Outreach is a strong theme among the online scientific community. We talk about the importance of engaging the public, talking to politicians, and interacting with students. In essence, outreach is about making connections with people outside our field and, in some way, sharing the wonders and importance of science.
Outreach can present many challenges for scientists, one of which is finding opportunities to engage in outreach. We feel we lack time, ideas, support, audience... But with the rise of social media use, new opportunities open up, and sometimes without any intent, we can stumble right into them.
I am very active on Twitter. It's a way for me to stay connected to the science online community, even when I'm short on time or energy to keep up with the avalanche of blog posts and comments the sphere puts out every day. I follow many scientists all over the map, with regard to geography and disciplines. One of them is Anne Osterrieder, a Research and Science Communication Fellow in Plant Cell Biology at Oxford Brookes University, and last week, she started reposting some rather curious tweets. They were from accounts named after cellular organelles, which seemed to be touting their supremacy among organelles or attacking others for the problems they create.
The Cell Membrane has been known to interfere with blood sugar's ability to penetrate cells, which could lead to obesity! #VoteGolgi
— Golgi Body (@Golgi_Body2012) October 19, 2012
My name is Bob the builder. I build proteins. Your argument is irrelevant. #ribosomeswag
— Bob the Ribosome (@ribosomesyaa) October 19, 2012
The cell needs more strength.. Well, we provide it! #Sweeeeet
— The Cell Wall (@TheBestCellWall) October 18, 2012
Anne discovered that these tweets were coming from an AP biology class in Illinois.
The core idea originated with Marna Chamberlain, a teacher at Piedmont High School in California: Get students to run campaigns for a cell organelle - posters, speeches, flyers on why theirs was the supreme organelle.
Brad Graba at William Fremd High School in Illinois decided to run with it and extended the campaign to include Twitter.
Then something happened that Brad Graba did not intend, I think. Alerted by Anne (who posted a great early intro), scientists began joining in under the hashtag #organellewars. (If you're unfamiliar with Twitter, a hashtag is simply a handle for tagging and finding related messages.) Before long, organelles were discussing their functions and failures with scientists around the world. The project was even mentioned on BBC Radio!
It's clear from the Twitter campaign that Mr. Graba has some smart and creative students to teach. But I think it also shows that cool and unexpected things can happen when you begin to integrate social media with education and outreach. Thanks to Mr. Graba and his class for letting us crash their project! I hope they gained something from the experience. I know I certainly did! 🙂
Oh, and one more thing: It's time to get out the vote! You can vote for your favorite organelles during the Mr. Graba's AP Bio class periods today (one is up now [9:45 am, EDT] and others will be up at about 10:15 and 2:50).