Tuesday, May 7, 2013

#Sci4hels Question Time #5 - What is the obligation of a science journalist when it comes to education?

I’m manning the sci4hels ship this week for question time. For question #5, we’ve decided to talk about whether science journalists have an extra obligation to educate compared to journalists who focus on other areas. We’ll be entertaining this topic on twitter at the hashtag #sci4hels on Thursday 5/9 at 1pm EST. I hope you’ll be able to join us, so, you know, I don’t end up talking to myself.
This question has me particularly excited, because for me it ties back to the larger questions of “why am I doing what I’m doing?” and even more importantly “what do I want to be doing?” Since I turned 25 two months ago I’ve been joking a lot about having a quarter-life crisis, but several things have gone on in my life recently that spurred me to take stock of just about everything, including my career.

via Wikimedia Commons
I often grapple with questions about whether I can consider what I do journalism, whether I’m okay with not doing journalism, if what I even want is to be a journalist, and where those boundaries are – but those are questions for another discussion (and in fact are being tackled in some capacity by another panel at WCSJ13.) Still, it relates to whether or not education is or should be a part of science journalism.
If I do want to help educate the public about science, and if that is an important part of what I want to accomplish in my career does that mean I should be a science journalist? Why not be a teacher? (Oh, so many reasons.) I could work at a museum and educate the public. I could be a public information officer and help educate. I could be an outreach officer for any number of scientific organizations. If you want to educate, why do it through journalism?
There are a lot of questions related to this including: are there other aspects of being a journalist, specifically a science journalist that compliment being an educator? Does being an educator play a role in science journalism that it doesn’t for business or political writers? Writing scientific explainers is definitely journalism – but is it just one kind of journalism or is it something that pervades all science journalism? One of my favorite take-aways from Scio13 came out of the session on explanatory journalism where Carl Zimmer made the comment (which I'm paraphrasing) that good science journalism should never read like you are dropping a textbook on someone. I think that ties in well with this topic, because if you want to be an educator and you want to do it through journalism - well then how do you do that effectively?

While you could approach this question in a lot of different ways, I would really like to hear from people about whether being an educator was part of what made you want to become a science journalist, and what role you think education plays in your work. Bora has tackled this question before in the blog post/on Twitter with Is Education What Journalists Do? Again, I'll be posting this question to Twitter on Thursday 5/9 at 1pm EST at the #sci4hels hashtag - I hope you'll join in.

Update 5/9: 
So what happened? Here's the storify recap - it was apparently both useful and not useful, but a lot of people had a lot to say, so thank you for participating everyone!

Monday, May 6, 2013

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month David Tarpey

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on Twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders. Happy May, I'm excited for spring and warm weather, aren't you? This month I'm pleased to introduce you to David Tarpey, PhD. David is an entomologist (he studies bugs!) at North Carolina State University. Like I did with our other scientists, PennyPhilippAnne-MarikePete, Becky, Michael, and Jenny I asked him questions about his job as a scientist to learn more about what he really does. I hope you enjoy learning about his work! Below you can read our interview, and if you'd like to ask him any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

David: I'm an entomologist, a scientist who studies insects. There are lots of types of bugs though, so most entomologists specialize in different areas. My speciality is honey bees, so my area of expertise is named apiculture. 

Erin Where did you go to school, and what did you study?

Courtesy of David Tarpey
David: I got my undergraduate degree at Hobart College, my Master of Science at Bucknell University and my PhD at the University of California, Davis. While an undergrad I actually got my first experience in research while on my junior year abroad at Oxford University in England studying the learning behavior of birds (starlings to be precise). I took that experience back to Hobart and did a different project for my senior thesis on the mating behaviors of Hawaiian drosophila, the picture-winged fruit flies, which was my first introduction to insect science. I then started my masters project on honey bees, and ever since then I've been hooked! My MS project investigated the fascinating process by which a new queen takes over the colony from the old mother queen, which involves rival sister queens fighting each other to the death until only one remains. My PhD project also involved research on queens, studying why they mate with an unusually high number of males, or drones. I've continued research on that same question ever since. 

Erin: Where do you work, and what does a typical day at work entail?

David: I'm in the Entomology Department at North Carolina State University, one of the largest and arguably the best entomology department in the country. My typical work day is anything but typical, as I do many things in my position. Some days I teach a large class of non-science majors about how cool bees are, using them to learn about biology in order to appreciate the process of science. Other days I work with beekeepers, teaching them how to best manage their beehives to keep their colonies healthy and productive so the bees can pollinate all the crops that we eat every day. Still other days, I work with other members of our lab to do research on why honey bees do what they do, and how they go about doing it. We use lots of different ways to address these questions, including genetics and glass-walled observation hives so we can watch what's going on inside.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

David: I've always known I've wanted to be a scientist. It may be in part because my father was a research psychologist so I've always been in academia, or it may be because I've loved exploring and tinkering in the outdoors since as early as I can remember. But what really got me excited about science was the first time I opened up a beehive containing ~50,000 bees and a single queen. Realizing how surprisingly peaceful they were and how they worked together for the greater good was so fascinating to me, I just had to understand more!

Courtesy of David Tarpey
Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

David: I really enjoy all the different aspects of my job. Teaching students the fascinating biology of bees constantly renews my love and admiration for them, as does my working with beekeepers to help perfect their management of their beehives. Researching how colonies function is also very rewarding, as I feel like a detective trying to figure out an infinitely complex and interesting puzzle.

Erin: What is something about your  job that would surprise us?

David: Being the honey bee expert in North Carolina, one of the more surprising things that I do every year is help the NC State Fair judge all of the entries for honey, wax, and hive products. Beekeepers have many rewards, and they love to compete with each other to see who can bottle the best honey and make the best candles. We therefore help decide who wins the blue ribbon every year!

Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun? 

David: I love sports, so I play a lot of racquetball and basketball, and I also help coach my son's soccer team. I'm also an avid hiker and enjoy camping in the outdoors. I also wish I could be as hands-on with beekeeping as I used to be, since I enjoy playing with the bees as much as I can.
What do you think first graders? Do any of you ever see bees in your backyard or at the park? What are some of the things you know about bees? Do you have any questions for Dr. David? Be sure to leave him a comment!  I think he has a pretty cool job, don't you?

Thank you, David for being our May Scientist of the Month!