October 15, 2018
Today is the second day of Earth Science Week, Earth Science Literacy Day. We talked to Adriane Lam and Jen Bauer of Time Scavengers, an online resource for both scientific and non-scientific audiences that addresses a range of topics from climate change to geoscience careers. Adriane and Jen have previously been featured on AGU’s Plainspoken Scientist blog.
With the rise of social media and other web platforms, science — or false information disguised as science — spreads rapidly. Scientists have taken it into their own hands to control the narrative and show the real-world applications of their work through web mediums such as blogs and YouTube. To learn more about the behind-the-scenes efforts of running a site and discuss the importance of science literacy, we chatted with Adriane Lam, PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Jen Bauer, postdoctoral associate working at the Florida Museum of Natural History, who run Time Scavengers along with a team of editors and collaborators. Time Scavengers is an online resource for all audiences to explore topics from general Earth science concepts to evolution.
Adriane was inspired to launch a science communication project after seeing media and political candidates misconstruing issues surrounding climate change during the last presidential election. She began working on a site aiming to explain the concepts behind climate change and evolution. The idea began to evolve, and she reached out to her former classmate, Jen, who worked with her in Alycia Stigall’s lab at Ohio University, to help her take on the project.
Six months, hundreds of texts, and hours of Google Hangouts meetings later, the ‘Climate’ and ‘Evolution’ static pages along with their first few blog posts were launched. Since then, they have released over 100 blog posts and added the ‘Byte of Life’ series, where they discuss how to navigate academia at a variety of levels. They have plans to launch more static informational pages, a YouTube channel, and a series featuring international scientists in their native languages.
Adriane and Jen have had amazing success with their blog, but also experienced challenges along the way. Here is some advice they shared for scientists who are thinking about creating an online resource or blog:
1. Get organized. When the project first started Adriane admits “organizing was the hardest challenge for us!” They quickly learned that storing files on a Time Scavengers Google Drive account was significantly more efficient than keeping things on their personal accounts. Other things such as creating designated folders for their nine site collaborators and using a spreadsheet to schedule the month’s posts kept the process streamlined.
2. Make time. Adriane advised, “the second thing someone who wants to start a website should think about is the time they have to commit to their site.” When they first started building static informational pages, they were investing 10-20 hours a week for six months. Now, they create 3-4 blog posts a week spending 2-5 hours each on average. To keep your site relevant and attract new readers, updating content must be done regularly.
3. Know your audience. “[It is important to ask] who is your target audience, and how will you reach them,” says Adriane. “Jen and I knew that Time Scavengers was going to be for the public, so we’ve written all of our pages as jargon-free and reader friendly as possible.” They have a designated editor who is not trained as a scientist to point out when content is too jargon-ridden or not explained properly.
4. Get out of your comfort zone. “At my core, I am an introvert and emailing people used to be a painstaking task for me because I would hyper-analyze everything and be worried I was saying something incorrectly,” says Jen. “I have gained a lot of confidence through reaching out to other scientists!”
5. Practice makes perfect. “Both Adriane and I have also sharpened our science communication skills through writing our informational pages and blogs,” says Jen. Nobody is born a master science communicator, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes with your site! It may be daunting to get those first posts down, but like any skill writing for a general audience takes practice.
6. Use tools effectively to promote your site. There are hundreds of tools available and knowing how to use them can make your job easier. Adriane and Jen use Google Analytics, which keeps data on visitors. “[From this data] we learned that posts released on Facebook after 12 pm don’t garner as many likes, clicks, and shares as posts that are shared earlier in the day,” says Adriane. She also suggests using social media management platforms such as Hootsuite and graphic-design tools like Canva to organize and create posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Ultimately the purpose of science communication is to make science more accessible and to promote science literacy. When creating content, remember who your audience is and don’t forget your objective. “Personally, I feel that it is incredibly important to make sure the public understands what, why, and how we conduct science,” adds Jen. “Both climate change and evolution are widely misunderstood topics, mostly because of the vast amounts of misinformation available and complex subject matter. Both topics appear in policy making that affects the daily lives of people, whether if it is to promote the teaching of ‘alternative theories’ to evolution in K-12 classrooms or to regulate vehicle emissions to reduce toxic gases in the atmosphere. If the public doesn’t understand how or why these policies will affect them then they cannot make informed decisions on these matters.” Whether its through writing, speaking, social media, or day-to-day engagements, it’s crucial for scientists to communicate to non-scientists the importance and joys of scientific discoveries.