaum’s website. He has written about human sleep cycles, and the language we use to discuss it; philosophical arguments about whether life can be explained with science; and other intersections of history, science, and art. He also provides guidance for effectively creating digital spaces for communication and offers suggestions for best practices in web design.
With his abiding interest in communicating science and philosophy to a broad audience, and helping others do so, Dr. Feigenbaum will be a tremendous asset for the Center for Public Engagement with Science.
Science comes from curiosity, and many institutions have been fostering that curiosity in our community for decades. In the case of the Cincinnati Observatory, these efforts have been ongoing for over 175 years! This week, we had the privilege of hearing more about these early efforts from Kelsey Stryffe, Docent and Administrative Assistant at the Observatory.
In the 1840’s, Professor Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel at Cincinnati College lectured on physics, math and astronomy. Although these lectures were intended for his students, the professor was so engaging and charismatic that his students frequently invited their families. His audience continued to expand until they no longer fit within the walls of any lecture hall available on campus at the time. Eventually, they moved to other locations to handle the crowds, such as Wesley Chapel in downtown Cincinnati.
Mitchel saw this interest, and in it saw an opportunity. He began raising money, door to door; for about the equivalent of a month’s salary, families could buy shares in what would become a public observatory. This sounds like a lot, especially because funding can be hard to come by in science! But people were already so excited about astronomy that they were willing to support this endeavor. Soon he raised the funds to build the observatory on Mt. Adams, and purchase a telescope. From the day the observatory opened, it was available to the public.
Mitchel did not come to Cincinnati specifically to build a research observatory, happening to provide the community with an incredible opportunity. Mitchel grew up in Lebanon, outside of Cincinnati. The people here were his community, and his intention was to stay here to teach science.
Although he sometimes struggled to do research in between everyone who wanted to look into space, Mitchel had built “the Birthplace of American Astronomy.” This was the first telescope in North America, and at our latitude; therefore, it gave scientists what was at the time a new and unique vantage point to see into space. Mitchel was able to describe the sky from here, vastly adding to knowledge that had been acquired by scientists overseas. From this telescope, he described orbits and patterns. It was also used to discover a binary star and describe a region of Mars that would be named “the Mountains of Mitchel” in the professor’s honor.
As Cincinnati’s industries grew, the city’s air became more polluted from the amount of coal being burned. It created a tar-like smoke in the atmosphere, blocking the observatory’s view of space. Eventually, the building and telescope would have to move to Mt. Lookout, which was outside of the city at the time, to continue to be able to see the sky. However, before that happened, Mitchel moved to New York to get away from the pollution, and established another observatory there. He would go on to fight in the Civil War as a Major General, and would pass away from Yellow Fever while serving in South Carolina.
However, Mitchel’s legacy of educating and engaging the community in astronomy lives on through the observatory. Even through the light pollution, the telescopes at the Cincinnati Observatory can see to the edges of our solar system, and even to our neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy. While this is more limited than most modern research telescopes, it is still a special opportunity for members of the public, and it continues to be open. Since it reopened in the 1990’s, the staff and volunteers at the observatory have worked hard to provide K-12 teaching materials affordably. They have been hosting classes about star gazing and space online since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, offer a program that allows members to borrow telescopes, and work with the Stonelick Star Gazers, a group of amateur astronomers, to have stargazes at Stonelick State Park.
The Cincinnati Observatory is currently open by reservation on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. As we get back to normal after COVID-19, watch their website for these hours to expand. In the meantime, watch their social media for events and things to watch for from your own backyard. You can read more about their history here.
Dr. Morehouse leads a lab that studies insects and spiders. He has a special interest in how they see the world, and how their vision influences the choices they make. He was drawn to the University of Cincinnati because the school has a strong community working on the biology of vision, philosophy of perception, and other fields related to sight. He is currently part of an effort to create a central place for this community through the Institute for Research In Sensing (IRIS). Planning is ongoing, but programming is staged to begin by Spring 2021.
Dr. Morehouse is partly interested in the vision of spiders and insects because of the diversity of ways that their eyes function. Vertebrates all have eyes similar to a camera; they have a single lens in front of a cavity above a sheet of cells that receives light. Arthropods have a wider diversity of types of eyes. In insects, the most common is the compound eye, which has thousands of individual flat lenses that are all sensitive to light. The information from these pieces together a clearer mosaic image. They also have a lens that gives them separate information about which way is up and helps them make quick decisions important to flight. Spiders are even more complex; they have 8 eyes. 6 of these evolved from compound eyes, derived from a common ancestor with insects. However, these have lost their ability to create a detailed image, likely because spiders lived underground for a large part of their evolutionary history. These eyes have a very low resolution and cannot see color, much like our peripheral vision. Their other eyes collect information for a more complex color image. They form at a different stage in the spider’s development, and even connect to a different part of their brains. This pair of eyes has a single lens, with a long cavity behind it, like a Galilean telescope. This is called a diverging lens, and magnifies anything they focus on. This means that despite having eyes that are only ½ mm wide, they can see patterns as well as an elephant can and can see better than most other animals their size.
One of the overarching questions Dr. Morehouse and his lab are pursuing is “why?” Spiders have 3-color, vision like humans do, although the exact colors they see are different. Some can see even more than 3 colors. Their interactions, especially during mating, are very reliant on visual cues and color. However, it is unlikely that these displays evolved until after their vision did; after all, why show off if no one can see it? So why did they evolve such complicated vision in the first place? To help them hunt? To avoid something toxic? This research has taken them around the world.
Ongoing research in the lab includes whether the male and female audacious jumping spiders see the world differently. Both sexes track each other’s movements closely during mating and develop in similar ways. One notable difference is that the females have an extra stage or two of development (instars) before maturity, which might allow their eyes to get bigger. There are some differences in the way genes linked to vision are expressed, but the physical effects of that expression are still being figured out. Dr. Morehouse also has students working on the evolution of illusions and how non-human animals discriminate faces. Such studies are possible with arthropods because the lab has technology that can track the movement of their eyes.
Dr. Morehouse was inspired to study arthropods when he was three years old; he would go into his backyard and pick up bumblebees, get stung, and pick them back up. He tries to foster the curiosity of children through long term mentoring programs. He participates in the STEM Girls programs at the Cincinnati Museum Center, afterschool programs, and summer camps. Most recently, he ran a summer camp that allowed students to write their own superhero persona, including a disguise, personality, and power, that was inspired by the natural world. At the end of the week, he showed up in disguise as a supervillian with his own powers, and challenged them to defeat him with their own creativity.
Dr. Morehouse continues to be excited about his field. It has incredible implications for technology; understanding how animals process information could inspire biomedical advances, the engineering of computers that can process information as quickly as arthropods, and programming for the decision making of autonomous cars. In his words, “the natural world has had millions of years to figure out the answers to questions that we are only beginning to ask.” But Dr. Morehouse’s main mission is more philosophical.
“To be honest, those [questions] aren’t what motivate me. Its cool, but it doesn’t drive me. I would feel like my life had been wasted if I didn’t spend it in the pursuit of curiosity. …I actually think that to be curious is an essential part of what it means to be human. If we forget …it as a basic human pursuit, we’re lost. We should encourage healthy curiosity. In part, what I’m doing is art: I want to spark the curiosity of others. Have I changed how people view their world? Is there more magic to their backyard? If I can just move people’s feet from where they were before, that’s success.”
To read more about on-going research in the Morehouse lab, click here.
Associate Director of the Center for Public Engagement with Science Dr. Melissa Jacquart presented a poster during the Public Engagement with Science conference (PEwS) this week. She discussed a NSF-funded workshop to be hosted by the Center for Public Engagement scheduled for May 2021. This three-day workshop will focus on the role of philosophers of science in science outreach, and will cover science communication, formal education, informal educations, and working with communities. It will also provide hands-on experience and training with each topic. The goal will also be to create a “beginners guide” to engaging the public with science.
The conference this week that Jacquart is participating in is being hosted by Michigan State University.
Click here to view a full version of Dr. Jacquart’s poster, as well as her explanation of the workshop.
Last week, Associate Director for the Center for Public Engagement with Science Dr. Melissa Jacquart was featured as a speaker for the professional development workshop “Data and Computation Science Series.” The last session in the series, this week’s theme was “Promoting your Research and Research Impact.”
To help other researchers increase the impact of their research, Melissa discussed strategies such as the use of social media and reaching out to various in-person venues. She emphasized treating outreach as a two-way discussion rather than a one-sided “pitch.” She also encouraged researchers to consider their own goals and their target audience prior to presenting it to the public. Finally, she informed her audience of the service and goals of the Center for Public Engagement with Science, including support for outreach activities, partnerships, and training.
University of Cincinnati affiliates can view her presentation here.
Meet Emily Simpson, who is serving as the Outreach and Social Media Coordinator for the UC Center for Public Engagement with Science this academic year.
Emily is a Ph.D student in the geology department. She is focusing on vertebrate paleontology and stable isotope ecology, and will be studying the impact of a global cooling on a mammal community in Egypt that is about 34 million years old. Emily fell in love with paleoecology because of its interdisciplinary nature, and because she enjoys using the stories of how past plants and animals interacted to teach others about science.
Emily grew up near Raleigh, North Carolina. She started getting involved in science education and outreach almost 15 years ago at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences as a volunteer during special events and in the paleontology lab, as well as with the North Carolina Fossil Club. Since that time, she has also worked at Ashfall Fossil Beds. Before coming here, she did a master’s at East Tennessee State University in geology, where she researched the impact of mammoths and other Pleistocene megafauna on the Appalachian balds ecosystems in Saltville, Virginia. While there, she helped plan outreach events at Gray Fossil Site and worked with teachers as a science educator at a local elementary school. Telling the stories of sites that she has worked at to children and families gives her the opportunity to teach science to others in approachable ways.
In her spare time she enjoys continuing to teach others science through volunteer work at museums and schools, exploring nature, and doing a variety of crafts. She looks forward to continuing to communicate science to others through this platform as well! Emily hopes to eventually be a curator at a natural science museum, where she can continue both paleontology research and science communication as well as spearhead programs to continue helping local students explore science.
Thanks to the Taft Center for making this possible by selecting the Center for Public Engagement with Science as a Taft Research Group this year!