ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Mark MacAllister

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years’ interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.
Today, I asked Mark MacAllister, Coordinator of On-Line Learning Projects at the North Carolina Zoological Society to answer a few questions.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?
Mark Macallister pic.JPGI was born and educated in the Midwest–grew up in northwest Illinois, spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ dairy farm in southwest Wisconsin, and went to undergrad school at Oberlin College. I then came south for the first of three tours of duty in North Carolina, including grad school at UNC-Chapel Hill. Also mixed in there is time spent living and working in Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Buffalo, Toronto, London and Chicago. I’m still a Midwesterner at heart, and really miss long sightlines and cold winters. But I love North Carolina, especially my current and quirky hometown of Pittsboro–it’s kind of like “The Andy Griffith Show” where every third person is a massage therapist. I work for the North Carolina Zoological Society, which is based in Asheboro, but telecommute from my shed-in-the-woods office in Pittsboro.
Philosophically, I tend to find myself most interested in the place where technology, education (especially K-12 but also for adults) and environmental advocacy come together. I feel that each one of those can be improved by the application of the other two–if that makes any sense. I’m an early adopter in all three, and have been lucky enough to be able to be involved in somewhat radically new things in each area. I’ve been self-teaching on computers since 1982, beginning with a Kaypro running CP/M. My Master’s degree is in Environmental Policy and Law, meaning that I took half my coursework in UNC’s Political Science department and the other half through the Law School. And, as far as teaching goes–one of the nicest compliments anyone ever paid me was to call me a “natural teacher,” meaning that I don’t have a teaching license but I somehow manage to pull it off.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
After grad school, my wife and I moved to Salt Lake City. I spent five years out there working on wilderness advocacy. I did a lot of research in the field–getting paid to hike and camp in the deserts of southern Utah was a great gig–and also in the public document rooms of various state and federal agencies. The advocacy groups I worked with were involved in mining, grazing, water rights, logging and other threats to wilderness preservation. What I began to notice toward the end of my tenure there was that many issues that appeared to be landscape-related were actually endangered species-related, and as a result I began to become more interested in species preservation.
We came back to North Carolina and in 1996 I went to work for the Chatham County Schools administrative office. The state was just beginning to wire classrooms, the Internet was just beginning to find its footing in terms of K-12 education, and Chatham understood early on that a significant teacher training effort would need to follow close on the heels of the effort to get everything wired. My job was in many ways focused on creating an atmosphere of support for integrating the Internet into classrooms; in other words, I was asked to help teachers understand why adopting technology was in everyone’s best interest, and then to work with them to actually help them gain those skills. Not long after we got started, Chatham was recognized as one of the ten top technology school districts in the country.
While this was all going on, I found myself thinking more and more about the content of the K-12 curriculum. It seemed obvious that a wonderful way to interest kids and meet curriculum goals was to focus the whole deal on the study of animals and wildlife, and to do so with technology-rich methods. I approached the Education Curator at the North Carolina Zoo, and not long after that we were partnering to build two websites focused on field-based wildlife research. These sites eventually evolved into FieldTripEarth, which is one of the many things I’m working on these days. I’ve been at the Zoo for ten years now, and have seen through a variety of other projects, ranging from teacher education (in both the US and Africa) to social media planning to field-based informal education.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
I’m often thinking about “raw learning materials” (this is David Warlick’s term, see Landmark Project) and how to best put them into the hands of students and teachers. I’m not particularly interested in curriculum–that is, in designing and assembling big packages of resources that teachers can then plug into their classrooms. Rather, I’m curious about how best to make original source material available to classrooms and, better yet, how to put those classrooms in contact with the people that actually generate those source materials (By source materials, I mean first-person narratives, photos, video, datasets, maps and so on that, taken together, tell a story about what a scientist or other field researcher is working on). FieldTripEarth wheels and deals in exactly this currency, and we’ve been successful in providing classrooms a way to access these materials from researchers working all over the world. What they do with them is, for the most part, up to the students and teachers–we do offer some generalized strategies for using the materials found on the website, but for the most part we urge everyone to apply them to meet their specific needs.
What I wish I could spend more time on–or at least be more successful at doing–is bringing various classrooms into substantive contact with each other. I don’t mean waving at each other through Skype…rather, what I’m on the lookout for are ways to help students in various locations work together to solve learning problems, to interview field scientists, to author a video about a particular topic, and so on. I think there’s a lot of potential in this, but I’m not convinced that teachers and administrators will buy into it.
More generally, I’m interested in teaching process and thinking skills to whoever will sit still long enough to learn them. What we commonly call the scientific method can of course be used to learn in any academic or technical area. Unfortunately, most schools aren’t teaching thinking as an organized process; that’s why I try to focus on the work being done by field researchers, because I consider them role models of sorts when it comes thinking that is both multi-disciplinary and systematic.
I have some other goals, of course. I’d like to figure out a way to make hiking and biking more a part of the K-12 classroom. I’d like to read and write more, and to think out loud with colleagues more frequently.
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?
I’ve never really taken to blogging as part of my work, though I do read several blogs focused on politics and policy, both of which are hobby horses of mine. Twitter and Facebook are a relatively small part of my professional life, mostly because right now my employer focuses more on their utility in serving members than in educating them. I think these tools form a net positive, but will be much more relevant once we figure out how to use them as educational, rather than informational, resources.
What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
The best thing about the conference was witnessing the various interests people brought with them–as well as the varying levels of expertise. It helped me remember that this is still such an evolving area. The sessions were all strong, but for the most part my strongest impressions were formed outside of the meeting rooms.
As far as suggestions for next year–it would be cool to invite some consumers of science communication and let us see how they put it to work in their lives. There was a bit of that at 2010, but there’s a lot of untapped experience out there.
And while we’re at it, I’d love to have a session focused on the question “How do we make our students’ experiences with technology at school at least as rich and relevant as the experiences they are having outside of school?”
It was so nice to meet you and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.

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