People living in the 21st century have opportunities that would have been considered wondrous in the past. We have access to a growing set of scientific and technological advances, in part through the widespread dissemination of science news, information, and data on the web. We can use this information to enrich our lives in a variety of ways. We can make better personal decisions related to our health and safety. We can contribute to informed civil debates on policies related to topics such as vaccination, smoking, and the environment. We can better appreciate the wonder of our natural world.
But the opportunity to access the rapidly expanding abundance of information–what the National Science Foundation has called a “deluge of scientific data”–brings significant challenges. In order to take advantage of contemporary scientific research and development as well as our collective knowledge, young people need to understand how to search for and critically make sense of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) information and data on the web. This is a key component of “STEM literacy.”
Collaborative Infographics for Science Literacy
To address this need, a group of researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, TERC, Saint Louis University and Simon Fraser University, and educators in Colorado, Missouri, and Massachusetts worked together to investigate and develop learning environments aimed at improving STEM literacy. Through an approach called “citizen science journalism,” secondary school students produce authentic news reporting on a STEM topic of their choice. They searched for information and data on the Internet, organized the data, and used visualization tools to create infographics that communicate their understanding of the topic and related research. Students revised their representations through an iterative process in which they use collaborative tools to exchange feedback and share resources with peers, and received feedback from an external science news editor.
Several team members’ past participation in a related project, “Science Literacy through Science Journalism” (SciJourn) inspired us to launch a spinoff initiative in 2012 at the University of Colorado Boulder called “Collaborative Infographics for Science Literacy” (CISL). SciJourn involved high school students in science news reporting through “data journalism” based on infographics. In the process, we created a rigorous science news magazine called SciJourner. CISL continued to refine models for youth “data journalism” with infographics at two locations in Missouri: a chemistry class in a diverse public high school and an out-of school internship for high school youth. The best of these infographics continue to be published in SciJourner.
In CISL, we developed models of how infographics-based journalism can encourage young people to “contextualize STEM in life” when supported by feedback from peers, their teachers or facilitators, and an outside editor of SciJourner. By contextualizing STEM in life, we meant that youth recognize that STEM information can be relevant to their personal concerns, they know how to put it in the context of current scientific understandings and research, and they are able to see its import for society as a whole. They also grapple with how to communicate information and data visually and “multi-modally.”
STEM Literacy through Infographics
In January 2015, the next stage of CISL began through a new three-year NSF grant called “STEM Literacy through Infographics” (SLI). Our core team includes a group at University of Colorado Boulder: Joe Polman as principal investigator (PI), Joanna Weidler-Lewis a postdoctoral researcher, and doctoral students Stephen Sommer and Chelsey Shade (a former student is Leighanna Hinojosa). We are collaborating with Engida Gebre at Simon Fraser University, Andee Rubin at TERC, Cindy Graville at Saint Louis University, editor Alan Newman, and educators Rob Lamb and Rosemary Davidson.
In SLI, we are expanding on what we learned in CISL to develop and implement a model of infographics-based data journalism more widely, and to better understand the kind of learning this kind of activity enables. We will expand the number of sites from those in Missouri to include diverse in-school and out-of-school sites across the Colorado Front Range. In the SLI project, we will try to better understand how participation in infographics-based data journalism leads to appropriation of STEM literacy, and how to implement sustainable data journalism with infographics in diverse learning environments.
With regard to STEM literacy, the SLI team is particularly interested in how developing infographics challenges young people to use mathematical reasoning and visual representation to make sense of science data and information, especially when they are seeking to communicate the societal impacts of phenomena examined by science. We will also look at how various data visualization tools, the forms of representation they include, and the kind of public data available afford different opportunities for learning.
SLI and its predecessors are truly STEM projects: scientific research and concepts are explored and represented by youth; using technologies for multi-modal representation, markup, and providing feedback; within cycles of design informed by engineering practices; while reasoning mathematically about data. Through this work, data journalism has proven to provide a powerful means for young people to see science as relevant to their lives, to better understand how to find credible STEM information, to make sense of that information from a scientific standpoint, and to think about its importance for society.
The SLI project held professional development institutes with group of teachers and out-of-school program facilitators in the summers of 2015 and 2016, with implementation and follow-up meetings during the following year. Educators at 13 sites have been involved in implementing their local adaptations of the project model.