Before social networks, e-mail, and even before the telephone, scientists regularly communicated with their peers by mail and in person. Letters carrying news of the latest discoveries traversed oceans aboard ships, and royal societies held annual meetings for just about every discipline. Incorporating social networks into STEM education represents an expansion of the many ways that researchers already share their work, find resources and swap ideas. With over two-thirds of the population using some form of social network to communicate, how have these tools been leveraged for education?

According to Kacy Karlen, manager of web and social media for TERC, in Cambridge, Mass., educators and researchers should take advantage of the ease with which students incorporate social networking in their daily lives and leverage these tools for use in the classroom. Karlen has seen teachers expand their definition of “social” networking by using Twitter to monitor learning and track feedback and Pinterest to collate and share digital resources for class projects and lessons.

At the post-secondary level, TERC’s IGERT.org provides social network-style functionality for communication among aspiring interdisciplinary scientists and engineers. A brief tour of the IGERT website showcases features and forums for graduate students and scientists to interact across nationwide IGERT program sites, participate in webinars, cull interactive resources from an expansive digital library, and communicate with peers and the greater public directly through video — as in the IGERT Online Video and Poster Competition.

The opportunity to network around STEM is not limited to graduate students. In Boulder, Colo., the Global Ozone Project (GO3) provides equipment to middle and high schools to collect and analyze air pollution data of the quality desired by scientists and government organizations for research and decision-making. The program’s social network allows students from around the world to engage with each other in the asking and answering of questions about their data.

Nearly 2,000 member students have access to data from over 90 sites nationally and internationally. They regularly update and share their observations via the network. Guest scientists and program managers post resources, pose engaging questions and respond to student queries. GO3 program managers Jessa Ellenburg and Kali Basman monitor the social network side of the program and say students have exceeded their expectations, using the site appropriately to expand their understanding of the science. Ellenburg notes that in several years she’s only experienced a few issues with students posting content not appropriate for the site. Of course, the social network is not all work; students also share their culture through music and video.

Common elements of IGERT and GO3, like contests and membership requirements, appear to spark and narrow the focus of online engagement to the appropriate context. In addition, Basman and Ellenburg believe that students already have plenty of online outlets for socializing and thus confine their interactions on the GO3 network to the science. While the potential for abusing the system exists, the majority of individuals benefit from the opportunity to join and participate in these online communities, use social networks and similar resources to gather, share, and organize data and learn from peers and mentors.

Doug Haller is the principal of Haller STEM Education Consulting. Haller is an education consultant specializing in strategic planning and market analysis to drive design, development and sales of niche education products for clients in the for-profit, nonprofit, and education and public outreach fields. His creative approach is based on years of practical experience as an educator, instructional designer and education consultant. Check out his blog, STEM Education: Inspire, Engage, Educate.

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