Training teenagers as science journalists

November 10, 2010

It was not Cathy Farrar's goal to transform her high school physics students into science journalists — at least not at first. She just wanted to encourage them to enter a writing contest.

The contest was the DuPont Challenge, a national essay contest that grew out of the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster. Previous winning essays had followed a journalistic style, so to help her students, Farrar brought in former American Chemical Society editor and science writer Alan Newman.

Newman introduced Farrar's students to the fundamentals of science writing. Although none of the students won the challenge, the lessons in science writing seemed to improve their writing.

These first few classroom visits became the basis of a four-year $3.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation called Scientific Literacy Through Science Journalism or SciJourn. The research project is designed to answer the following question: Could educators teach high school students to become scientifically literate citizens using science journalism?

What science journalists do every day is a form of scientific literacy. They ask a question of current interest, research the topic using multiple credible sources, and then communicate the information in a way that can be understood by a broad audience. This process also complements the types of science students learn in school by getting them to answer questions of personal or public interest, such as what is Crohn's Disease or what are the hazards of automobile air bags.

"Knowing a great deal of formal science is not required to write these articles," says Carole Stearns, a member of the grant advisory board and former physical chemist and science teacher. "[The teenagers] have to have an interest and ability to seek and incorporate information — that's where the powerful learning comes in."

To make participating in SciJourn an authentic experience, the investigators decided that students would pitch story ideas, interview experts, respond to edits, and have their articles published in an online and print newspaper.

Based at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, principal investigators on the grant are Professor Wendy Saul, a literacy expert with a history of finding unique ways to improve science education; Associate Professor Joe Polman, an expert on learning environments and learning processes in science education; Newman; and Farrar, who is also pursuing a doctorate in education.

Much of the work since the grant began in 2008 has been conducted at high schools in and around St. Louis. Because of a prior relationship Polman had established, the team had the opportunity to host a newsroom at the Saint Louis Science Center. Participants in the science center's after-school youth-development program would staff the newsroom, where the newspaper would be published.

"I was very interested in creating authentic experiences," says Diane Miller, senior vice president of the department that runs the youth development program, called Youth Exploring Science (YES). The program is unique because it also serves as a job for predominantly at-risk, minority teenagers, who are paid and learn work skills.

After the investigators tested their approach in local high schools during the academic year, they began working with their science center newsroom staff in the summer of 2009.

That summer, the eight teenagers, ages 14 to 18, published 14 stories at and produced three issues of the newspaper SciJourner. Article topics included Farrah Fawcett's anal cancer and the nutritional value of lunches at the science center.

Teaching teenagers to think like science journalists was not always straightforward. From their work in local high schools, the investigators had already learned that the five-paragraph essay — a form of report-writing that is ideal for grading on performance tests — had become deeply ingrained. Some students did not know how to modify this structure to suit their needs and had little experience with other forms of writing.

Moreover, the teenagers did not know how to effectively search the web, attribute the information they found, seek multiple credible sources, interview adults, or revise copy. Many students who participate in SciJourn struggle with basic scientific literacy skills, tackle topics that are too broad, or plagiarize by "cutting and pasting."

To counter these problems, the investigators and colleagues created lessons that covered rules for searching the web, the inverted-triangle structure, guidelines for interviewing and quoting, etc. These lessons will be published in a forthcoming book for educators from the National Science Teachers Association Press.

There have been pleasant surprises, as well, that taught the team how to engage teenagers. One of the YES newsroom teenagers, Desire'e Redus, collected original data in the form of a Facebook poll. She asked approximately 50 people how they use the social network to indicate their personal relationships.

"We were excited to write our articles because they are something we chose; something we were passionate about," recalled Redus, 18, who plans to become a journalist.

Indeed, some of the best stories that summer were drawn from personal experience.

"I liked the [health risks of] tattoo[s] article," said Ariel Stavri, 18, who has several tattoos of his own, "because I got to interview someone." In that case, he interviewed a local tattoo artist.

KiOntey Turner, 18, who plans to become a medical doctor, said, "there is no point in writing about something if it doesn't impact anybody." She wrote Teen EMT, a column about her experiences riding on a St. Louis city ambulance as part of a high school program.

The teenagers also learned to be better writers.

"I tend not to use 'I' a lot anymore," said Stavri, who plans to study biochemistry. "If I write something, it is more reported — state the facts, show two different points of view."

"I have had to learn to eliminate my own biases," said Turner.

The Saint Louis Science Center's Diane Miller agrees that the teenagers learn a lot about writing. "There's a way we think when we're writing, and somehow SciJourn has made that transparent to kids."

To date, six print issues of SciJourner have been produced and over 75 science articles published online. Included in those are five videos, three podcasts (including an interview with Ira Flatow from National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation: Science Friday), and an illustrated walk using Google's map technology. Traffic to is building incrementally. The most popular story has around 4,200 hits; 21 articles have 500 or more hits. In addition, several of the YES newsroom teens have served as peer editors and graphic designers for the newspaper.

The team's next task is to determine how to train educators to act as editors so that the SciJourn program will remain sustainable in St. Louis.

Many teenagers may be involved in theater or community service, said Carole Stearns from the grant advisory board, "but [SciJourn] is rather unusual and I think that might be part of its great appeal."

Rachel Mahan is a graduate of NYU's science journalism master's degree program. She worked with the teenagers at the Saint Louis Science Center and is now a PhD student studying wildlife ecology at the University of Georgia. Alan Newman contributed to this article.

(NASW members can read the rest of the Fall 2010 ScienceWriters by logging into the members area.)