Biology professor in Nebraska works to humanize, better communicate science
This story is part of a weekly series that celebrates outstanding teachers in our Flipgrid community. Stories by Angela Tewalt.
A couple years ago, a college student in Nebraska named Erin took to Flipgrid to talk about Alaskan brown bears.
In a breezy 90 seconds, she broke down how climate change is affecting the food webs that bears eat. They used to eat fish in July and August, “because that’s when there are the most fish in the river,” Erin tells us, and then they’d eat berries come September, when the berries would start to grow.
But because temperatures in Alaska are slowly getting warmer, bears are now eating the berries first, in July and August, which means there are too many salmon fish in the river, eating more food and making it harder for other fish to survive, she concludes.
She included chalk drawings and smiling fish, and there are tenth graders in Germany still talking about the video.
Erin was taking a class on climate change with Ramesh Laungani, a biology professor at Doane University in Lincoln. To help his students better understand the content, he asked them to explain in a Flipgrid video scientific research papers – not for themselves, but for K-12 students around the world.
“If you can explain a concept to a seventh grader, you understand it, right?” says Ramesh, who also teaches classes in conservation biology and has training in plant ecology. “So a few years ago, I just put the call out on Twitter, saying, ‘I’m going to have my college students make these videos.’ ”
The first year, he connected with a local school in Nebraska as well as another in Florida. But, the following year, he was making connections with K-12 schools all over the country and even worldwide, including a military base in Germany who was tickled to have exposure to American scientists.
“The fact that these students are learning new science and learning about things they didn’t know existed, that’s the game,” Ramesh says. “Even if they go home and sit at the dinner table to say, ‘Hey, Mom, I learned about these bears and climate change,’ that now expands the reach of my students’ voices into dining rooms and living rooms of those families. Me being a scientist, I wish there was a way to quantify it, of course, but I can say for sure that’s transformative for me.”
Making Time for Clarity, Understanding
Ramesh is an impassioned scientist. If you’d like, he’d walk you around his campus to quantify the standing carbon stocks in the trees and soil – he’d give you hours and days and not miss a beat – but he also just wants you to enjoy whatever it is you’re interested in, and he wants his students to know that anything is possible.
Ramesh has spent years beautifully humanizing the fascination of science, and his endeavor to create videos for K-12 students not only helps the college kids better grasp the textbook, it also helps them more easily talk about science in a way that is comprehensible, enjoyable and engaging. With his encouragement, they cut the jargon, explain it simply and are left empowered to learn more.
“Scientists oftentimes are characterized as bad communicators,” Ramesh says. “I’ve seen those who are unaware of the audience they’re trying to connect with, and that puts up all these barriers for the audience to access the science.
“When I give my students that communication training, I’m able to evaluate a deeper level of their understanding. I can identify misconceptions easily because you can hear hesitations in their voices when they explain a topic, and you can’t identify that hesitation in a written response, right?”
Alongside tackling the ways in which we talk about science, Ramesh is keen to unveil the many ways we can work in science, too.
A few years ago, a teacher in Rhode Island asked him on Twitter to make a Flipgrid video talking about his job. Months later, he was still creating weekly videos for her students that included open-ended science questions for them to chat about. By the end of the school year, he paraded his phone around campus introducing his colleagues so the students could learn about other types of scientists out there.
“To me, there was an opportunity to help students understand just how diverse science could be,” Ramesh says. “I think students think of a biologist and have a picture in their mind that they work with animals or in the lab, but I’m always fascinated by the scientists that exist!”