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Harnessing the Web for Educational Impact:
The Science Behind the News

Terry Millar
Andrew Porter
University of Wisconsin

Most TV watchers and radio listeners likely have been in the position before. During a news program, a segment comes on about a new advancement in medicine, earthquake research, or space exploration. Between the sound bytes, video segments, and reporting jargon, it can be difficult to determine the scientific significance.

The Why Files--a project of NPACI partner the National Institute for Science Education (NISE) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison--is addressing the interest in science, and not just by explaining the science behind such stories as the Mars landing or a flu epidemic, though these have been topics. The Web publication explores the science, math, and technology behind the daily headlines. When Princess Diana was killed in Paris in September 1997, the site responded with an issue dedicated to grief and the process of grieving. Last April, when stock markets were teetering, the Why Files devoted an issue to the "science behind the stock market."

"News surrounds us and offers a vehicle for critical insight when it is harnessed and explained properly," said Andrew Porter, a Wisconsin professor of educational psychology and co-director of NISE. "This is what we're trying to do with the Why Files, using the Web as a tool for interactive delivery of the educational content."


News surrounds us and offers a vehicle for critical insight when it is harnessed and explained properly. This is what we're trying to do with the Why Files, using the Web as a tool for interactive delivery of the educational content.

--Andrew Porter, NISE Co-director


The publication was launched by NISE in February 1996 with two objectives: to uncover scientific issues in current events; and to serve as a research platform for how people learn about science on the Web. While both objectives--to educate the public about science--are relevant to the broad goals of NPACI's Education and Outreach thrust area, the second objective makes the project of unique interest to the partnership and the national Education, Outreach, and Training Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (EOT-PACI), a joint effort of NPACI and the National Computational Science Alliance.

"The goal of EOT-PACI is to have a national impact on science education and to increase overall the scientific and technical literacy of Americans," said NPACI Education and Outreach thrust area leader Greg Moses, associate dean for research and graduate studies at Wisconsin's College of Engineering. Moses has long been affiliated with NISE and took the lead in bringing the organization into the Partnership.

As an NSF program, NISE is charged with evaluating the outcomes of educational programs in science, math, engineering, and technology across the country and working with the NSF to scale the most efficacious for national dissemination. For example, a small, successful program in Texas sprouted into NSF Science and Technology Week--during which school children participate in workshops, activities, and events at sites around the country; ask questions of scientists over the Internet; and download experiments for the classroom from the Web.

"NISE is now engaged evaluating the educational programs of EOT-PACI and helping us determine first, which programs have the most impact, and second, which could then be scaled for implementation at other sites around the country," Moses said.

One way to scale successful projects is to use the Web as the communication vehicle, and this is where the research function of the Why Files becomes of particular importance to the Partnership. The publication is a testbed for Sharon Dunwoody, a Wisconsin professor of journalism and an internationally recognized authority on science writing, and William Eveland, a research associate at Wisconsin.

"We are looking at who uses interactive media and what they do with it," Dunwoody said. "This process is more difficult than looking at traditional media such as newspapers, but since the Web may come to dominate information transmission, it is important to figure out this relationship."

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The Why Files Web Interface


The Why Files has become popular with educators and pundits alike in its brief history, earning acclaim and awards from PC World Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Popular Science, the Washington Post Online, the Chicago Tribune, HotWired, Magellan, CNN, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and U.S. News and World Report.

By all accounts, the same attributes that make the publication appealing to children are what make it appealing to teachers and the general public. Darrell Schulte, webmaster for the Why Files, summarized its allure, "It's fun." Science writer David Tenenbaum says he uses humor as a means of bridging reflexive barriers that readers--especially children--put up when confronted with material they may not easily understand.

"Scientists typically present science in such dry terms, no matter how excited they really are" Tenenbaum says. "We try to bring that excitement back into our work. We focus on the curiosity, the passion that drives science." The graphics of designer Yael Gen go a long way toward capturing readers' attention, too.

"This is part of the successful formula of the Why Files," Dunwoody said. "It's like the old trick of mixing your children's medicine into a milkshake. They don't realize that what they're ingesting is good for them, so they don't raise the objections that are born of assumptions and stereotypes."

The Why Files identifies its readership as "teachers, students, and everyone else." To make the publication most useful in a classroom setting, new stories are added each week and lead stories are supplemented by several additional stories that support a common theme. The content also links to a complete source bibliography and a suggested reading and "surfing" list for additional information. After a story is retired from the lead it is moved to a searchable archive organized by scientific discipline.

To support the use of the Why Files in curricula, the site also runs a message board where teachers can communicate with each other about classroom and curriculum needs, submit story ideas for future issues, or suggest experiments and activities that may be done in the classroom that go along with the theme of a story. This area, called The Forum, supports interaction on topics ranging from physics, math, and astronomy, to plants, humans, and general science questions. "In this way, the site helps support a virtual community of educators," Porter said.

On the site, a user can also find Cool Science Images--pictures and short explanations submitted by scientists across the country or obtained by Why Files' team members. "We're always looking for new images," Schulte said. "We rely upon researchers to send us pictures and explanations that they think would interest kids and adults alike. They don't necessarily have to fit in with an issue's theme, either. It's just another great way for us to showcase scientific research that's going on in the United States."

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Schulte traveled to San Jose, California, in November 1997 for SC97: High Performance Networking and Computing to demonstrate The Why Files in the joint EOT-PACI booth between the NPACI and the Alliance exhibits. "We're excited to be a part of this partnership through NISE," Schulte said, "and hope to feature research from both NPACI and the Alliance when it fits into one of our 'science behind the news' stories. We also hope that researchers from the partnerships will contribute their Cool Science Image." (For more information about contributing to the Why Files, contact Amy Finley,, 619-822-0924.)

"We're tremendously pleased to have NISE as a partner in EOT-PACI," Moses said. "This will help us meet our goal of having a dramatic and systemic impact on science education in the United States. And as we explore supporting more of our educational program content on the Web, we are thankful for the example of the Why Files as an award-winning and successful educational delivery mechanism." --AF

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