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WORLD OF VIRUSESGoing viralJudy Diamond: Project DirectorScience education is developing new and innovativemeans of communication that compete directly withglobal media to reach the ‘YouTube Generation’. Thetruly interdisciplinary team of the SEPA-funded World ofViruses project is discovering how best to spread the word“WE LIVE,” the project’s homepage announces,“in a world of viruses.” Indeed, viruses are theworld’s most abundant biological organisms.While they can be deadly, they provideimportant tools for developing treatments andbuilding nanotechnology. So the challenge forWorld of Viruses is to engage the public withthe ubiquitous yet mysterious virus, takingthem from confusion and misconception tocuriosity and inquiry.As Project Director Dr Judy Diamond explains,there was a strong rationale for focusing onthis subject: “The project focuses on virologybecause it is relevant to people’s health andwellbeing. Knowing something about virusescan help make people’s lives better. And thisis particularly true for teenagers”. The projectstarted in 2007, through a Science EducationPartnership Award (SEPA) from the NationalCenter for Research Resources at the U.S.National Institutes of Health, with the aim ofeducating people about virology through publicradio programmes, comics, interactive apps,and curriculum resources.Through this range of resources, Diamondbelieves a lifelong engagement can bestimulated: “A bit of fun and fascinationabout how viruses work can stimulate furtherlearning when a teenager sees a newspaperarticle, listens to the radio, or sees a brochurein a clinic,” she asserts. Bringing togetherthe Nebraska Center for Virology, theUniversity of Nebraska State Museum, andSoundprint Media, Inc. with artists, writers,and multimedia developers, the project hasexpanded into new dimensions.INFORMAL LEARNINGDiamond started her career in ethology,studying the behaviour of coyotes and morerecently, New Zealand parrots. After workingwith Frank Oppenheimer at the Exploratoriumscience museum in San Francisco, Diamondbecame enthralled with informal scienceeducation. Since then, she has directed nationaland award-winning projects on evolution,WWW.RESEARCHMEDIA.EU 25


WORLD OF VIRUSESscience media, and women in science. Diamondfeels strongly that people need to have anelement of choice in how they learn. Informallearning involves the construction of knowledgeand patterns of reasoning through everydayinteraction with ideas and experience. Diamondconsiders the self-motivation required byinformal learning to have major benefits:“In informal learning, it’s the learner whodetermines which experiences they are goingto undertake, how long they spend, and withwhom they interact socially,” she outlines. “Inthe formal classroom educational setting, aimsand outcomes are pre-decided, but informallearning, like World of Viruses, you do becauseyou want to.”While schools have an important role, takingthe initiative in learning can be very influentialin shaping one’s reasoning patterns andworldview. This can be gradual, but laying thegroundwork for young people’s future interestmust start somewhere, Diamond explains:“Knowledge scaffolds on experience. Informallearning is all about scaffolding little bits ofexperience on others”. The project tries to strikea relevant tone for adolescents to help directtheir energies into positive learning: “Kidsare going to learn from their peers and makechoices as to what they focus on,” continuesDiamond, “and our job is to inspire them tobecome interested in science”.READING, WRITING AND RADIOThe project partners with New York Timesscience writer, Carl Zimmer, who previouslyworked with Diamond on the National ScienceFoundation-funded ‘Explore Evolution’ exhibit.Zimmer has produced a book of short, accessibleessays called The Planet of Viruses, published byUniversity of Chicago Press and set to appearas a book and e-book in Spring 2011. For anestablished science communicator like Zimmer,theproject offers agreat opportunity to bringfresh insight to the public: “Viruses arelike every other part of nature: rich, fascinating,and counterintuitive. They also happen to bevery important both to human health and tothe function of the planet’s ecosystems. I justwanted to share these insights with my readers”.Another element of World of Viruses is theproject’s documentaries for public and satelliteradio. They are produced by Soundprint Media,a leading public radio broadcaster in the U.S.whose work reaches over 5 million listeners.These programmes explore ocean viruses,influenza, human papillomavirus, HIV and otherviruses. Moira Rankin, Head of Soundprint,explains how they selected these stories: “Bypicking commonly known viruses, we can usethem as a jumping off point for a discussionabout new research or innovations in science.We also like to throw in some surprises”. Thescope of these programmes shows just howsignificant viruses can be to our health, throughpersonal stories, but also to the economy andthe planet’s ecosystem. As with the rest of theresources produced by this project, offering asingle point of view was not an option.A New York Times science writer, Carl’sprevious subjects have included E. coli,evolution and the human brain. He believeshis book of essays, The Planet of Viruses,published in Spring 2011, should havebroad appeal: “I think it will be interesting bothto young people and adults, scientists and nonscientistsalike”. He will make viruses less alien throughfocusing on the process of their discovery, bringing a humanelement to something that can seem far from our existence. Zimmer believesclear language is key: “I avoid all jargon; I can typically find a plain Englishalternative that still captures the essence of the scientific insight,” he explains.“It’s a fast-moving field, so there is lots to talk about. I hope that people developa fascination with viruses, rather than just a fear.”Focus on: Benjamin Jee, Cognitive ScientistFocus on: Carl Zimmer, Science WriterHaving previously worked on projects to do with spatial learning andscience education, Jee became involved in the project through hispostdoctoral advisor. With his background in cognitive psychology,and especially conceptual learning, World of Viruses appealed to Jee:“I was immediately interested in people’s conceptions of viruses,how they affect us, how our bodies respond to them and so on”. InJee’s estimation, the potential for cognitive science to tailor learningis great: “If we understand how people form concepts, encodememory and reason, we can adapt education to theneeds of individual students”.Earlyin the work,Diamond andher team realisedthat technologyand the visualmedia are a hugedriving force foryoung people. To fully engage them in theproject, they would have to harness bothtraditional media in radio and print, but alsotake on the full armoury of web and graphics– including comic books and iPod and iPadapplications.COMICS ARE CATCHINGIt was the project’s initial engagementwith libraries which gave rise to the idea ofcomics. Diamond’s team realised librariescould be a gateway for audiences notinterested in science to become engagedwith virology and infectious disease throughthe use of ‘viral comics’: “There’s a hugeincrease in the use of libraries by teenagers,particularly those from diverse or lessprivileged backgrounds,” she explains,“because libraries offer access to technologythey may not have at home”.From the beginning, Diamond took the formvery seriously, enlisting the best collaborators:“My approach to finding comic book artists andwriters is the same as with science journalists andvirologists: I look for people who already have agreat deal of experience working in a particularmodality”. Tom Floyd has been creating comicsfor 30 years and Martin Powell has writtenscripts for hundreds of comics. The point is notto crudely attach science to comics, but toinhabit the form and make the stories – on thesame viruses as the radio programmes – standfor themselves. Diamond is passionate aboutthe potential of comics for telling these stories:“They have their own language and style. We’retrying to take advantage of what makes a comicinteresting: stories within stories – changes ofperspective in time and space. You can go fromouter space to a virus in two frames”.26 INTERNATIONAL INNOVATION


INTELLIGENCEWORLD OF VIRUSESOBJECTIVESThis initiative introduces people to virologythrough radio programmes, graphic stories,iPad apps, Web activities, and a book thatexplores some of the biggest questions aboutviruses.KEY COLLABORATORSJudy Diamond, Professor, University ofNebraska State MuseumCharles Wood, Director, Nebraska Centerfor VirologyMoira Rankin, President, Soundprint MediaCenter, IncCarl Zimmer, Science writer and author ofWoV book of essays, A Planet of VirusesDavid Uttal, Cognitive science professor,Northwestern UniversityBenjamin Jee, Cognitive scientist, College ofHoly CrossTom Floyd, Comic illustrator, NebraskaEducational TelecommunicationsIan Cottingham, Computer scientist, RedBrain, Inc.Anisa Angeletti, Virologist, Nebraska Centerfor VirologyPeter Angeletti, Virology professor,Nebraska Center for VirologyAmy Spiegel, Evaluator, University ofNebraska Center for Educational InnovationAnn Downer-Hazell, Science writerAdam Wagler, Multimedia designer,University of Nebraska School of Journalismand Mass CommunicationsFUNDINGWorld of Viruses is made possible by ScienceEducation Partnership Award (SEPA) fundingfrom the National Center for ResearchResources of the National Institutes of Health– Grant No R25 RR024267 (2007-2012).CONTACTJudy Diamond, PhDProject DirectorT +1 402-472-4433F +1 402-472-8899E jdiamond1@unl.eduwww.worldofviruses.unl.eduJUDY DIAMOND, PhD, is Professor andCurator of Informal Science Education atthe University of Nebraska State Museum.She is principal investigator of the NationalInstitutes of Health-funded World of Virusesproject developing radio documentaries,comics and iPad apps about viruses andinfectious disease.Focus on: Moira Rankin,Soundprint MediaPresidentSoundprint Media Center, Inc (SMCI) is a nationalnon-profit production, training and educational centrethat produces the longest running documentary series on U.S. public radio.Executive Producer, Moira Rankin, explains the challenge of bringing virusesalive in the medium: “It is always interesting to talk about the invisible onthe radio. We try and make connections with strong storylines, that sparkthe imagination – and let scientists tell the story, revealing passion, humourand curiosity”.Working closely with Dr Wood and Dr Diamond and the project’s scientificadvisors, Rankin’s team look to Carl Zimmer’s writing for ways to articulatecomplex science and expand listeners’ ideas: “Most people don’t realiseoceans are filled with viruses. Discussing them helps listeners understandviruses are not evil (ocean viruses are pretty harmless) or good, they just areagents with intriguing functions”. Only after extensive reading and dialoguedoes the final draft materialise, Rankin explains: “A clear story emergesonce we dig deeper into the research and the way the virus operates ineveryday life”.observes: “We see ourselves very much as anexperimental project – we don’t have all theanswers, but we do have the resources to trythings out, bringing cognitive scientists with us.We talk a lot to librarians and kids, see what’sworking and what’s not, and change what wedo: we’re a community of educators trying tolearn how to do things better”. This communityis reaching out to young people across thecountry and beyond – through the Center forVirology’s strong links with Zambia – to createa sophisticated dialogue about virology.SOPHISTICATED WORLDWIDE TEENAGERSWith physical books waning, World of Virusesis looking to the future of informal learning,through readable comics, but also interactiveapps. Diamond has no doubt that interactivitycould be an important tool, but it also raisesquestions: “We still don’t know what enhancesor what detracts from the experience – whatworks? What is the ‘spark of interest’ thatcontributes to the way people p think, andhow much difference does it make? Thereare cognitive issues at the basis of informallearning”. To explore these questions, theproject works with two cognitive scientists,Benjamin Jee and David Uttal. They areinvestigating how people’s mental models ofviruses change through experience with theproject materials.Center for Virology Director, Dr CharlesWood, believes the combination of elementsincluded in the World of Viruses project is apotent one: “It’s a good partnership to reachthe public through broadcasting, museumsand education. We’ll focus more on thehardcore research – I think these two armswork very well together”. This exposure to realresearchers and research environments couldindeed be the spark young people need topursue an interest or career in virology.Diamond believes the challenge for this andother science outreach projects will be thehigh standard young people now expect:“Teenagers – whether in Africa, the UK or theU. S. – are incredibly sophisticated today:their expectations are based on global mediaresources. When we move into education,that’s what we’re competing with – television,YouTube – and if our stuff doesn’t make thecut, nobody will pay attention to it”.28 INTERNATIONAL INNOVATION

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