ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Tara Richerson

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 Tara Richerson 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?
Tara Richerson pic.jpgSome people are military brats. I was a Post-doc brat. My adoptive father was an entomologist and the family moved around a bit when I was a child. I am Canadian by citizenship, but an amalgam of culture. Dad was a “gypsy moth-er” at Penn State and worked with the southern pine beetle crew at Texas A & M. We finally settled down in a small west Texas town and he began an academic career and continued research in biocontrols. For me, science was just part of life—not a subject in school or something separate to consider. I got to play with my dad’s old chemistry set (even the bottle of mercury) and learned to tease ant lions in the driveway. Discussions of parasitology at the dinner table were not looked upon as poor manners. I learned the value of intellectual curiosity by watching my father and many grad students in action. I learned about the wonder to be found in otherwise ordinary things—-how precious and intricate life is, not for supernatural reasons, but for all that there is for us to discover.
How I ended up as an educator in Washington state is a long story better suited for discussion over a bottle of pinot noir than a blog post. However, I will say that I am very passionate about public education. I believe that what happens in a classroom is about every kid, every day. While I am very proud of the students I have had who have chosen the sciences as a profession, it has been most important to me to develop happy, thoughtful, and confident young adults who are ready to meet the world on their own terms. At the risk of sounding too much like a Discovery commercial, the world is indeed awesome. I don’t want my students to ever think that the best years of their lives were in high school. The best years should always be ahead and it is my job to cultivate that spirit of adventure within them.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
There’s never a bottle of Pinot around when you need one, eh?
I didn’t decide that I wanted to be a teacher until the month I graduated from college. I had been accepted to the first cohort of Teach for America, but the logistics didn’t work out and I ended up taking another year of classes and getting a teaching certificate. I taught science for five years at what was the largest junior high school in New Mexico. It was a trial by fire—and at age 21, I was not that much older than some of the students. I also went back and earned my Masters degree in gifted ed while I was working. Eventually, I left NM for Washington, teaching high school science for 10 years, working as an instructional coach, and picking up my K-5 certification. I also started my doctoral work in the area of motivational classroom environments and classroom grading. I do many presentations each year about grading practices, but have started to get into data visualization. I was working for the state of Washington in the areas of science curriculum and assessment, but have moved into educational technology this year due to state budget constraints and my need to have a personal life. Next fall will mark my 20th year as an educator.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
I am someone who enjoys the journey more than the destination (other than air travel). This is not to say that I don’t have goals, just that I am not someone who gets upset by obstacles or serendipitous diversions. I really miss being involved with classroom science at the moment, but my current foray involving assessments for educational technology is a unique opportunity. So, for now, my job is taking up the largest chunk of my time (my commute is 70 miles…each way) and some of my passion.
I really enjoy working with teachers and the kinds of conversations I’m having about classroom instruction and assessment. My current niche involves grading practices. I realize that this is a turnoff for a lot of people—many have experienced some sort of grade trauma in their academic careers. I hadn’t intended to stumble into this area, but I have found that I am helping hundreds of teachers move in a new direction…and in turn, thousands of students. I have been asked to write a book and am hoping to do so this year.
Beyond all of that, I am having a rather torrid love affair with my house. I bought an old house by the water four years ago. It is my favourite place that I have ever lived. I enjoy watching the tides, working in the garden, and engaging with the guerrilla warfare that comes with the upkeep of a 70-year old home. It is a space that heals and rejuvenates me. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
I am intrigued with the possibilities of “open science.” I have just started thinking about this from an education perspective. I do think that being able to get information directly into the hands of students is very important. Science texts are interpretations of bits of knowledge—what will happen in classrooms as students are able to access scientists and their work in more timely and direct ways?
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 been blogging for more than 5 years now. I started What It’s Like on the Inside because I wasn’t having the kinds of conversations in my professional life that I really wanted to have. My career was going through some transition and I needed a space to capture my thoughts and attempt to find people to connect with. Since then, my blog has become a very important part of my life. It has been the source of relationships and experiences I would never have had otherwise. I have also been using Twitter for the last two years. I use it differently from my blog—my posts to Twitter are more personal and random. I think that type of communication is important, too. I love the journey represented by my blog posts, but my life is more than just work. Twitter helps round out a more human experience for me. I am on Facebook, but I rarely post there. It’s not a social network that really works for me. I want to keep my eye on the future, not the past.
It’s odd because my current job is focused around supporting the use of technology (including social networking) in the schools, but my accounts do not necessarily connect with this. I can’t claim that I separate professional from personal (nor do I want to). I haven’t found a way to fully integrate them, either. I still use my original handle (Science Goddess) and don’t plan to transition over to my real name. This is not so much an issue of privacy at this point as it is a “brand” issue. I have five years of content associated with Science Goddess. I can’t abandon it. Identity theft can work in a direction where someone can step into someone else’s former online identity. So, I’m at a point where I have just quietly claimed both of my names and am building connections between them.
I do find the use of social media to be very positive. I think it is empowering for people of all ages and backgrounds. It is a way to let your voice be heard and connect with others. While it’s true that these platforms can also be used to harm, the benefits far outweigh the risks. The ability to exchange information, maintain relationships, and keep current is a necessity in my work. I could do these things without blogging and tweeting, but it would be far more difficult.
When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?
I’ve had several people ask me how I met Bora. I tell them that I knew him back when we were baby bloggers. At that time, he had an education-related blog and was involved with the “edusphere,” even hosting a Carnival of posts now and then. Bora has gone on to be a rockstar in the science blogging world. Me? Not so much, although I am definitely one of the oldest edublogs still in existence: A coelacanth of blogging with my simple two-column ad-less gadget-less layout. My RSS is fairly eclectic—a mix of science blogs I’ve found over the years, lots of education related feeds, and some things that are just for entertainment. Once in awhile I hear the claim that blogging is dying, when instead it should be looked at as evolving. Blogging has changed since I first jumped into the pool. I’ve seen many fabulous writers come and go, but part of the fun is finding new blogs to read…to see new people discover blogging and the opportunity to share and connect with others.
ScienceOnline 2010 impacted my Twitter feeds more than my blog reading. I found at least 30 new people to follow and I am enjoying those conversations immensely. I can’t help but think of my dad when I read the trials and tribulations of research, publishing, working with undergrads, and the humor and play amongst scientists. It reminds me of the view of science I grew up with and I really appreciate that.
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 aspect of ScienceOnline 2010 was the diversity of participation. By that, I mean all of the different ways people connect with science: artists, researchers, writers, editors, librarians, bloggers, practitioners, students, and so forth. I loved the perspectives. We just don’t have that at educational conferences, which tend to be very specialized and cliquish. There is such value in having a variety of viewpoints at the table. When my dad was alive, we used to attend a conference together as often as possible. I really think he would have enjoyed the conversations at ScienceOnline. I’m grateful that he helped shape the beginning of my path there.
As for next year, I would like to see public education play a larger role. We did have some citizen science discussions this year; but, I believe that it is very important for scientists outside of public ed to become familiar with the issues educators are facing and how to get involved. There are some critical policy issues (e.g. Common Core Standards, No Child Left Behind…) that are going to have a broad impact on the science education of millions of children. We cannot deride the lack science literacy found among adults (or their adoration of pseudoscience) if we don’t pay attention to what happens in our schools. I am really afraid that by the time the scientific community starts to get involved with education policy, it is going to be too late. Those of us in education need you to arm yourselves with current information and raise your voice. I find it interesting that there was so much agreement with Michael Specter’s view of Denialism at the conference by the same people claiming that the U.S. is falling behind in producing students with math and science degrees or that public education is about teaching to the test. If you believe those sorts of things because of news soundbites or a conversation with a neighbour, then the level of denial can be just as harmful as those who believe the vaccine-autisum connection or that humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Be curious, scientists, about what is happening in public education. Be fierce about learning at every level.
My biggest take-away from the conference is how web 2.0 tools are being used out in the “real world.” We can talk a good game all we want in education about how we are (or aren’t) preparing students for life outside the classroom. But it isn’t meaningful unless we can actually connect what we do with what other professionals do. It would appear that institutions of all types are still figuring out how to leverage social networking platforms…to manage information in the cloud…and to take new tools and use them to communicate in new ways. These are things that we all have to figure out together. I hope that as those in sciences move forward, they will continue to find ways to partner with educators.
It was so nice to see you and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.


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