Science Networking Project: The Handout

I would like to thank all of the individuals on Twitter and those who have commented on the blog for help in thinking about how best to use Twitter in the classroom.  Below is the handout I will be giving the students the first day of class.  Feel free to make suggestions for improvement, or to modify and use it for your own purposes if you like it.

Science Networking Project

Keeping abreast of the latest scientific news and research as one enters his or her career can be a greater challenge than one might think; therefore, developing skills to stay connected to the flow of scientific information is essential for one’s growth as a scientist. Until recently, keeping up with information in one’s field consisted of making an attempt to, at the very least, browse the titles and abstracts of the major journals related to that particular discipline. Amidst the many other responsibilities of a graduate student or developing scientist in another career track, staying current with research news is a focus that often gets ignored. However, with easier and more regular access to information through the Internet and direct connectivity to those with similar interests, this task is made much easier.

The social networking tool, Twitter, is used by many scientists and science writers and is a powerful technology for following breaking scientific news stories. Following specifically selected individuals connects one to a vast network of information. Many of these individuals specifically dedicate their time to looking for the most important scientific breakthroughs and tweeting about them. Furthermore, one can easily begin to see what new stories are of great importance, as multiple individuals will tweet about the same story or retweet what others have posted. And at times, great content is tweeted that escapes the attention of main players or major journal editors. So, while at the basic level twitter can function as one’s personalized news feed (and in the case of this course, tailored to scientific interests), this technology can offer much more.

Through Twitter one can connect to individuals and organizations that previously may have been inaccessible. Through these connections you can begin to develop your Personal Learning Network (PLN), defined on one blog as, “the entire collection of people with whom you engage and exchange information, usually online.”[1] Your PLN will be specific to your own interests and connect you to individuals that will become virtual colleagues for sharing ideas. For example, as I was entreating ways to use Twitter in the classroom, I connected with other faculty who had also used Twitter in their classroom and we were able to engage and discuss this topic. Beyond using Twitter as a way for you to keep informed with emerging scientific information, my greater goal for this activity is to assist you in forming a lasting professional network, the foundation of which will be your fellow classmates and myself.

Some of you may already use Twitter – perhaps for personal purposes, but you may have already begun to adapt this to your professional practice. For the purposes of this class, your Twitter accounts should become a professional representation of your online persona. If you have a Twitter account that you use for personal connections with friends (ie. Foursquare check-ins, etc.), I strongly recommend that you begin an alternate, professional account for use in this course and as you connect with other professionals. With that said, you may go to and start your account. You may want to download the program “Tweetdeck,” which will allow you to more easily track tweets associated with the class. When you are write tweets for this class, be sure to include the hashtag #AB471, which will allow us to isolate all tweets associated with this course. To start connecting to sources related to this course, follow the individuals/organizations listed below.

Bloggers/Science Writers

Science Journals

Scientific Societies/Foundations

Science and Art

Women in Science




Suggestions for Tweeting:

  1. Find a news article, blog post, or other source. Write a short caption and provide a link to this source. (Tip: To shorten the original link you can use a site such as to create a short link. Doing this will reduce the number of characters your link consumes.)
  2. Tweet a question. In addition to sending me an email or posting on the Moodle site, feel free to Tweet your question. I will respond as quickly as possible; alternatively, a classmate or someone in your extended PLN will take the initiative.
  3. Respond to a Tweet posted by a classmate. Let them know you found interesting something they shared. Initiate a conversation about it.
  4. Find something in class particularly fascinating? Compose a short Tweet about it.

Twitter Project: The Response

Thanks to some helpful re-tweets, some interesting discussion on Twitter and in the comments section of my previous post produced some suggestions and highlighted some challenges that may be encountered when trying to integrate social media into the classroom. I wanted to take a moment to summarize this discussion here, which, I hope, will generate some helpful followup discussion.

Kelly Gull (@asmkelly) re-tweeted the link to my original blog post and put me in contact with some others in the Twitter community who have implemented similar ideas in their own courses.

The first response I received was from Mark Martin (@markowenmartin) who tweeted, “Sure enough. I’m not sure the students were as enthused as I was.” This was quickly followed by Steven Hecht’s (@Profmicro) response, “My experience is more like yours. And…do you follow back students? Some things I don’t want to know.” The latter part of this response I found somewhat surprising, as I always assumed that I would follow the students back. One of the goals I envisioned with this activity, was to invite students to engage with a professional online community. Not following the students, in my mind, would suggest to them that while I wanted them to use Twitter, I wouldn’t be willing to engage in their network on the same level. I feel this creates a sense of exclusion between myself as the instructor and the students, making the tasks seems more like an assignment rather than an attempt to form a learning community. Alison Link, a masters student at U of M, is also interested in using Twitter as an education tool (Link to her Twitter Challenge project here). In a comment on my previous post on this topic, she entertains similar considerations as those expressed above:

“What do you think about the idea of adding syllabus language if Twitter or other social media is being used in class? I feel like could help clarify to students that they will be contributing to a public platform (such as Twitter) for class, and spelling out the different privacy options they should think about. (i.e. creating a separate “professional” account, altering privacy settings on posts, etc.)”

In response to Hecht’s comment, “Some things I don’t want to know,” I wondered whether having students create a separate professional account would limit any “TMI” situations. In fact, part of this exercise would include developing the students’ understanding of the importance of creating a professional online presence. Students should be aware that what they share is public and learn how to engage with the online community in a respectable, professional manner. Rebecca Achterman (@RRAchterman) tweeted, “I did not follow back, just used hashtag. Twapperkeeper made grading easier.” Aaron Best (@aaron_best) provided a similar response, indicating that not following students is a common approach, at least in the context of the discussion I have seen. For instructors who are not inclined to follow their students, there are tools for keeping track of the class Twitter discussion. Twapperkeeper is one example of how one can create an archive of Tweets based on #hashtag, keyword, and @person. Irrespective of whether one follows students back, using an archiving program such as Twapperkeeper seems essential to organizing for discussion and grading purposes.

The initial response indicating the difficult to motivate students to become involved tempered my enthusiasm for how successful integration of such an activity in my own class would be. A response from Best, however, provided some encouragement: “Engagement has been decent, not stellar. Some highly involved; others will never be. Happy w/ 1st try.” This was followed by a response from Mark Martin: ” First steps can be wobbly, I know. More structure, and pointage?” Kelly Gull also indicated that @dawessner has had success in integrating Twitter into the classroom, but as of yet he has not entered this particular conversation. I would be interested to hear his opinions. Also, from Best: “We’ve got some structured activities and similar learning goals… can discuss if interested.” Yes. Interested.

Perhaps a focus in this discussion should be specific activities that encourage greater involvement, activities that are engaging and provide a meaningful learning experience. One this topic I would be most interest in hearing from those who have attempted using Twitter in their courses.

1. In what ways are others implementing Twitter in their classrooms?

2. What specific activities have you developed that utilize Twitter or other forms of social media?

Perhaps by finding the most effective and engaging exercise to link with our use of Twitter in the classroom, we can limit the resistance on the part of students to using this technology. Quite possibly, one of my readers is aware of an existing resource describing effective classroom activities utilizing social media and could provide that. If not, I think it would be helpful to utilize this community to combine our ideas and identify the most effective among them.

Science Networking Project: Twitter Revisited

In my initial post on using Twitter in the classroom, I had only begun to explore the idea as a method of information retrieval – a way for students to keep up with current findings. Since then I have been exploring ways to incorporate Twitter in more active ways, developing activities around the use of this technology. The higher-order learning objective that I hope to attain through this project is to increase students’ ability to communicate recent scientific findings and become actively engaged in the scientific community through the use of social networking media. To avoid students attaching strong associations between this project and their preconceived ideas about Twitter, in my syllabus I have named this series of assignments the “Science Networking Project.”

Getting Started

There are some preliminaries to take care of before getting to the good stuff. The first being: students will need a Twitter account (@IleneDawn has also suggested the use of HootCourse – I have just started looking into this site and what it can offer). The exercise of using Twitter in the classroom is to show students that these social networking tools have become an important tool not only in disseminating knowledge but also in generating productive discourse. Students may already have experience with this technology for other purposes, so I believe it is important to gain an understanding of how students already use Twitter.

The first step in this project involves some brief discussion based around the following questions: If students already have a Twitter account, for what do they use it? Have they already begun to use it for information retrieval, or does it primarily serve social functions? If students don’t have an account, what are their expectations of this technology? Having a brief conversation about this may reduce students’ apprehension towards the technology and allow them to see it as a valuable tool.

The next phase involves the practical issues of establishing the class’s twitter community:

  1. Open a Twitter account.
  2. Add your Twitter handle to the student list.
  3. I will collect the names and compile them in a list, along with a list of individuals or organizations that tweet news related to the course.
  4. Students will receive a copy of this list and will be responsible for adding their classmates and the additional twitter feeds on the list.
  5. I will encourage them to follow peers even outside the class. Connecting to their extended peer circle will results in exposing to scientific information those who may not typically pay much attention to this type of news.

After students have opened an account and are connected to our, at this stage, limited network of followers, the core of this project becomes designing assignments that encourage students to become engaged with this community. Through these assignments students will employ higher levels of learning through synthesis and written communication. Relating to this section, I would greatly appreciate suggestions from my readers for possible projects. Below I include a short list of ideas I have considered, that other individuals have contributed, or that I have found on in other sources.

1. Retweet two science-related tweets that catch your interest.

This exercise gets the students to actively look through their twitter feed and at least be considering subjects that are of interest to them.  Grading for this assignment would be low-stakes, simply giving a small point value for having completed the assignment.

One could argue that this approach is far too passive – that students could just retweet the first two articles that appear to be related to the course and gain nothing from the experience. To avoid this, the exercise could be coupled with an opportunity for the students to exercise their writing skills:

a. Students submit a short explanation (1-2 paragraphs) of what they found interesting about this particular tweet.

b. If the tweet links to an article or website, have them summarize the content of the link.

2. Find an article from a popular source, summarize (this part would be submitted to me), and tweet about it.

I like this exercise because the student must process what they have read, turn it not only into a summary for me, but then also tweet about it.  The format of Twitter only allows for a very brief summary or tag line about the source, which means students must draw out the core message of the article.

3. Find a blog post of interest, summarize, and tweet about it. (This can be from a list of blogs I will provide in class, or one that the student finds on her or his own.)

4. Have students attend a talk and tweet about it. (Suggested by Dr. Cheryl Neudauer)

I welcome additional suggestions of ways in which I can make this experience as valuable as possible for students. I will update the list of twitter assignments in future posts.

I close with one example of how Twitter has been successfully integrated into a history classroom. I discovered this video through a tweet from @cristinacost. Dr. Monica Rankin at UT Dallas shows some of the ways she has integrated Twitter into classroom discussion. You see some of the positive response from the students about the experiment.

Michael Nielsen and the open science revolution

@IleneDawn tweeted a link to an interesting video featureing Michael Nielsen, a pioneer in quantum computing and author of the recently published “Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science.” (Just purchased for my nook!) This is a timely find, following up on my recent post aiming to explore novel or interesting ways to integrate twitter into the classroom.

Nielsen opens his talk using the example of the polymath project, which utilizes a blog to engage a large community of mathematicians in solving difficult problems in the blog’s comment section. This social problem solving endeavor reminds me of another successful attempt used in biology: Foldit. Foldit is an online video game where participants attempt to fold proteins to the best of their ability.  The efficacy of this approach has led to papers published in peer-reviewed journals such as PNAS. These examples support the claim that social networks can provide a powerful tool in facilitating communal problem solving.

One major drawback to the success of this approach that Nielsen addresses in his talk is active participation in these projects. He notes that despite great enthusiasm for these projects, the greatest thinkers in a given field fail to contribute, leaving sites associated with open science projects “virtual ghost towns.” Nielsen provides one example of a great success that spawned a data-sharing revolution in the field of molecular biology.

Genebank originally encountered the lack of contribution that many of these open science endeavors face. In 1996, leading molecular biologists met in Bermuda to address ways in which they could encourage scientist to share their sequence data with the online community.  From this meeting, they came up with two main principles: 1) “That once human genetic data is taken in the lab, it should be immediately uploaded to a site like genebank;” and 2) “That this data would be in the public domain.” These principles one their own may not have been sufficient to encourage participation; fortunately, national funding organizations such as NIH supported this initiative and wrote it into policy.

What Nielsen calls for, ultimately, is an open science revolution. He argues that scientists currently lack rewards to shift some of their valuable time to participating in open science programs. The drive to publish their own research and to keep secret their most important findings prevents them from dispersing information in a public way or posing problems for a community to solve. Nielsen argues that this revolution in the culture of science is not unlike the revolution that took place with the advent of scientific journals. What we need to do, as a scientific community, is support this revolution and encourage those who are compelled to participate in it.  He provides three suggestions for moving in this direction:

1) Get involved in an open science project.

2) Start an open science program – Adopt currently available approaches to open science. If more ambitious, develop novel ways to disperse and collect scientific information, or explore novel venues for community problem solving.

3) Give credit to colleagues practicing open science – Scientists may currently be discouraged by peers from this new mode of practicing science. One of the minor incentives for exploring these new technologies is simply peer support.

Now to think of how we, as a community of scientists, can best employ these technologies in our own fields. (And to read Nielsen’s book!)

Teaching with twitter

As part of the advanced molecular and cellular biology course I will be teaching next semester, I have been considering ways to integrate social networking into the course. I would like to encourage students to use twitter as one of the ways they can keep current with information in the field. Therefore, I pose the question: Who (or what organizations) are the best people to follow on twitter in the field of molecular and cellular biology?

Please post your suggestions in the comments.

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