Exploring and explaining Ask A Biologist

By now I expect all of my regular readers are familiar with my Ask A Biologist site and the general aims of increasing science education and communication to the general public by professional researchers and experts. While this has now been ticking over and doing pretty well (as far as I’m concerned) for four years (wow, that has flown by) it has never really grown substantially. This is a bit annoying but not the end of the world, there are limitations to what you can do on a shoestring and relying on the goodwill and time of your contributors and friends and colleagues. All things considered, I think we’ve done a superb job, even if I am saying so myself on my own blog.

The latest step we have taken is to write up our experiences and the pros and cons of such a site and it’s machinations and we have been able to publish in the recently launched Evolution: Education and Outreach journal. It’s an obvious outlet since they are really all about science communication and bridging the gaps between academic research and teachers (and by extension the classroom)and that is what we are trying to do ourselves.

(As a quick aside, it was very quick and easy to publish here and I thoroughly recommend it. If you have burning sci comms issues you want to get out there and reach a big audience properly, it’s excellent. So get on and do it).

The paper is a short one and tracks the history of the site and what we have learned and experienced through running it. We are a bit unusual in that we are really independent of any university or society and don’t have any formal organisation as such. Things kinda just get done and if things don’t get done, either someone picks up the slack or complains till other people pitch in. This of course means we do have complete freedom to run the site as we see fit and it keeps costs down and stops time getting wasted on meetings and updates etc. On the downside, group apathy can set in and some things really don’t get done if they are never that urgent or that important, and it’s easy for a few of the more active people to dominate proceedings.

Even so, we think this is a successful model for others to follow. The whole site has been set up, run (and undergone a major redesign and facelift) for four years for just over 3000 pounds – that’s an incredible return. We have provided a real service which is slowly becoming more widespread in it’s influence with other sites now making use of our answers as a source of information and more teachers coming to us to help with questions from their pupils and for bits of information for their own lesson plans. We seem to be having the effect we always wanted and that’s a good thing. Hopefully this paper will go a little way to help push that still further and help us reach a still larger audience.

Of course you dear reader can help with that too with a bit of judicious blog posting, linking, mentioning this to your kid’s school, cousins’ science teacher, local nature club, or whatever. We are making a small difference and you can help us make a slightly larger one, so please help if you can.

Hone, D.W.E., Taylor, M.P., Wynick, D., Viscardi, P. & Gostling, N. 2011. Running a Question-and-Answer Website for Science Education: First-Hand Experiences. Evolution: Education and Outreach, in press.

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