Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Internet as a platform for public outreach

The National Science Foundation has long been urging researchers to reach out to the public. The cause is noble and important, and most researchers love to share knowledge with others. However, developing successful modules takes time, which few are inclined to spend, if the modules are only used once or twice. As a result, many outreach efforts are unimpressive, if not outright perfunctory. This apparent problem seems to suggest an opportunity.

The use of a central repository such as the Internet to create, store and disseminate knowledge is truly a unique opportunity that has recently become available to millions of people of all ages. As a person interested in developing new ways to teach and also interest students in the sciences and engineering at an early stage, I am convinced that the Internet can play a significant role towards this effort.

The idea of creating webpages that discuss science to the non-scientists (or to students interested in identifying interesting fields outside of their core disciplines) can be a great way to interest school kids and undergrads to learn about applications of science and engineering in daily life. The Internet can thus be used as a popular means to introduce education early on which can often be very helpful to engage children and develop long term interest in the sciences.

In addition, the Internet can be used as a means to disseminate prepared information to a wide audience in multiple locations at different times. For example, a short presentation on device principles that are used to make a popular consumer electronics product such as iPod memory component can be used at schools or museums to discuss the contribution of an electrical engineer or a materials scientist to a young audience. This can in turn motivate students to potentially learn more about the science behind commonly used technologies that can in the future not only attract more students to pursue advanced studies in science or engineering but also in general to develop a scientific bent of mind. This can also help in general problem solving.

While the Internet already has a lot of information on many topics, it will be helpful to create well-designed portals of short courses that contain basic principles of a scientific discipline that can in turn be developed over a period of time by contributions from academics, students and teachers.

Includes suggestions from Zhigang Suo.