Me with Bill Nye the Science Guy at Sci Foo 2010. Self portrait by Bill.

Me with Bill Nye the Science Guy at Sci Foo 2010. Self portrait by Bill.

Here it is as promised: the report back from Sci Foo 2010.

When three information-powerhouses (Google, O’Reilly and Nature) convene a bunch of scientists and science-thinkers one of the immediate results is that even waiting on line becomes fun.

I barely boarded the bus taking campers from the hotel to the Googleplex before I had Tom Fuller of nextjump willingly introducing me to the world of internet-based rewards and loyalty programs – which, in turn got us talking about new ways Project Exploration can pull tools from for-profit and internet world and apply them to our youth programs.

This kind of “cross-sector mash-ups” (you have to have the lingo right if you are going to go to Google) is just the kind of thing conference organizers hope will happen. 2010 Sci Foo “Campers” were willing facilitators. Introductory lines at Sci Foo basically came in three forms – What do you do? What are you into? What are you working on? – and you’d never knew what the answer would be; I met filmmakers, writers, inventors, cosmologists, programmers, entreprenuers, chemists, science educators in the first evening alone.

The event kicked off Friday evening and raced through Sunday afternoon. We first got our photos taken, picked up a t-shirt and got our name tags and then it was off to dinner under a tent.

LED light fun provided by Simon Quellen as Allison Gopnik looks on.

LED light fun provided by Simon Quellen Field as Allison Gopnik looks on.

Within minutes of sitting down I found myself talking with toy maker Simon Quellen Field who, along with inventing, blogging and promoting science with household ingredients, follows Project Exploration’s Twitter feed! With this auspicious beginning the weekend began.

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(From left) Conference organizers Sara from Nature, Chris from Google, Tim from O’Reilly, the Gong, Timo from Nature and Cat from Google.

After dinner the 200+ Sci Foo Campers heard from conference organizers and received our first missive: “Come up with three words to introduce yourself.” If you took too long you got the gong so I stuck with the instructions:

“Gabrielle Lyon, Project Exploration. Science. Education. Activist.”

The second missive came from Google co-founder, Larry Page: “Ask yourself, ‘Is what I’m doing going to change the world? If the answer is ‘no’ then maybe you should be doing something else.”

Larry Page at the Googleplex addressing Sci Foo 2010 Campers.

Larry Page at the Googleplex addressing Sci Foo 2010 Campers.

Moments later there was a scramble to get to the boards. Oversized sticky-notes and large sharpie markers were put to work and within about 10 minutes a conference took shape. There were too many sessions to choose from and I went to more than it would be healthy to blog about so here are a few highlights….

The Sci Foo Conference Board

The Sci Foo Conference Board

So many sessions to choose from!

So many sessions to choose from!

Are there too many PhDs in science? This question has been roiling about in academic and policy circles, and, increasingly, more mainstream reporting. The answer depends on what you need them to do. If you need an academic there might be too many PhDs; if you need someone to interpret data but also effectively manage a team of people, work with interdisciplinary groups and communicate what they’re doing there may not be enough qualified PhDs. Geoff Davis, a quantitative analyst at Google, brought an industry perspective to the conversation. He also founded Phds.org – a robust site that ranks PhD programs based on personal priorities, offers career resources and posts a job board for PhDs.

Carl Zimmer offers some science communication "do's" and "dont's."

Carl Zimmer offers some science communication "do's" and "dont's."

A session on Three Rules challenged three folks who really know their stuff to reduce it down to three basic rules. Molecular Engineer Eric Drexler offered guidelines for “How to understand everything.” New York Times stringer and Discover blogger Carl Zimmer offered pointers for considering “How are you going to be understood.” He directed participants to his “index of banned words in science writing.” For example, finding yourself inclined to employ the word “utilize” vs. “use.” Don’t do it. Adventure sports enthusiast and theoretical physicist Garrett Lisi offered “Three Rules for Being a Mad Scientist” – which included… you guessed it… Rule Number 4, “Break the Rules.”

Proof Peter Neufeld was where he said he was - getting input on data analysis for the Innocence Project.

Proof Peter Neufeld was where he said he was - getting input on data analysis for the Innocence Project.

In one of the most interesting sessions Peter Neufeld, co-founder of The Innocence Project, turned to the Sci Foo collective and posed some real life problems in search of feedback: how to be more effective and efficient at identifying cases in which innocent people have been wrongly convicted. Could data and analytic techniques at the heart of data-mining and marketing be put to use? The folks in the room seemed to think so.

Project Exploration in the HOUSE!

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Paul and I spent a lot of the time talking about Project Exploration students and our personalized approach to making science accessible to students historically overlooked by science education efforts. People were sincerely curious about the obstacles that keep students like those in PE programs from getting involved with science. Paul presented a session on Galloping Crocs and I called a session to ask for help in coming up with a new, non-linear (non “pipeline” metaphor for science education.)

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I’ve been working on this issue for a while and eventually I’ll do a full-blown blog piece on it but here are the punch lines from the Sci Foo session. Tim O’Reilly, developmental psychologist and philosopher Allison Gopnik, and documentary filmmaker Noah Hutton were amongst the diverse group who spent an hour considering what a new metaphor needed to provide and some ideas:

  • Smartgrid and network models would offer a way to think about science happening everywhere at diverse sites, but ultimately connected. It also offers a measurement rubric – you could measure the number of connections
  • Sports and Dance offer models that includes apprenticeships, the idea that you can play right away (jump right in), along with the opportunity to professionalize
  • Organic metaphors abounded – a tree with a branching structure; maybe we could do something with “crop yield;” and, finally, a “trellis and vine” – build the trellis and let the vine grow.
  • A watershed would allow for directionality; an ecosystem or ecology would help us think about variables in many forms.

Regardless of their professions, some things were just cool for everybody – magnetized materials, Lego-contraptions and especially the liquid sky screens provided by Google for people to test drive. Clusters of physicists and programmers, bloggers and blasters, builders and thinkers all the campers were drawn in to the “immersion” map: a surround-screen version of Google maps where you could fly yourself to the moon, or ask for a ride from an experienced driver for a ride to someplace on Earth. Paul and I tried to find fossil sites in Niger’s Sahara before zeroing in on Chicago’s south side.

Google can now fly you to the moon - or your backyard.

Google can now fly you to the moon - or your backyard.

The group at Sci Foo – demographically speaking in terms of race, age, gender seemed pretty representative of science and technology at large – not many African Americans, Latinos or Native Americans and though more women than the group in 2007 certainly less than 50%.

One way to think about the work ahead of us at Project Exploration is to imagine SciFoo 2020 looking like the 2010 Junior Paleontologists… That’s the work we’ve carved out to do.

And so, Larry Page, we’re in the midst of considering, quite seriously and practically YOUR question to Sci Foo Campers: Project Exploration IS doing something that will change the world. And in a few years, our students just might change Sci Foo Camp, too.

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