Very young people blogging about science

Mason Posner is a professor of Biology at Ashland University in Ohio. He also blogs on A Fish Eye View (though I notice he did not update it in a while). About a year ago, and inspired by some discussions emanating from ScienceOnline’09, he decided to try using blogs in his teaching. He did it last spring. And he is doing it again this spring.
You can check out his Marine Biology Course class blog, where he and the students are all posting in one place.
But also check out his Senior Capstone course in Biology and its class blog – he is the only one blogging there – the students are required to start and run their own blogs.
Now look at the Class Blogroll on the margin – take a look at last year’s (2009) student blogs – wonderful writing on all of them, good stuff. But! One of them is already deleted. There are four other blogs that stopped posting around early May of last year, probably at the time the course ended. Only one of the blogs is still running today. Why did they stop?
Now check out this year’s blogs – very, very nice stuff: The Difference between Ignorance and Apathy, SexyScience, Thirsty Pandas and Successors of Solomon. Lovely blogs. But will they last past May?
Now, you may remember a similar experiment at Duke – see this and this and especially experiences of Erica Tsai who ran the program. Why did all the Duke student blogs end once the class was over?
There is always a lot of chatter online (see the most recent commentary about a Pew study here, here, here and here) about teens and college students not blogging. No, the kids are not naturally Web-savvy – they also need to learn.
They use Twitter much more than the stats usually show, but mostly keep their profiles private and only talk to each other. They use it instead of texting because it is cheaper and platform-agnostic. Of course, they are all on Facebook (or MySpace, depending on socio-economic status), where they also interact with each other. The artistically inclined may connect with each other on DeviantArt. And yes, there are many who blog (though they may have predominantly chosen a more social blogging platform like LiveJournal).
All of the above are social uses, which is quite age-appropriate. Some of them (certainly not all) will, just like their elders, pick up blogging later, when they find a need to express themselves in long-form writing. Teaching them how to blog is part of their education, or at least should be.
But none of this really applies to the cases I started this post with – these are young people who have been taught how to blog, have done it well, probably got positive feedback for it from the instructor and peers, and obviously have something to say. So, why do they quit?
Is it because they see it as homework? Something that needs to be done for class, and can be stopped once the final grades are in?
Or is it because all the feedback they get comes only from the instructor and classmates? The class is a small community which formally and automatically dissolves the moment the semester is over. If the community is gone, who are you writing for?
Would they continue blogging if they felt they were a part of a larger community and, more importantly, a continuous community, one that has no expiration date? If we all sent them traffic by linking to their posts from our blogs, Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook etc., would they see that kind of feedback as a motivation to keep writing? If we posted comments on their blogs, would they feel like members of a broader community and would gladly continue engaging with it?
The same goes for even younger bloggers. Duke summer program had high schoolers blogging as well. How about Miss Baker’s students? Would comments on their posts be felt as intrusive or would they be seen as welcoming to a broader community and motivating to keep writing?
Are one-off events, e.g., attendance at ScienceOnline conferences, sufficient to give students enough momentum to continue long-term?


19 responses to “Very young people blogging about science

  1. I think you touched on one major point: If the community is gone, who are you writing for?
    The first blog I started was about physics. After a few entries I realized that no one was reading. Since the majority of my audience were friends and family, I spent more time explaining the information in my entries than I did writing them. Bottom line: they just didn’t care enough about the subject to keep reading.
    Which led me to my next (and current) blog, which follows the same premise of reporting technological advancements, but this time covering a broader scope of topics and making sure to point out why the average, non-scientist reader might care. I get a moderate number of page views per post, and a lot of them come from Google searches or outside links.
    But a point you overlooked is that most blogs are written for free. For young people, especially recent graduates, a more important endeavor is finding a full-time, salaried position – not spending time writing to the ether and getting nothing in return. Many well-known bloggers (such as yourself) have full-time jobs or have steady freelance work, and blog in their free time regardless of any economic reward. (Shamefully, I am guilty of neglecting my blog for weeks at a time, choosing instead to pursue paying gigs.)
    Perhaps young bloggers would continue to produce content if online communities or publications gave them something in return – I know money isn’t always an option, but published clips and engaged conversations with veteran writers can be invaluable in the long run.

  2. Interesting post – it’s something I’ve thought about a lot as a university tutor (students in their 20s) and someone who researches ways in which under 18s interact with science.
    On the ‘feels it is work’ thing, I think that probably is an issue, but then you’ll see young people interact with science in other ways – games, work experience, in a museum. I suppose a fair bit of the interaction there is relatively guided/ passive though – it is rare that young people get to generate their own content with respect to science.
    So, I’m tempted to say it’s partly that young people don’t feel like they are allowed the status of having a worthwhile personal opinion on science (rather, they are passive vessels for it). Still, I think the question is probably more to do with blogging than the science theme. Your examples are where teachers have clearly got young people feeling like, at least for a time, they can speak up about science.
    I suppose blogging involves some form of commitment (e.g. bloggers who get ‘guilt’ when they don’t blog for a bit), and perhaps, a form of stable identity. Maybe when you are young, and changing where you are going all the time, a blog doesn’t sit so comfortably?
    I’d also agree about the ‘if the community is gone’ point – that’s got to be the central issue. Though… I’m sceptical about how much bringing young people into older community of bloggers would necessarily work – I absolutely adore the idea of such a multi-generational science blogosphere but I think cross-generational tensions, especially in areas like science and social media (which I’d say are v generationally aware), would just get in the way. I can see it becoming “grown up space” very quickly, and therefore one young people don’t want to hang out in.

  3. I have a blog with my high school students as well (AP Biology). Here are my thoughts, although they’re a bit disjointed due to the head cold that accompanies working in a Petri dish (aka high school)…
    I completely agree that it isn’t a “natural” skill for them – while they are tech-savvy, I have to re-teach each year’s crop of students about blogging, as when they enter my class the vast majority don’t even really know what blogs are, much less how to write one. (I see it as a good time to talk about safety and etiquette as well, incidentally.)
    My kids, in general, say that they vastly prefer to comment on posts as opposed to write their own posts. Not sure if this is because comments are easier, or because they’re just not comfortable with this type of platform. In addition, I *have* to give them grades on it, because, like it or not, in our current system kids just won’t do that much unless there is an extrinsic value attached. Sure, some of them would blog on their own, but certainly not all of them – and I value having them all involved.
    As much as I would love to open up their blog to outside commenters – because I know they’d really enjoy getting that kind of feedback – K-12 rules don’t generally allow for that sort of thing. I’m somewhat surprised I’m even allowed to have them blogging.
    (If you’re clicking the link to check out the blog – we took a brief hiatus for winter break and semester exams. We’ll be back in action next week.)

  4. Hi Bora! I started writing a response comment but it got too long so I made it into a blog post on The Millikan Daily: Link!

  5. Hi Bora,
    Like Elissa, blogging isn’t “natural” for my students either. But, with regards to her students liking to comment more, mine are completely the opposite. My first year students loved to write posts and comment, but the last two years students have only wanted to write their own posts. I’m still trying to figure out why the commenting isn’t so interesting for them.
    There are a couple of reasons why my students stop blogging. One reason is that the rest of their high school environment sucks the creative blogging life right out of them. In my class, they like to blog because it’s like a breath of fresh air. “A new way to learn? And I get to be creative?! This is awesome!” But, don’t forget I’m giving them structured time to do this. We have days in my class where the students work on blogging. And I assign blogging homework. I disagree with the thought that the students now see blogging as “schoolwork” and don’t want to do it anymore. Most of them think it’s really cool and a fun way to connect with people. But, outside of my class they’re too exhausted to blog. At my school, most students are involved in several sports. After school they spend several hours at practice/games and then go home and do up to six hours of homework. When are they supposed to blog?
    Secondly, you are right on the mark when you say students quit because they don’t feel part of the community. Having people respond to your posts validates your work. Unlike Elissa, there are no rules blocking outside comments to my students’ blog. However, I do moderate the comments just to check for abusive/inappropriate language.
    Scientists don’t realize the POWER they have when they encourage a young student on a blog. When I tell a student their blog was great, they’re happy. When their friends tell them, they’re ecstatic. When a professional scientist tells them, they are beside themselves with excitement. And they seriously begin to consider science as a career. I’m not exaggerating. I have three years of real-life examples to give you. Please encourage scientists to comment to students’ blogs!!! Note that asking a student to come to your blog and then responding to a comment they made does not produce the same result.

  6. Speaking as someone in Dr. Posner’s first group of bloggers, I quit because I was concerned about the impact my blog might have on my future career. You never know what will offend people, and group blogs have the added risk of authorship confusion. Internet posts are not worth real-world consequences.
    I suppose I could have stayed with blogging on only the most non-controversial of topics, but what’s the point of blogging about science if you cannot be honest? For example, a pro-life club at Ashland University once littered the campus with posters touting the supposed link between breast cancer and abortion, which would have made a great topic for our science blogs, but it just wasn’t worth the potential hassle.

  7. Thank you for taking the time to read my student’s writing. I have been very impressed with how well my students have taken to blogging in my senior capstone course. There is a learning curve for many, as they have not blogged before. But once technical hurdles are crossed, they really write some fantastic stuff. And I think this year’s group is even better than last year’s. In discussions the students have been excited about sharing their love for science and biology, and it shows in their blogs. And they are very funny.
    Interesting question about why they do not stick with it. I certainly could be better about encouraging them at the end of the semester. My one student who has continued on with her Plague-erism blog (I love that name) is doing great work. Please keep reading her and post comments. I think the drop-off in blogging has two causes. First, the loss of the community probably plays a big part in removing that drive (and guilt) to keep writing. I just added my first post in a year to my own personal science blog, and in the back of my head I kept thinking about a former student that emailed me to ask where the new posts were.
    But another reason is technological. One student from last year’s course started a personal blog when she went off to Physical Therapy school. But she stopped posting. And another student started a Twitter feed, but that did not last long either. The community is on Facebook, and that is where my former science students post about science – in shared links and videos.
    I will bring up this question in my class, and maybe some of my students will comment here. And I would encourage anyone to read their stuff and give some encouragement in the comments. One of the highlights of last year’s class for the students was when Dr. Isis left a comment on one of our student’s blogs. They all love Dr. Isis.

  8. I think my students would welcome comments from the outside- no feelings of intrusion. As a matter of fact, you can give them some feedback right now:
    As for grading the blogs… I do and I don’t feel bad about it at all. Everyone needs a little push. (Just like the pay you get here at ScienceBlogs) Sure, some students do it just for the grade but it’s awesome when you can see they’re posting something because they want to. They just want to share.

  9. I must say that I am quite honoured at having our University and course project mentioned in such an established blog! I am one of the 2009 AU students, and I chose to continue my blog after the course ended. I continued to blog for three reasons: I am very passionate about the subject matter, I enjoy learning about current research and breaking news, and because I value the significance of increasing awareness and communication regarding scientific matters. I appreciate blogging because I [choose to] believe that I write about intelligent/pertinent topics and can be taken seriously and potentially educate others (given people are actually reading…haha)
    Just 3 days ago, I was having a conversation and expressed some feelings of blogger-frustration, as I felt like I was no longer blogging to anyone… and simply talking to myself. In regards to why we students generally have not continued blogging, I would say that it largely has to do with the lack of community/readers and so motivation is lost.
    Would students (very young people) blog if they knew people were reading/listening to what they had to say? YES, probably! Would students blog if they thought that other people (ANYONE!) considered what they had to say to be somewhat interesting/relevant/important? YES, probably! This is potentially one of the first times in a young adult’s life where they’re permitted to write whatever they want about a topic and be taken seriously! To be perfectly honest, for as much as I love writing about infectious disease, I would never write the things I post on my blog, on my facebook… for fear of… social criticism…I suppose.

  10. One more thing…
    Having multiple ways for students to stay connected to the blog is important.
    RSS makes this easy.

  11. Hi Bora, I’m a (recently ex-) high-school student who has been blogging since 2008 about science and skepticism, mostly focusing on evolution and creationism.
    Kylie Sturgess (@podblack) directed me to this article on Twitter, and I think I might write a post in response to what you’ve written, sharing my own thoughts about why we don’t see many people my age blogging about science. Perhaps after Valentine’s Day… I’m a bit busy at the moment. :p

  12. Even though many would not consider me young anymore, I do feel what many others have posted about is true. I do blog more infrequently now, but a lot of it is because so much of what I do want to write about is a little ahead of what most of my readers can handle. Science blogs aren’t very popular in my age bracket and it is hard to write for a captive audience when my blog is competing (even though I see no “competition”) with blogs on here and Nature.
    While it is true that many younger bloggers fall off the bandwagon because of time constraints and the lack of an audience, I still post and have even convinced another to put a few entries in when he can. My videos are getting farther apart, but as a previous commenter mentioned, it is time consuming and right now, paying bills is a priority. I could make money blogging if, let’s say, I wrote about life in the islands, but science is a hard sell and I do it mostly for the joy of teaching. Honestly, I am surprised I still write anything! I must enjoy it more than I thought! It has almost been 2 years now and I have actually been talking to others about how to get readership on Potspoon! up and increase discussions. Feeling like no one is listening when the feedback on other social platforms is near instantaneous is enough to let anyone give up. It’s hard feeling like no one is even paying attention.

  13. So I was one of those bloggers from last spring. My groups blog is . I think we had some great posts that were very entertaining. However, I felt like we were blogging just to the other classes, and once that ended I figured (and I’m sure Val and Elise did too) that no one was reading anymore. It was an amazing lesson, and I’m extremely glad we had that! Dr. Mason Posner is a great professor who constantly was coming up with cool new medias to incorporate into teaching. I just don’t know what I would write about now. Even if I did, I don’t think anyone would listen.

  14. i’m a student blogger myself and i can relate. i write blogs for project exploration (here ) but it’s not something i do very often. usually i’ll blog about a scientific event that PE invites me to attend but i don’t do a lot of individual blogs. the issue isn’t that i don’t have anything to say about my world i think the issue is that if i get all my thoughts out on the web i want confirmation that a large community of people hears what i have to say. i need that feedback to encourage me to post individual, personal blogs. i need to know that the online community hears what i have to say.

  15. Wow! It’s great to see comments from young bloggers.
    I just found this post by one of my students. Who has a PhD and feels insecure about blogging… useful?

  16. And here is the follow-up post.

  17. Thank’s Mason! I loved their writing when I saw it. Tell them all to keep up the good work!

  18. michael ramirez

    well being a young person who blogs, (on project explorations blog), i see blogging as something fun and a way to express yourself. i think that young people do not continue to blog or do not blog because they do not know how to start it off. most people say just blog what you like and people will come with the same interests. but those people are the friends that we have on facebook and other social network sites. so if young people were given a topic to start off with they could get a variety of people coming to there blogs that are not just there friends. young people see it as just posting what they already posted on social network sites. but blogs can be completely weird and one of a kind. DON’T BE AFRAID YOUNG PEOPLE! any questions are if any young person just wants to talk about blogging and all of the possibilties it has email me at 🙂

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