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Engaging Boston College Undergraduates in Communicating Science to the Public

Alan Kafka

Associate Professor, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Mike Barnett

Professor, Lynch School of Education

This project responds to two needs of the university and of society in general. First is the need for students educated in the 21st Century to be able to “think outside the box” and be able to do more than just respond well to testing and having their work only evaluated by professors. Second is the need for science education programs to train future citizens who cannot only communicate about science but also be able to express their ideas through media. The work that we are proposing here directly addresses both of these needs by engaging undergraduate students at Boston College in the development and testing of interactive displays where they will share their scientific knowledge and visualizations with a general and public audience.

Both Dr. Kafka and Dr. Barnett teach large undergraduate courses and interact with undergraduates in a number of ways and are already engaged in a number of educational outreach programs with the community. In this project we will be working together to implement two major science communication projects that utilize the same technologies and will allow us to build an evidence base to apply for future funding around improving communication of scientific ideas. In this project we will engage undergraduates in creating an interactive seismic station at Boston College’s O’Neill Library and at a public library in the city of Boston. The second project will focus on the development of an interactive food justice kiosk that will be on display in Boston College’s O’Neill Library and at the Daily Table in Dorchester, MA. What is particularly interesting about each of these projects is that they have different content but are exploring and testing the same technology by engaging undergraduates in communicating what they are learning with the public. In doing this work we will also be establishing a technological infrastructure and a design framework around which future grant proposals can be built.

A central aspect of our work is the idea of placing “Touchpanels” in stores, libraries, shops, and other locations where residents can interact with data and visualizations of that data. A Touchpanel is simply a large touch screen that will be placed on a table, counter or, mounted on a wall. This technology will then allow a user to interact with the content by touching the embedded navigational features. By utilizing two different types of projects we will be in a better position to evaluate (1) which aspects of the user experience best supports engagement with the material, supports learning, and supports interaction with others who are exploring the content at the same time (i.e. do people stop and talk about the display? What do they talk about?), and (2) how does the nature of the content impact interactions. As such our ATIG funding will not just establish our technological and design frameworks but will also evaluate the outcomes of the work to determine which aspects of the project should be expanded and explored in more depth.