#scio10 Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Session: Engaging Underrepresented Groups in Online Science Media


Next weekend at ScienceOnline2010, I'll be co-moderating a session on encouraging scientists and science trainees from underrepresented groups to participate in social media. I will be working with Damond Nollan, a social media specialist and Web Services Manager at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). Damond is the author of the aptly-titled blog, In The Mind of Damond Nollan. The whys and hows are what we hope to discuss in the outline below.

The reason for calling this the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Session stems from the fact that this conference has been held for the last four years over the MLK holiday weekend. It's a practical time of year, just after the beginning of spring semester but before things get too crazy, the crappy January weather in North Carolina gives us great hotel rates and encourages people to stay inside and engage at the conference, and the Monday holiday allows for greater travel flexibility and cheaper airfares.

But the conference timing may keep some attendees away in their hometowns participating in local MLK activities. Therefore, we are introducing this session to celebrate the principles of Dr King in the context of online science communication: promoting social justice and eliminating racism in areas ranging from healthcare to scientific career paths, giving opportunity to those often left out of the conversation. In my case, that conversation involves increasing the diversity of the biomedical science community.

A longstanding example of the dominant demographic in science communication is the cadre of bloggers in the ScienceBlogs network and the repeatedly missed opportunities to increase diversity in this network. I announced last month my intentions to use this page and my white maleness to give greater voice here to that of underrepresented groups.


The conference is being held in Research Triangle Park, NC, part of the county of Durham, home to Duke University, North Carolina Central University, and Durham Technical Community College. Dr. King had ties to Durham and visited here several times as shown here from a photo shot on February 16, 1960 on West Main Street. On his immediate left is the Rev. Douglas Moore. The civil rights activist Moore, who now lives in Washington, DC, was the leader of the 1957 Royal Ice Cream sit-in where he led six African American students in protest to use the white entrance of a local business and request service at the counter. This event preceded the more famous Greensboro Woolworth sit-ins by two-and-a-half years. I had the rare pleasure of visiting with Rev. Moore a few weeks ago at the dedication of the Royal Ice Cream Sit-In historical landmark that I wrote about here. It was simply amazing to shake hands with him and chat for about five minutes with someone who worked with Dr. King. The source of the photograph, Gary Kuebke of the historic preservation blog, Endangered Durham, has a superb discussion of the Royal Ice Cream Sit-In here.

We plan to take a different angle from the Casting a Wider Net session being led by Anne Jefferson, although we are sure to have overlap - not a bad thing, IMHO.

How do we cultivate emerging science writers from underrepresented groups to promote science, for example, in areas of health disparities (i.e., diabetes, substance abuse, prostate cancer) and in providing opportunities to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers.

First things first, of course. Locally in Durham, North Carolina, efforts are underway through the non-profit Kramden Institute to start by making newly-refurbished computers available to honors students in underserved school districts as a model for what can be done nationally. Working in my community has opened my eyes to the fact that a large swath of our population only has access to internet, or computers for that matter, at the local public library. Before we can even get to discussing social media, we have to bridge the digital divide and get computers and reasonably priced internet access into the households of all low-income families, regardless of their racial or ethnic bakcgrounds.

Any advice, comments or ideas are welcome from all readers, not just attendees, especially if you engage with underrepresented groups in your respective line of online or offline work. Here are a few ideas to start:

  • Why would underrepresented individuals want to get involved with science blogging and social media in the first place?

My feeling is that this is a two-way street. First, I see many students and postdocs benefiting from the advice and community of professionals outside their home institutions via online interactions. Particularly in blogging and blog comments, the playing field seems more even and the advice given to trainees by more established scientists is not influenced by institutional self-interests or other constraints as might occur in seeking advice in one's own department. I see many benefit to science blogging and Twitter interactions that serve the student. Those from underrepresented groups who are not currently engaged in this community can benefit greatly from these interactions.

On the flipside, trainees from underrepresented groups might serve as examples and role models to others. DNLee's Urban Science Adventures is a perfect example. This outstanding graduate student took it upon herself to volunteer at last year's conference together with acmegirl to then present a session and launch the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival. Peruse her archives and you will see that DNLee is a tireless promoter of activities, scholarships, and training opportunities for underrepresented groups.

  • How could we make it easier to introduce young underrepresented individuals in to science blogging?

I recently had an exchange about this issue with Dr. Marybeth Gasman from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Gasman is a nationally-leading expert on African American higher education and has led project on the role of HBCUs in increasing the representation of black women in the STEM fields. She is currently PI of an NIH MORE grant to prepare postdoctoral fellows for education careers at minority-serving institutions. Dr. Gasman's view is that students will write about science on blogs but they need leadership to direct them toward the platforms to do so.

Blogging 101
sessions like those run locally by Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker are great. These sessions are run at ScienceOnline and at local libraries where attendees launch a blog in roughly an hour. The question is how to get these sessions to science students in underrepresented demographics.

One way this has been done at NCCU is in their Office of Orientation & First-Year Experience. While not science-based, the associate director of the program encouraged a small group of freshman to draft blogs to document their first year at the university and aggregated them on the program website. A follow-up workshop by social media maven Ginny Skalski served to reinforce the blogging skills the students initially learned. While only a few students have stuck with it, a university-based portal to overcome the energy of activation is one enabling step.

That leads us to the next consideration:

  • How could we do this in the context of a university learning environment?

This is one of the primary reasons that I wanted to have Damond Nollan be part of this discussion. Damond is not a scientist but he is the leader of Web services at an HBCU who is also active in local social media. Following a brainstorming meeting we had prior to the holidays with a couple of other folks across campus, Damond has put together a university social media interest group under the umbrella of the widely-known Social Media Club movement. In fact, Damond learned with there is a "edu" component of this initiative.

Damond and I are fortunate to be at a HBCU with a growing population of other first-generation college students from Hispanic and Native American backgrounds. Our goal is to have brown-bag meetings across campus to pull people out of the woodwork, and bring some students with them, who might be interested in joining the online dialogue. A leader from our Center for University Teaching and Learning is another early adopter (although he still doesn't see the value of Twitter) and is helping our professors incorporate blogs and Twitter into the classroom to improve networking and writtern communication skills.

This part of our session might overlap with that of Casting A Wider Net but I've found that these conferences seem to do well by having two related sessions on two different days to foster discussion, further brainstorming, and action.

This is my current stream of consciousness but we welcome your comments below on any of these issues, whether you are attending ScienceOnline or not.

Alternatively, drop some comments on the session wiki if you are attending.


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The effort by the Office of Orientation & First-Year Experience to encourage freshmen to blog their college experiences was a good way to expose the students to blogging platforms (they used Blogger) and to practice their writing skills. If students are learning to blog, chances are they're proud of their site and want to tell their classmates, roommates, etc. about it. By spreading the word about their blogs, hopefully they are piquing interest among fellow students, which could help increase interest in blogging.

I think brown bag lunches are a good idea of helping spread the word and generate interest. Having professors incorporate blogs and Twitter into their classrooms is a logical step toward generating interest. What if they took it a step further and invited professionals who are using these networks in their fields to generate business, improve customer service and communicate with their audience?

I wish you and Damond the best of luck in your efforts. Please let me know if I can help!

Ginny, thanks so much - the first part of your comment reminded me that a student blogger was really jazzed when she was giving a campus tour and a prospective student knew her face from the blog.

Your point about pulling in people outside of academia per se is a great one. You coming over here, for example, gave our students exposure to a pro who is not necessarily in education.

We are really grateful for how wired you are in our community and dedicated to using new media to build community.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention to readers that you are the (relatively) new social media director for one of the world's leading companies in LED technology, Cree. Among the many things she does in their marketing department, Ginny writes their blog, Cree LED Revolution. Compact fluorescent technology is so "naughts"; all the kool 2010 kids are going LED.

I came into reading science blogs out of a love for science publications and magazines, and I think that a lot of other students may have the same interest but may not be aware that such a vibrant and helpful community of science communicators exists online. I think that creating a culture of interacting with students through blogging and other online social media would be very helpful in rousing up some interest in the field in general. Encouraging students to use blogs and Twitter early in their collegiate career is a good way to start them early on being engaged in the world of science communication. Perhaps this could be done by incorporating online interaction or blogging into an official course for undergraduates (and/or graduate sutdents!).

By Princess Ojiaku (not verified) on 13 Jan 2010 #permalink