Jonathan Bell

Jonathan Bell is the Development Director with Informed by Nature, a public non-profit organization designed to increase the public understanding of science. While we totally respect what IBN does, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t choose Jonathan as this week’s interview subject in hopes of getting a free science lesson ourselves. Fortunately he obliged!

1. I imagine when you’re in the business of educating people, especially young people, your success stories can be pretty rewarding?

Indeed! We have an immediate objective with each person who encounters us: to awaken them to a fascinating world of science that is both astounding and relevant. Our mission is to advance the public understanding and appreciation of science, from its elegant approach to its awe-inspiring results. A large part of our work focuses on pre-university students, who may or may not have a sound foundation in science learning and critical thinking.

We have found that being able to connect youths through the internet and with real-world activities facilitates learning and allows the students to teach each other, whether in the same classroom or on the other side of the country. The greatest reward comes from watching students teach each other as they embrace the wonder of science.

2. Why focus on science, and not say, algebra? Not that we’re complaining—we hate algebra.

Well, we use the term “science” broadly and aim to promote and support all aspects of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. In other words, we include algebra! The difference that you note might be in the lack of specific lesson plans or modules that teach formulae through practice equations. Our focus is on inspiring people to see the wonder in all these approaches that integrate inquisitiveness, observation, and an analytical perspective within a systematic methodology. In other words, we want everyone to see the value of thinking critically.

The same approach involved in solving an algebra equation is necessary for creativity and innovation: honed problem-solving skills that assess the problem, determine what tools could be used, and apply those tools to come up with a viable answer. This is what science is all about, a method that requires process, attention to detail, and assessment of knowledge, while trying to contribute to what we know. These are approaches that can be used in every aspect of our lives and careers and contribute to a better informed, more efficient, and savvier society.

3. Is it true the U.S. has some disappointing numbers when it comes to worldwide rankings in science proficiency?

Unfortunately, it is true. For instance, US pre-university students ranked 22nd among OECD countries in science performance, behind countries like Canada, Hungary, Taiwan, and Poland. Additionally, less than 10% of American students ever reach the highest level of science proficiency, compared with 20% of Singaporean students and 18% of New Zealanders.

We want to highlight the importance of the scientific method and process in decision-making and problem-solving in part because only 18% of American adults can correctly describe what it means to study something scientifically. And basic understanding of concepts like probability are also lacking, with only 42% of adults in the US able to correctly explain what a 1-in-4 chance means. These results highlight an incredible shortcoming in our education system and in the interest and opportunities of adults to continue learning and maintain or upgrade their scientific literacy.

4. How does IBN use social media to advance the understanding of science?

It is undeniable that our real world has become inextricably intertwined with a virtual online reality within which we interact, make transactions, read the news, and question. IBN sees not only the opportunity, but the necessity to integrate our online interactions into the learning process. To this end, we have created an Internet platform for science learning that encourages users to explore science-related literature, art, lectures, videos, magazines, and the like. All of this science content is enhanced with the ability for users to share, promote, discuss, and comment about it. In other words, we are fostering a community of online users around our content.

Additionally, our outreach programs encourage students and others to create new content, share their work, and ask questions, all through our website. For instance, our newest program, the Online Science Fair, launches this Spring and provides a free platform for students to organize and upload their science projects, share them with teachers and peers, and archive them for future students to discover. The tool is available for large science fairs or small classrooms and allows everyone with online access to share their science-related projects.

Another great benefit of using the internet is to allow underserved students to participate in science competitions or classroom events even if they are too far away to be present in person. We’re hoping this will expand science fair participation and encourage interaction between classrooms and schools in the same neighborhood and across the country. Social media will encourage the spread of the tool and greatly enhance its impact on education as students, teachers, and families, share the projects on their favorite platforms and encourage comments and voting.

Scientists, unite!

5. Do you think the Internet has increased the interest in science?

Most definitely. Recent survey data indicate that 91% of Americans are very or moderately interested in new scientific discoveries, up from 80% just a few years ago. Simultaneously, the Internet has increased access to science information and it is now the number one source for learning about science-related topics in the US. This means that we have an amazing opportunity to engage the public in science learning through the widespread medium of the Internet.

Given the seamless integration of social media with most websites today, it has never been easier to discover new information and share that with family, friends, and casual acquaintances, and even strangers. This vast network of people sharing information increases society’s interest in science and underscores new and exciting events, whether it be the discovery of Higgs Boson particles or landing on Mars with a new scientific research vehicle. We see the internet as an incredible force in today’s society and that’s why we’ve made it the central tool in our science education efforts.

6. You guys place a great emphasis on critical thinking. It seems like that could be somewhat instinctual. Is it difficult to teach someone to think more critically?

There are two challenges in trying to communicate around critical thinking. The first is defining it. Critical thinking has long been a buzzword within education and it is integrated into the 21st Century Learning Framework promoted by many education professionals today. But, how do you explain what it is? The second problem is, once you come up with a definition, how do you instill that in someone’s approach. For IBN, the scientific method is one prime example of critical thinking, a systematic process that requires questioning, unbiased examination and analysis, and the ability to replicate results, while also highlighting points that are still not understood or need more study. It’s hard to get more critical or more applied than this process that underlies really any type of thorough research and new discovery we know.

Once you understand the steps involved in the process and why they’re important, you can apply it to decision-making in your own life, whether it’s which new phone to buy or which medical treatment to choose. We feel encouraging these thought processes is particularly important as we find ourselves inundated with more and more opinions online and in the media and public opinion appears easily swayed. It takes reliable data, sound evaluation, and applied logic to make an informed decision and we think the scientific process is the perfect embodiment.

7. The Higgs boson discovery last year was a huge development in the science world. Are there any other breakthroughs that scientists are homing in on?

I think new approaches to healthcare informed by individual genetic information will be an astounding breakthrough that will not only impact the science world, but all of us. In addition to improving drastically the treatment given for illness, ailments, and even aging, the overhauling medical approaches will have great impact on public health, government policy, and health education. Being able to individualize medicine will lead to a number of new considerations and innovations in science. In short, the next big thing in science is understanding ourselves better.

8. That meteor in Russia injured more than a thousand people without ever hitting anywhere near them. Is a meteor strike and its effects something we should concern ourselves with?  If this is out of your area of expertise, that’s fine.. we can just watch Armageddon again.

Completely outside my expertise. That said, I understand the chance of being hit by something falling to the earth is very low, somewhere in the realm of 1 in 3000 for anyone on earth to be hit and 1 in 20,000,000,000,000 for something to fall within a specific square meter and, therefore, hit any specific person. These numbers should be comforting. However, it is true that many people were injured in Russia without actually being hit, so the odds may be different for injury associated with a meteor strike, but I still don’t think there’s any reason to worry.

I’m not even sure we can calculate the odds of something hitting the earth as opposed to passing through any other part of the universe, since we don’t know how truly big the universe is. My recommendation for someone preoccupied with the possibility is to become educated about the odds, the asteroids and meteroids that fly by the earth everyday, and the 15,000 tonnes of particles that enter the earth’s atmosphere each year.

9. They call boxing the “sweet science,” but it’s really just two guys punching each other. If you could reclaim that term, what area of science would be the sweetest?

This is a hard question. I think it’s impossible to pick any specific discipline or area and proclaim it sweeter than any other. For IBN, the real sweet science is the methodology itself that provides engineers, fluid physicists, microbiologists, and everyone else with the same basic procedures to study their world, pose questions, and discover new and better ways to do things. Nothing is sweeter than a simple approach that has been proven over centuries and still continues to underpin groundbreaking discoveries in every field.

10. We’re dying to know: Can anyone really be “blinded by science,” as Thomas Dolby claimed?

Haha. A classic! Hard to know. If we consider that “it’s poetry in motion” and “the elements in harmony” then I think it’s possible to be overcome by the beauty of our universe and the processes that continue to change it. Ultimately, I truly believe that the pursuit of knowledge through the application of sound methodology always leaves us better informed. Science removes the blinders.

Thomas Dolby: not a scientist.

While pursuing a PhD at UCLA, Jonathan Bell discovered Informed by Nature and asked to add his fundraising and  diplomacy skills to the mix as Development Director. Before that he spent years working on historic buildings and archaeological sites in countries as diverse as China, Pakistan, Egypt, and France. Thanks for the brain food, Jonathan!