Science education and the power of productive social media

In late November 2017, I came across a tweet from a PhD researcher in London seeking proposal submissions to join her symposium at an ecology conference in Finland taking place in June 2018. A few days later, in which time I presented my credentials and idea for my own symposium segment, she took me on as a presenter.

Over the course of the next seven months, I collaborated with a small team of researchers, video journalists, cartoonists, and field researchers to frame a symposium that would stand out from the dozens of others that week in Finland. By releasing so much content and building hype for our symposium via social media prior to the conference, we successfully generated so much interest that when the day finally came, it was standing room only.

Let’s rewind a bit, to the day before I flew overseas. I happened across a retweet from a middle school science teacher who was seeking virtual mentors for students in his eighth grade class, who would all be creating science fair projects during the coming school year.

I took a chance and responded, once again presenting my credentials as a science communicator, but this time being able to highlight how I was leaving for Finland literally the next morning to go speak about science communication at a conference.

A few months later, I mentored four students in Kentucky, two states and 600 miles away, guiding them along as they prepare and conduct science experiments ranging from the amount of static electricity generated in various types of hair, to testing how phosphate affects oxygen levels in bodies of water and leads to harmful algae blooms and the destruction of marine ecosystems.

Yes, eighth graders.

I landed both of these opportunities and more using social media. While many casual users and non-users love to demonize social media, it can be an incredible resource for developing a professional network and building a track record of experience. I personally use social media as a means of maintaining casual and professional relationships with people who share the same circles of science education and communication as me.

Because of social media, I’ve been able to present my Sidewalk Science Center, which I created in Savannah, Georgia, to the entire world. Instagram, for instance, lets me capture moments with passerby who try out science experiments for themselves, the smiles bursting from kids when they put on a pair of diffraction glasses, and the jaws that drop when something happens people don’t expect.

Sidewalk Science Center has hosted hurricane evacuees, popped up for groups of kids and parents taking shelter in a rainstorm, and has already traveled to three different cities: Savannah, GA, the campus of UNC Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and now Bradenton, Florida. It’s given rise to keepsake pictures, a cute video of kids jumping up and yelling “We love science!” and even continued acquaintanceships with students at UNC.

Social media has not only made these moments possible, but it has let me share with the local communities that a program called Sidewalk Science Center is out there giving people the opportunity to interact with science in their own hands! Taking it one step further, my program is now developing educational kits that will allow even more people to experience Sidewalk Science Center in their homes and classrooms.

There’s a lot of noise on social media. It can be and is used for ill intentions and generating negative feedback, or twisting our perceptions of the world and the people in it – including our friends, families, and local communities.

But social media can be and is used for so many good things in the world, too. Entire social and educational movements and non-profits thrive because of the network and reach social media provides. There’s an organization called Skype-a-Scientist that lets classrooms host video chats scientists around the world so students can interact with them and see their workplaces.

Another organization called the PhDepression was developed by one of my friends – who I met through Instagram – and it’s already given thousands of people a community to discuss the stigma surrounding mental health in higher education. She’s spoken in podcasts and at conferences and events as a prominent and respected voice in this conversation.

As for myself, I’ve spoken to elementary schools, universities, libraries, private businesses, and farmer’s markets, all who want to incorporate the Sidewalk Science Center kits into their educational outreach programs or as a space for the community to come together. I’m even participating in an MLK Service Day STEM festival near Miami; the college that invited me found Sidewalk Science Center through an Instagram hashtag and saw I was relatively nearby.

While there certainly are negative things to be said about the influence and content of social media, we must also recognize its ability to give people the opportunity to affect change in their communities, or collaborate with an international team to organize a conference symposium. I’ve made some of my closest friends and colleagues through social media. I’m more empowered as an individual, and more able to realize my pursuits, thanks to the communities I’ve found on social media.

Imagine if more casual users approached social media not with the intent to bash politicians or debate people’s ways of life, but instead turned their focus to connecting with people who empower and support us as we pursue our endeavors and building their networks. It requires time and effort, but as your successes come to fruition, you can feel yourself and your world transforming.

Until that conference in Finland, I’d never traveled outside the country. Until connecting with that middle school science teacher, I’d never mentored students. If I hadn’t become friends with someone in Oregon a few years ago, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to travel to the PNW and see the solar eclipse. Seven months ago, my Sidewalk Science Center didn’t exist. Four months ago, my educational science kits didn’t exist. Three months ago, I had never met the founder of what is now Instagram’s largest science outreach community, but who I have considered a personal friend for several months.

In less than a year, social media has let me find my voice in science education, connect with thousands of like-minded people, and let thousands of passerby interact with science experiments on the sidewalk. And moving forward, I’m confident social media will continue to play a significant role in making education more accessible to people of any background as we prove the value of using it productively.

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