Every day, I have to pick and choose which science blog posts I’m going to read. Titles scroll across my twitter feed, tempting me to push away my work and immerse myself in stories of tri-vaginated marsupials and XNA constructs. I’ve been following the opening of the NRC in Raleigh, NC, desperately wishing I could be there. Looking forlornly at images of Discovery, I’ve been saying farewell to the science giant that was the Space Program. The wealth of reading material in science blogs is staggering, and a lot of the writing is good.

I’ve been thinking a lot, since Science Online 2012 in January, about how students struggle to write effectively, and about how putting our work out there (like in this blog) can be so intimidating as to be paralyzing. In several different sessions at SciO12, I heard comments about the unpreparedness of college freshman to navigate science literature. Inability to distinguish between blog opinions and peer-reviewed papers is rather alarming, but it speaks to the experience of these students, not their intelligence. Understanding of resources begins with exposure. It develops when the interaction with those resources (articles, interviews, texts) is scaffolded in a meaningful way by teachers. It occurs to me that, although my students are prolific writers in English and History classes, they do virtually no science writing at all in their high school careers. I have a plan to change this, but, like any scientist, I need some preliminary data.

If you are a science instructor in higher education, an editor of a science publication or blog, or in any other field where you face the challenge of working with young science writers, I invite you to comment on the quality of science writing you see in undergraduate, graduate school, and beyond. Where do you see gaps in the science writing education of your students? What kinds of errors do you see, repeatedly, in your new hires that make you frustrated? When does the writing work?

If you’re challenged by science writing, what do you think your science education could have done to better prepare you?

Comment here to share your thoughts, or email me privately if you prefer.

(to reply privately, write me at lalsox(at)gmail(dot)com)

This is your chance to tell a high school science teacher writing work you wish she’d done with her students’ writing before they graduated.

It is an early Sunday morning in mid-January, and I have been at Science Online for three days. I haven’t slept more than four hours a night since I got here. I have had 17 units of alcohol. I’ve met roughly 200 new people. I have never talked so much in my life. Last night, I did something expensive, painful, and permanent. My right hand is shaking just a bit, and I want to kill that god-damned rooster outside the hotel.

But, to understand how I got here – how I wound up an over-stimulated, under-rested, hot mess – we’ve got to go back about one week…

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I’m making lists while packing for my conference trip. I love lists. There’s a list for the suitcase and another for my purse. I’ll leave my husband with a list, but that’s just to manage my neuroses. He’s an eminently capable father and the kids will be just fine. I lay out my clothes for each day. I wonder about the weather. I check Twitter to see what the other girls are saying about their banquet outfits. It will turn out later that I needn’t have worried. There will be everything from jeans to cocktail dresses, but today I’ll try on a half dozen things and change my mind at the last minute anyway. I’m traveling with technology, too. This is Science Online, after all. Tablet, Kindle, iPhone, chargers – they all go in the bag. Ironically, in all the time I will spend in North Carolina, I will use my computer only to check on my flight.

As I dither over whether to risk metal knitting needles through airport security, I wonder about the people I am going to meet. Some, like the Deep Sea News bloggers and the inexhaustible Stacy Baker, I have been following online for over a year. They’re the ones that turned me on to Science Online with their post SciO11 reports and tweets. Others, I became aware of after registration, and the Look Who’s Coming list was published. Registration should have been my first clue that this conference was something completely different.

By luck, I happened to have a free moment at work when the first registration window opened. I refreshed the page, entered my info, and paid in less than two minutes. By the time I printed my receipt, the first wave of registration was sold out. I felt elated, and I had no idea why. This Science Online was to be my first and I had no concrete expectations. But, an awful lot of people wanted to go. Badly.

Three days out from the event, I confirm my flight and my hotel. I look up cabs and local food. I cruise the blog pages and watch the clock. The next few days go by slowly and with mounting excitement as registrants post their memories of SciO11. Inside jokes abound. The #DSN crew has quite a rep.

On the morning of my flight, I am tense. I hate flying, and I don’t care that it is safe. I don’t care how many millions of people do it each day. I don’t care how many planes take off and land in the US in an hour. I hate it. But, in order to get to Science Online, I have to get on the plane. So far I have managed to get my work to pay for this trip, schedule the time off to go, and arrange to have my parents help out at home. If I have to drown my phobia the instant I get to the airport, I will.

The workday crawls along at a glacial pace. I’ve been obsessively reading Bora’s post on the Unconference Community, trying to get my head around what Science Online is like. When I first heard about it a year ago, it sounded like a great opportunity to get caught up on current events in science research, in a way that ed conferences typically don’t address. Education conferences are generally about ‘best practices’ and take-away sessions that can add to the curriculum. They mention advances in research as curious add-ons – something to discuss if time in the classroom permits. Time never does. Science Online also seemed like a good way to explore blogs as a resource for my students. Well written blogs can highlight information in an accessible way for a general audience. Peer reviewed journals and research reviews are typically a bit out of reach for the average high schooler. Now, days away from my first SciO experience, I am having doubts. It is obvious that Science Online is not a spectator sport. It relies heavily on the input and participation of its attendees. And, who am I? I’m not a blogger, I’m not a journalist, and I’m not a researcher. I’m a science teacher. When I finally board the plane, I am feeling like a kid going to her first summer of sleep-away camp where all the other kids have known each other for years.

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… So here I am, on Sunday morning, a bit wrung out as I pack my bags to go. College was a long time ago, and I’m not in strong fighting form anymore for this kind of thing. Not the late nights, not the schedule, not the deluge of information. But, next year I’ll be ready. From the moment I touched down at RDU, I’ve been mistaken about every aspect of this event.

To say that Science Online is a conference about communication is accurate, but inadequate. In the last three days, I’ve learned to make doodles into dynamic narratives. I’ve discussed blogging as a genre. I’ve talked about how students at every level are unprepared to manage the scholarly landscape. I’ve heard from adolescent bloggers looking to recreate Science Online for their peers. And, I have cartooned a session on Mel Brooks as a philosophy of writing. My conversations with fellow attendees were by turns passionate, dense, funny, vehement, enthusiastic, excoriating, commiserative and supportive. Science Online is a science-punk Wonderland of drink-me-knowledge that makes me small, and eat-me-understanding that makes me giant.

In my room, each night – exhausted but too ramped up to sleep – I try to sift through the slurry of information and ideas. I know that I’m going to lose most of it, but what I’ll take back with me is the urgency that online communication is critical for science at every level. There’s a lot of work to be done in defining what role online communication should play. Open Science takes on echoes of Napster when researchers and students have to navigate pay-walls for articles. The sometimes contentious relationship among science journalists, science writers, and science researchers highlights the jockeying that can happen when dollars and recognition are at stake. Issues of feminism and diversity are reflected in the blogosphere as much as in any other aspect of academia. But what has been clear in every session and conversation is that solutions for clear, constructive communication come from within the community, and will be built out of what each of us brings to the table. From the pages of the New York Times to a class on blogging Extreme Biology, every one of us has something to offer. If it seems like I’m completely geeked out over this, it’s because I completely am. This conference has turned me on to a side of science dialogue and education that is immediate, accessible, and above all, relevant.

I want to close by taking some space to mention a few people that helped make these three exhausting, stimulating days amazing. I can’t wait for next year.

(Do I need to put the ‘this list is not all-inclusive’ disclaimer here? OK, here it is.)

Dr. Rubidium. The first actual SciO12 face I saw. Her enthusiastic welcome at the airport set the tone for the next three days.

Kevin Zelnio, whose onstage presence at the open-mic made me too shy to talk to him later but whose writing has the casual honesty of an old friend.

David Manly, a quietly funny science writer from Canada with a passion for dinosaurs. He made me laugh, and that doesn’t happen a lot.

Cedar Riener, who listened very patiently to my babblings about education, and who is a marvelous writer and communicator on the subject.

Emily Willingham. DoubleXSci blogger, scientist, and mother. She writes with straightforward language and a candor I envy.

Danielle Lee. Irreverent and unflinching in her observations, she’s a fabulous dinner companion. Her work reminds me that the science in my own backyard is as grand as anything in National Geographic.

David Shiffman. Shark expert and conservationist, mentor to one of my own former students. His generosity and enthusiasm gives one the impression that he’s having fun every minute of the day.

Khadijah Britton, a livewire of an activist for science education and erstwhile lawyer with fearless lyrical stylings and an infectious laugh. Her personal story is as impressive as her plans for science outreach and youth.

Bora Zivkovic, the glue that holds Science Online together. I am certain that he puts this on with the help of countless people. But during the conference, he is everywhere with everyone. He never sleeps and he’s always online. My only personal interaction with him was when I hugged him on arrival, but it was a good hug.

I Am Science

This post is inspired by Kevin Zelnio, who shared his journey to science as part of an ongoing conversation after Science Online 2012 , and encouraged others to do the same (thank you, Kevin). To get the big picture, follow the #IAmScience hashtag on Twitter.

I am a high school biology teacher. This is what I tell people when they ask me what I do. It’s a reasonable answer. I go into my classroom every day and talk about biology. I draw cells and spindles and Punnett squares and trophic pyramids. I diagram squid and lancets and tiny choanocytes. I supervise activities that the publishers insist on calling experiments. I bring in blog posts and articles for my students to read and (with luck) argue over. Armed with play-doh and pop-beads, I tackle meiotic divisions and ribosomal subunits. I grade labs. I grade homework. I grade tests. I grade make-up tests. Darwin is my homeboy, and Mendel is my patron saint. On the surface, it’s all biology.

But, this isn’t where I was meant to end up. By the Year 2010, I was supposed to be a world renown marine biologist and film-maker, possibly married to Jean-Michel Cousteau, and definitely living 24/7 on a boat. I was supposed to be a champion of wildlife and a household name. I had resources. I had aptitude. And, I had a plan.

My love of science began with dental school. Not mine, of course. My parents were both doing postdoc specializations at a competitive university in the States. My early childhood memories of them involve lots of articles, slide carrels, and huge books with bible-thin pages covered in tiny print. My sister and I learned to read early, so they threw every science book they could afford in front of us to keep us entertained. Safari Cards were the absolute best. We had a pretty big set – maybe 2,000 cards. We pored over every one, reading and rereading until the corners were peeling and curling. My favorite was the Great White Shark, so I decided (at the age of 6) to become a marine biologist. I had no real idea what marine biologists did, but I imagined that if animals and seawater were involved, it was all to the good. For the next 10 years, every trip to an aquarium, every dolphin show, and every seashell collecting expedition reinforced my conviction that I was meant to be a steward of the ocean and all its teeming life. Yes. Steward of the Ocean. I imagined it on my business cards. My childhood was filled with museum trips and planetarium shows. A trip to Egypt coupled with my introduction to Indiana Jones briefly derailed my plans with fantasies of archeology, but a timely move to Miami during middle school got me back on track. The ocean was my back yard.

I was lucky enough to be admitted to the MAST Academy in 1991 for high school. An old, converted aquarium attraction, this magnet school for “maritime science and technology” housed marine themed majors. For a kid who loved school, but hated homework, it was a pretty good gig. Flush with money, and staffed with young, enthusiastic teachers, I got to take three sciences in one year (seven, total, before graduation), read Moby Dick with the saltiest dog of an English teacher you could want, take part in the nation’s only Coast Guard JROTC, and go canoeing during physical education on Biscayne Bay. My chemistry teacher had the dubious distinction of having once been fired by Jacques Cousteau. My physics teacher let us fire ball bearings down the hallway. My JROTC instructor was a naval engineer. We built a boat in Woodshop. Even in the grips of the egocentrism of adolescence, I understood how blessed I was to be in a place where learning was the method and the goal. Of course, that was before NCLB.

The summer after my sophomore year, I landed a paid internship at RSMAS working in a planktonology lab. On the first day, I was introduced to my microscope at the lab bench. There I would sit for eight hours each day, sorting plankton tow sample jars, looking for fish larvae and copepods. It was mind-numbing, dull work, but the grad students made up for it. They seemed eccentric and cool; utterly unconcerned with fashion or regular sleeping hours. My teenage self felt included in a secret world of academia with the absolute hippest kids on the planet. I spent seven grueling weeks in front of that microscope, and three glorious days out on a research boat before Hurricane Andrew hit and turned Miami inside-out. I graduated high school with a “major” in Oceanic and Atmospheric Science. Everything was going according to plan.

And then, I went to college.

For the first time in my academic life, I had to work really, really hard. I spent the first month of college wondering if there was some kind of introductory course I had missed. The one where they pass out the secret decoder rings and the College-to-English dictionaries. I found myself suddenly in the midst of women who were not only passionate, like I was, but also terrifyingly smart. And disciplined. And diligent. The pace of my whole world had suddenly sped up, and I was spending all my energy just trying to catch my breath. I flailed my way through organic chemistry, suffering serious doubts about my future in marine biology (or any biology). Zoology, micro, ecology, evolution. The concepts were still fascinating, but the pace was grueling. I never blamed my professors. I was convinced (and still, mostly, am) that the problem was me. I was drowning in the sheer volume of information I was expected to assimilate, and I simply lacked the tools to do it. Every semester was a nail-biting saga of stress and frantic studying. Going into my senior year, I was adrift, academically. I had all but finished my coursework for my degree, but had lost my way in the daily grind to survive my major. Though my college experience helped me grow, socially and personally, in ways I never could have anticipated, my childhood science dreams seemed flat, dull things. I was numb and so very, very tired.

Three things happened my senior year that saved me from myself.

I took most of my credits that year in the Studio Art department. On the verge of really screwing up at school, I had decided that if I was going to disappoint my science-minded parents, then I was really going to go all the way. I took painting, bookmaking, calligraphy, drawing, woodcutting, and signed up for a senior art project. I found something in these classes that I had been missing since I left Miami – room to breathe. I was still getting it wrong. Still flailing. But my art professors held my failures up as a mirror for me to examine. Work took on meaning again. The process became important again. A failure was not just a wrong answer, but something that had value. I knew it was doing nothing to further my science career, but it felt good to live in my own head for a while. I had missed, perhaps mourned, the process of discovery.

The one science class I did take that year was Coral Reef Physiology with Paulette Peckol, a marine biologist specializing in coral reef ecology and conservation. I chose it because it was the only senior seminar that would fit my schedule, but it was the last thing I was required to do for my major. I was dreading it. The class was small – maybe fifteen women. It met in a tiny, dusty lab with a western exposure. The afternoon sun behind beige shades gave it a sleepy, mellow feel – like an old parlour. Professor Peckol handed us a list of journal articles the first day and told us, not unkindly, to get to reading. After we were done with all the reading, she made us get to talking. We each chose topics within the scope of the course and prepared a lecture for the class. Dredging through journal articles, trying to decipher the language of the research, I learned more than I ever had in all my frantic note-taking in the three previous years. My classmates were alternately nervous, funny, polished, panicked, and engaging. But, every one of them taught me something. I talked about sea-stars.

Later that fall, my boss in the IT department called in sick to the office to ask someone (ANYONE) to cover the workshop she was due to teach that day. It was a workshop for the faculty who wanted to set up their own web pages for their courses. I was bored playing desk jockey, so I volunteered. I walked in to the computer lab not having any idea what I was going to say, but not terribly concerned. I knew what they needed to know, and all I had to do was tell them, right? The first thing I saw when I got there was a very well-educated man trying to turn on his computer by speaking into the mouse. I knew, instantly, that whatever I had thought I was going to do wasn’t going to work. I wish that I had a more clear memory of what I said that day. I remember that I smiled a lot. I also paced the room, winding my way around the rows as I talked. I answered the same ten questions a thousand times. And, when the hour was up, the class – my class – got up and left. One of the professors stopped on her way out and asked me, when would I be teaching again?

And, just like that, I became a teacher. It suddenly became clear to me that my place wasn’t in the lab. My place was in school. I had gone most of my life believing that I was meant to follow the examples of great scientific researchers. All along, what had inspired me were science teachers. Be they books or museum displays or people, it was the discovery that made me love science. Throughout my childhood, my teachers didn’t tell me. They showed me. And, I had discovered that I knew how to show people, too. I volunteered to teach every workshop I could fit into my schedule. That summer, I got a job teaching remedial science at a high school in a small town. Seventeen students in eight subjects in one classroom and no textbooks. The next summer, they asked me to come back again. I put out my resume with the help of a head hunter for private schools which led, eventually, to an interview. The school took a chance on me – a 22 year old with a biology degree and no formal teacher training. Once again, I had a good teacher. An experienced, phenomenally intelligent woman took me under her wing and gave me nothing short of an apprenticeship in my first two years.

So, here’s what I really do: I am a specialist of 9th grade cognition. I take concrete operational minds and guide them to their abstract operational fruition. I scaffold the baffling unknown with the old familiar. Blank stares become skeptical squints become upraised eyebrows of wonder. Or not. I can’t reach them all. But, I get most of them. Every year is the same, but every day is different. I have come to understand more science in the teaching of it than in all my formal coursework. And, in teaching, I have reclaimed the joy of discovery through my students.

Science is the elegant truth in the messy stramash of history. Folklore and bias are all reflected in the science of each culture. How science is applied tells us about our mores and priorities. Every year, in groups of twenty, my students pick apart the fabric of their living world and discover that they are critical cogs in a wonderful ecological machine. Over and over, I get to see my students marvel at the tiny workings of their cells and be horrified by the biological bombs that are exotic species. I accept their dissonance and skepticism, and I repay them with evidence and data. I give them the real meanings of words like theory and proven. After thirteen years of experience, I can anticipate them. I see their questions writ across their expressions, and I draw them out in lines of logic and sense.

Joyfully, I am a high school biology teacher. I Am Science.

I am just returned from my first Science Online “Un-conference” in Raleigh, NC. My brain is on overload, and I am sure it will take me a few weeks to decompress, but I wanted to share some of my notes from the event. The very first session I went to @scio12 was given by Perrin Ireland on the topic of SketchNotes. More on this subject later. Here are some images of the sketchnotes I took with links to the wonderful moderators.

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