32 No. 4
Creating Online Communities
by Javier Garcia-Martinez
How things have changed since we were kids. Nowadays, teenagers spend almost as much time watching TV as using social networking websites, technology that did not exist just a few years ago. More precisely, accordingly to a survey of over 1200 students organized by the National School Boards Association in the USA, 9- to 17-year olds in the USA spend 10 hours a week watching TV compared to 9 hours a week on web-based social networking activities. However, when our kids network online, they are much more active and innovative—creating content, sharing information, and blogging—than when they watch TV.1
This generation is totally into the web. In the USA, an astonishing 96 percent of students who have online access report that they have used social networking technologies. Fairly new technologies, such as chatting, text messaging, blogging, Facebook, and MySpace, are part of the daily lives of the kids who fill our classes. And it’s not all about sharing music or organizing a plan for next weekend. Nearly 60 percent of our students use social networking to discuss education-related topics, and more than 50 percent specifically discuss schoolwork to support their education.1
From Web 1.0 to Web 2.0
The term web 2.0 is typically used to define a new generation of websites characterized by community content creation, user-centered design, and interactive collaboration. Some typical web 2.0 applications include social-networking sites, wikis, and blogs. The web 2.0 is based on the goal of moving from a web-as-information-source to a web-as-participation platform in an effort to build a more participatory web. According to Wikipedia, “A web 2.0 site allows its users to interact with other users or to change website content, in contrast to noninteractive websites where users are limited to the passive viewing of information that is provided to them.”
Recognizing the potential risks of irresponsible use of the web, there is great potential in the new social networking technologies to reach our kids using their own language and help them find their own interests. In many cases, this simply consists of using their channels of communication to share information. In other cases, it means creating opportunities for them to share and create content that is useful for them. Doing so, will allow students to discover their own passions and share their own interests with kids from all around the world.
According to one study, students using the web 2.0 have excellent communication, creativity, collaboration, and leadership skills and technology proficiency.1 Their natural interest in new technologies makes them ideal candidates to learn and share more about science and technology. Many educational institutions realize that using the web 2.0 they can reach this targeted audience. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has put 1900 courses online. Hundreds of videos and additional educational material can be downloaded for free as part of the MIT OpenCourseWare initiative launched in 2002. iTunes U, part of Apple’s iTunes Store, launched in 2007, already has over 75 000 files from universities from all around the world available to download for free. And of course, there is Wikipedia, 15 million articles written collaboratively by volunteers around the world, which has changed the way we share and look for information.
Additionally, professional chemical associations such as the American Chemical Society (ACS) or the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) have created a wonderful set of web 2.0 initiatives. On 15 March 2010, the ACS Mobile Application “ACS Mobile” became available on Apple’s iTunes store. The new application provides readers with a live stream of peer-reviewed research content from across the spectrum of ACS journals right in their cell phones. More recently, Molecule of the Week, a popular feature on the ACS website since 2001, has been launched as a Mobile App. A new molecule is delivered to subscribers’ iPhones each week for them to guess what each molecule is, based on an image and the clue supplied.
The Periodic Table of the Web 2.0.
Both the ACS and its flagship journal, the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) are now on Facebook, both with thousands of followers. These sites are regularly used to announce events, hold discussions, and provide breaking news, making them probably the fastest and most up-to-the-minute way to know what is going on in chemistry. But there is much more, the JACS beta site is a truly web 2.0 experience, with podcasts, mobile applications, and online interviews about new chemical discoveries, published weekly.
The Royal Society of Chemistry also has a wonderful set of web 2.0 initiatives, like the RSC and Chemistry World blogs. Personally, I am a big fan of its podcast on the chemical elements, Chemistry in its Element, as I am of Distillations, the “extracts from the past, present, and future of chemistry” from the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
Nature.com is another excellent web 2.0 site. Nature Network is probably the best example of the use of social networking technologies to connect scientists. Whereas, Nature Chemistry’s blog, The Sceptical Chymist, is one of the best of many blogs on chemistry that are available today, including the very popular CENtral Science of Chemical and Engineering News. Chemistry@
nature.com brings together all of the chemistry content from Nature Publishing Group in one place. A unique resource mainly for the academic chemistry community, this attractive site effectively integrates various services such as chemistry news, research highlights, blog posts, and podcasts in one single place.
But online social networking also can be used to solve problems, really big problems. InnoCentive is a global innovation marketplace, and a great example of open-innovation, where creative minds solve some of the world’s most important problems for cash awards up to USD 1 million. Hundreds of “challenge problems” can be found on its website for anyone to solve. For example, if you manage to come with an environmentally friendly method for converting a di-olefin to a mono-alcohol, a cash award of USD 10 000 awaits you. For those posting the challenge, called the “seekers,” there are greater benefits. For a relatively modest amount of money, they can get hundreds of minds thinking about an innovative solution. Some of their challenges have over 1000 active “solvers” thinking about how to crack the problem. Of course, the number and quality of the “solvers” are of critical importance. That is why InnoCentive has teamed up with Nature Publishing Group to offer its readers the opportunity to participate in research and development challenges through an online platform called Open Innovation Pavilion. There are many other open innovation companies, each one with its own characteristics and focus, like NineSigma, Starmind, yet2.com, MillionBrains, and Tekscout, One Billion Minds, PRESANS, and Innoget, among others.
Even well-established large chemical companies like Procter & Gamble are now fully engaged in online open innovation: 50 percent of product initiatives at the company already involve significant collaboration with outside innovators. Now, they are asking everyone to become their “partner of choice” for solving their R&D challenges, which range from polymers to cosmetics, by participating in their P&G Connect + Develop web portal. As stated in its presentation video: “click the link below and open the door.”
Sure, the academic and professional community has plenty of web-based resources, and the institutions and publishers behind them are quickly expanding their online services as they attract more well-targeted costumers. Unfortunately, there are fewer high-quality educational 2.0 websites for students, who are actually the ones who use the networking sites more frequently. A good example of the great potential of high-quality and entertaining content is the series of YouTube videos called Periodic Videos, a collection of short videos, originally on the elements of the Periodic Table but now also on useful or just curious molecules and other chemical-related topics, made by a team of chemists from Nottingham University. This effort is led by Martyn Poliakoff, who is a fairly popular figure now, since his videos have been seen over 8 million times. Periodic Videos is now a truly 2.0 platform, with its own website and YouTube channel, a great behind-the-scenes blog, a Facebook group, and, of course, a Twitter presence, with hundreds of followers. Unsurprisingly, many of them are quite young and passionate about chemistry. Just the right audience, connected with the click of a mouse, all sharing content, interests, and common projects.
As part of the 2009 U.S. National Chemistry Week, the American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Education started a nationwide project on Facebook to build public awareness and interest in the periodic table through the “Become a fan” feature of Facebook.2 The organizers of this initiative asked students to support their favorite element of the Periodic Table. More than 7 000 students joined the project. Regardless of which element won the competition, and yes, it was carbon, this was an extraordinary opportunity for thousands of students to revisit the Periodic Table, learn more about the properties of the chemical elements, and delve into the wonders of their favorite element. The University of Greenwich Department of Chemistry probably has the most popular Facebook group dedicated to chemistry, with more than 11 000 followers who share news, discussions, and future events about chemistry. Not bad at all.
The beauty and novelty of web 2.0 over conventional sources of information is that the content is collectively created by its users. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Wikipedia, a web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project built by millions of volunteers. The Wikipedia Chemistry Portal, created by people who share a common passion for chemistry, contains feature articles, selected biographies, news, and plenty of information about chemical techniques, chemical databases, and online resources.
Most of us were attracted to chemistry because of the colors, explosions, and surprises of chemical demonstrations. Unfortunately, many students do not have access to such wonderful experiences. The web now has excellent online resources, with stunning videos and safe demonstrations for the classroom. Some of the experiments can even be safely performed at home. The websites Chemistry Comes Alive!, of the Journal of Chemical Education, and Delights of Chemistry, of the Leeds University Department of Chemistry, are just two great examples of how to attract students and create enthusiasm for chemistry among the next generation through online videos of chemical demonstrations.
Many traditional chemistry demonstrations can be found in Classical Chemical Experiments, a book from the RSC that can be downloaded for free from LearnNet, an RSC website for teachers and students of chemistry at all levels. This website provides access to products and resources, most of them available for free.
A number of virtual chemistry labs offer interactivity and web 2.0 content. The Virtual Lab of Oxford University, launched eight years ago, contains interactive organic mechanisms, a virtual laboratory (LabChem), and many chemical demonstrations.
For those of us who love the periodic table, WebElements.com is a must-visit site. The site is not only an inexhaustible source of information about the chemical elements and their main compounds, but also an excellent source for news on everything related to chemistry through the WebElements Nexus. In addition, the site showcases books on chemistry, and much more, like T-shirts, mugs, games, and posters for periodic table maniacs.
Sure, all of this is great, but not everybody has access to a computer. What about those living in low-income countries? One solution may involve cell phones, which are widely available in many developing countries. It is estimated that in India alone, there are over 545 million cell phones and it is estimated that by 2015 there will be over a billion.3,4 Both the cell phone and internet providers know this and are working together to change the way we use our cell phones. Content providers are working quickly to make sure they also show up on the screens of our smart phones. As mentioned before, the professional chemical associations and many universities are providing applications for smart phones (apps) that complement their online offerings. This is a new and increasingly more important platform through which to promote science among the youth and increase public appreciation of chemistry. As Chemistry World recently stated “Mobile chemistry has arrived.” And it has done so with excellent apps for publishers, educators, and students, such as online journals, study guides, chemical calculators, databases, and much more.5
The web is a huge and user-friendly source of quickly updated content, but more important, it is a great platform for interacting with people sharing common interests. What better place for education to occur. The web doesn’t substitute for the invaluable personal interaction between teacher and student, but it does open up new opportunities that, without being a silver bullet, should be added to our ammunition to increase public understanding and appreciation of chemistry, especially among the new generation of scientists and technologists.
2.0 Opportunities for the 2011 IYC
The three goals of the 2011 IYC, namely i) increase the public appreciation of chemistry in meeting world needs, ii) encourage interest in chemistry among young people, and iii) generate enthusiasm for the creative future of chemistry have in common the need to reach a large audience, mostly young people. Coordinating and promoting this effort is really where the web 2.0 can help by providing a large and inclusive platform, efficient networking tools, and enabling technologies for everybody to contribute. It is the perfect tool to encourage people to participate; they can spontaneously self-organize in groups of interest, share ideas, and post them for everyone to know about.
This is exactly what chemistry2011.org is trying to do with the National Nodes and the Participation area, where everyone can share ideas, post activities, or announce events. There are more than 1000 members already registered, who have contributed dozens of ideas. But there is much more that can be done to make the site a truly web 2.0 experience. Perhaps a video welcoming all visitors and asking for ideas and their active participation, interviews with famous scientists supporting the IYC, news, podcasts, a blog, and links to social networking sites.
Last summer, I conducted an experiment to check the potential of social networking sites to reach young people from all around the world. I opened a Facebook group on the International Year of Chemistry, and I sent a message to my Facebook friends asking them to join. After a week, there were already more than 100 members; today the group has almost 1000. Most of them I have never met. Many are college students, some even younger. We share information, videos, ideas, and an excitement for chemistry, and the group is quickly growing as we get closer to the beginning of the year 2011.
- Creating & Connecting: Research and Guidelines on Online Social—and Educational—Networking. National School Boards Association. 2007.
- a) Groat, R.K.; Jacobsen, E.K. J. Chem. Educ. 2009, 86, 1168 and b) Groat, R.K.; Jacobsen, E.K. J. Chem. Educ. 2010, 87, 237.
- Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, www.trai.gov.in, Press Release No. 79/2009, New Delhi, (23/12/2009).
- “India to Have ‘Billion Plus’ Mobile Users by 2015: Executive,” Economic Times. Retrieved 18 Nov. 2009.
- “Mobile Chemistry—Chemistry in Your Hands and in Your Face,” www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/Issues/2010/May/
MobileChemistryChemistryHandsFace.asp, Royal Society of Chemistry (14/06/2010).
Javier García-Martínez <email@example.com> is a titular member of the IUPAC Inorganic Chemistry Division and the Subcommittee on Materials Chemistry, and is its representative in the Committee on Chemistry Education. He leads the Molecular Nanotechnology Lab at the University of Alicante in Spain.
last modified 28 June 2010.
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