ScienceOnline'09: Interview with Stacy Baker

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline'09 back in January.

Today, I asked Stacy Baker, everyone's favorite Biology cyber-teacher, to answer a few questions.

Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your (scientific) background?

I'm a high school biology teacher. I've taught general, honors, and advanced placement biology for the past four years. Prior to teaching I worked as a biologist and studied seabirds in the Pribilof Islands and migrating seabirds off the Atlantic coast. I also worked a few years in wildlife rehabilitation. I have a BS in Zoology from Washington State University.

What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?

When I was growing up I would answer, "Anything, but a teacher." I'm serious! My mom's a teacher and growing up watching her work long hours and get very little very financial reward turned me against the profession. Why on earth would anyone want to be a teacher?

Life has a funny way of making you eat your words. When I was working in the field I would occasionally have the opportunity to share what I was doing with local K-12 students. My colleagues said I had a gift for teaching and I suppose when enough people tell you you're really good at something you start to wonder if it's what you're meant to do. I've really enjoyed teaching despite its many frustrations. The kids make it fun. Some days I feel like I've spent the whole day laughing.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

The web makes current science accessible to my students. The Open Access movement and science blogs make it easy to connect my students with scientists and original research. The web is a great way to make science exciting again. My students get tired of learning about what's already been done and it excites them to talk with scientists about what is currently being researched. If a scientist talks with them about what they're doing, my students often will (on their own without even being asked) research everything about that topic and learn all the content they need to know in the process. Some of these students are the ones who walked into my classroom saying they hate science. They walk out with a completely different attitude.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed, YouTube, Flickr, Ning, Facebook and others?

My students maintain and update our class blog, Extreme Biology. At the beginning of every school year, a new group of students is trained on how to use the blog. For most of my students this is the first introduction they've had into blogging so the learning curve is pretty steep. I'm hopeful that as the years go by, more students will enter my class having already used blogs and other web tools and I'll be able to skip the time-consuming training and jump right into the science. As the year progresses, my students will discover new tools for us to try. They find current science research to blog about and then put a creative spin on the topic in order to educate their peers. Some of them write songs, create animations, make videos, and previous students return to share advice. We even had our own series of interviews of Science Online '09 participants!

In addition to the blog we have a class wiki, youtube channel, twitter, and ning. The public twitter was only started at the end of the last school year so it hasn't really taken off, yet. I also have a private twitter feed with my students.

The session about using the Web in the classroom which you led together with eight of your students was The Big Hit of the Conference. We all learned a lot from it. What did you learn from it, from the audience questions and comments?

First, I want to thank everyone in the audience for being so wonderful and treating my students like mini-celebrities! They floated on clouds for weeks afterward! We learned that kids really have a lot of power when it comes to how the web is being used. Their voices truly matter. My students arrived at the conference feeling unsure and a bit intimidated, but they left with a ton of confidence. The audience fired questions at them the entire time and the students did a remarkable job of answering.

I floated on clouds for weeks afterward!

When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favorites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?

The details are too fuzzy because it's been so many years now. Yours! But, in addition to yours there are too many great science blogs to pick favorites. I will say that my students have received a lot of positive feedback from bloggers they've interacted with here on ScienceBlogs and I'm really grateful for that. Many of the blogs mentioned at the conference I already knew about, but my students made a ton of new discoveries.

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You have some experience with research in the field. What motivated you to spend this summer in the lab, learning some of the most cutting-edge techniques in molecular and cellular neuroscience - not easy stuff to do by all means?

This summer I'm working in Michael Nitabach's lab at Yale studying circadian rhythms in fruit flies. The project is funded by a NIH grant directed at getting science teachers involved in research. While I can't share the details of the original research project Dr. Nitabach has me working on, I can say it's very exciting and that I'm learning a lot. The lab is pretty fast-paced as its filled with post-docs, grad students, and undergrads. A lot of great ideas get thrown around in the "fly room" each day, during lab meetings, and department cookie breaks. I love all the Drosophila jargon that gets thrown around and I'm trying to convince the lab to make "fly pusher" shirts this summer. Fruit flies are a fun model to work with and they make genetics very accessible to students so I'm excited about taking everything I've learned back to the classroom. Check out the cool fly brain I dissected last week!

The experience I'm gaining in Dr. Nitabach's lab is going to make me a better teacher. I didn't enter the teaching profession in the traditional way. At the risk of upsetting the traditionalists, I believe there is total lunacy in allowing a person to teach science who has never actually practiced science. You can't learn science by reading textbooks or taking educational methodology classes. Every science teacher needs to have the experience of participating in original research and they need to routinely refresh their skills. The last time I performed science in the field was five years ago. I feel quite rusty. In my perfect teaching ideal, science educators would teach for 4-5 years and then take one-year off to work on an original research project. I realize this is incredibly unrealistic thanks to the immobile system we have in place to train teachers, but due to my non-traditional background this type of ideal is possible for me.

The NIH grant was offered through the use of the ARRA money. Hopefully, NIH will seriously consider offering the grant every year. It would be a strong investment into the future of science education.

As you are applying for jobs, is the schools' attitude towards the use of the Web in the classroom high on your list of criteria?

Absolutely! I was told in an interview recently that I wouldn't be able to continue my blogging at that school. I politely ended the interview. It's become so much a part of my methodology that I don't think I could ever abandon it. Not every student has the luxury of having a home computer, but there is simply no excuse for a school to not have enough computer resources to offer their students. If a teacher has a detailed plan on how they use the Web safely in their classroom, they should be allowed to use it.

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 reception we received has motivated me to seek more ways my students can directly interact with practicing scientists. I also want to have my students more involved in participating in online conversations with scientists outside of just our blog. Some of them already do that, but I'd like to see more of them doing so. For example, I'd like them to have a journal club and discuss a paper on PLoS.

It was so nice to finally meet you in person and thank you for the interview (and say Hi to all your students). I hope to see you again next January.

It was wonderful to meet you as well! See you in January!


See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.


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