ScienceOnline2010 - interview with Marie-Claire Shanahan

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 Marie-Claire Shanahan who teaches Science Education at the University of Alberta, Edmonton 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?

i-a2b3f9513acebd67899fd290a003c957-MarieClaireShanahan pic.JPGHi Bora, thanks for the invitation. Right now, I am an assistant professor of science education at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. I love to ski and moving out closer to the rockies has been a dream come true. I am originally from rural eastern Ontario, and although most people think I must be joking I really did grow up in a maple sugar bush. I have taken a long way around to what I do now but have thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

I studied astrophysics and mechanical engineering before becoming a teacher, spent a couple of years teaching math and science in grades 6-12 before going to the University of Toronto to begin graduate work in science education. I had no idea what I was doing and thought that doing a masters would be a good way to get into curriculum development. Out of pure luck, I was asked by one of my professors to join her research group and ended up learning that there was fascinating field out there dedicated to understanding how people interact with science. I was hooked!

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

I started my graduate research with an interest in studying gender in science. My own experiences in engineering had been very mixed and I wanted to understand some of the frustrations that my colleagues and I had encountered. I was equally frustrated though by essentialist research that tried to tell me that all girls were the same. As a result, I moved away from the direct study of gender towards the study of identity. I completed my doctoral work, focusing on sociology of science and science education, by examining patterns of expectations that are established in science classrooms that influence students' decisions to pursue science.

Since moving into a faculty position I have become interested in the importance of language in the interactions that people (both students and adults) have with science. In one current project, I am collecting audio and video recordings in elementary classrooms. I will be analyzing this to understand the ways that even young students use language to signal their affiliations with science and work through their understanding of concepts. I am also interested in the ways that subtle changes in the teacher's language do or do not affect the students' language in their conversations with each other and their contributions to the whole group. In the same sphere of science education for young children I am also working on developing strategies for adapting primary scientific literature for use in the classroom. Research by reading experts has shown how little attention is paid to teaching students how to read in science. I am currently working on developing and testing resources that teachers can use to introduce students to the language of science and engage them with cutting edge research.

In another project I have moved outside of the classroom to study interactions in online spaces. I am interested in the way that people use scientific language to position themselves as experts when involved in online discussions. I have been collecting and analyzing comments from newspaper websites for the past year, carefully examining the ways that commenters use scientific language and the way that others respond to them based on the language that they use.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

The projects I mentioned and my teaching take up most of my time (plus as much skiing as possible). My more recent passions, though, have been in the intersections of identity and interaction in online spaces. I am intrigued by the possibilities offered by anonymity and pseudonymity. What types of online identities do people create for themselves, especially in relation to science? And how does that identity govern the types of interactions that they have? I spend more and more time reading science blogs and other personal presentations online and am working to conceive of an appropriate way to study these phenomena.

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 am definitely a reader of social media on the web rather than much of a participant or creator. It is certainly a net positive and it is fueling many of my research interests right now. I am working on becoming a more active participant so that I can better understand that aspect as well.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites?

Hmmm...I'm trying to remember. I think it was something silly like searching for the term "science blogs" in the hope of finding some blogs about science. Finding it was like finding a whole new community that I didn't know existed. I was already developing an interest in science communication as it relates to public understanding and education. Finding science blogs (which then also led to other communities) really changed the way that I viewed science communication. I don't feel right naming favourites though - my academic interest in them means that anything provocative and different might be my favourite of the day even if as a reader it might be something that I don't agree with or might even find distasteful. So I think my view of favourite might be a bit skewed ;)

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you?

The best aspect was definitely the people that I met and had a chance to listen to and interact with in the sessions. As I said, finding the blogging community was very eye-opening for me and attending ScienceOnline was an incredible extension to that experience. I found that my understanding of the ways that science communication is changing was really enhanced by ScienceOnline. Also, it was one of the most enjoyable conferences I've ever attended. I came away with new friends and that's not something that usually happens to me at conferences.

It was so nice to meet you and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January (or even before, if my brother manages to organize a trip for me to visit him in Edmonton) for the ScienceOnline2011.


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