Educating Future Science Communicators

By Gabriel Medina

Curiosity is one of the intrinsic characteristics of children, but before they become adults a considerable amount of them lose their sense of wonder and their interest in studying or learning more about science.

Nebraska's children are also less interested in science today than in the past, but it is important for society to educate more scientists as well as science communicators, according to Mark Balschweid, head of the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communication (ALEC) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"If you look at data on elementary students, there's a certain natural curiosity in them... a natural fascination with science and the wonders of science," he said. And then we get to a point where it becomes not nearly as interesting, not nearly as exciting, he added. "There's a great cooling-off period that's being documented. And if you look at the forefront of where research and science education is, it's really about inquiry-based learning and that inquiry-based learning says let's return to that period of wonder in young people and let's let them follow their natural curiosities." Balschweid explained that due to children's loss of interest, it becomes a difficult task to convince them to study science as a major in college.

Dr. Mark Balschweid

Dr. Mark Balschweid

"One of the primary missions that we have as educators," Balschweid said, "is to make sure that we have an informed citizenry for generations to come. And in order to be an informed individual, that means that they must be able to have access to clear, understandable facts, a truth if you will, about the science that affects their lives on a daily basis." According to Balschweid, Nebraskans should have basic scientific information. If they are informed, they can make better decisions related to where their food comes from and how to manage use of water and energy.

The Importance of Small Communities

Balschweid pointed out that Nebraska is mostly comprised of small communities, not of big cities, and these communities need specific kinds of well-trained leaders. "I remind people that this great nation that we live in," said Balschweid, "this great state that we are a part of, is really made up of small communities. Those small communities really weave together to form the fabric of who we are. If we don't have strong, vibrant small communities, then Nebraska suffers as a whole. There are hundreds of small communities that need community leaders, they need people that have vision, they need people who can communicate and who are committed to education of the children in their schools." Balschweid also explained that one of his main goals is to educate young people in agriculture and industrial technology with the hope that they will stay in those communities, or at least in Nebraska.

Nebraska's demographics have dramatically changed over the years, so the ALEC department is doing research in cross-cultural leadership and cross-cultural communications. The goal is for small communities to have capable leaders who are able to communicate with people from different backgrounds. Even though the university has tremendous programs in science and outstanding programs in communications, he said, education in communicating science is needed. "We hope to be able to provide some information and some other programming essential for that," he said.

"I think the most difficult challenges for communicating science in the 21st century are that science has exploded in terms of the technology, discovery and application," he said. "It's really easy to get overwhelmed by the tide of information. So the challenge is how we take that information that can be very complex and present it in such a way that is more easily understood. And so it's my belief that we will always need people who specialize in science communication specifically," he added.

"I think it's really important that we teach science in a context people understand," he said. "That we teach science not in a sterile lab-based setting, where we have canned experiments, but we utilize the context that they can understand. Certainly for a state like Nebraska that is so heavily dependent on agriculture, we can teach science in the context of animal and food production, so students can relate."

UNL's Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communication receives funds from federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Education, as well as state funds in the form of grant dollars.


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