Putting youth back into science
We all know that young people love gadgets and technology, so why is it that fewer young men and women are choosing science subjects and pursuing scientific careers? The aim of the YOSCIWEB ('Young people and the images of science on websites') project was to understand what makes science appealing to young people and what internet tools can be used to make science more attractive. The project was funded EUR 489 122 under the Science in Society (SIS) Programme of the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).
Society relies on science and technology (S&T) to generate solutions to the many challenges we are presented with today and will face in the future. If the drop in interest among young people (particularly young women) in S&T subjects continues, then the trend is likely to have significant consequences for Europe. To stop and even reverse this pattern, the European Union supports a range of initiatives that pursue greater participation by young people in science and encourage long-term scientific careers.
As one of these projects, the focus for the YOSCIWEB team was on science's image; the partners specifically looked at different ways of correcting the perceptions of science as being out of reach, dull and unfashionable.
Since young people use digital mediums to communicate and access information, the researchers decided to examine the best ways (e.g. tools and methods to use and how) to communicate science through the Internet. This information would then form the basis of best practice guidelines and recommendations for stakeholders, especially creators of popular scientific websites. The benefits would ultimately have a cascading effect on the adult population at large, who also struggle to penetrate the scientific world in ways that are meaningful to them.
The project was a 27-month collaboration between 7 partners from Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK. As well as assessing the current situation in general terms, the team conducted a deeper analysis of a selected sample of websites. This involved industry professionals and a focus group of almost 400 young people from the 7 partner countries.
They found that while, in general, large organisations had sophisticated websites, this did not necessarily mean they were run well. In fact, the researchers discovered that some smaller organisations or even individuals ran very good websites, while some large, well-sourced science organisations had relatively poor scientific information on their websites.
The results also demonstrated that besides famous scientists, young people should also be shown examples of 'ordinary' scientists going about their daily work routine. Clear explanations of study and career possibilities for a given science field would help young people to better visualise the path to becoming a scientist.
The writing style, too, should be tailored to the audience; it should be factual, accurate and accessible. However, the researchers found that credibility and integrity in the material would help encourage other scientists to contribute to the website. Beyond text-based content, the experts recommend the use of quizzes, animation, drawings, films, interviews, sound bites, regular images or photographs, and more advanced multimedia (e.g. simulations of experiments).
Since school-related tasks often motivate young people to search for scientific information, the experts also suggest that the content of science websites relate, at least in part, to the school curriculum. Website designers should also keep teachers in mind; useful websites may inspire teachers to use the websites in collaboration with their students. Of course, content need not only be made available on the website itself, but be delivered to the student (or teacher) through RSS (really simple syndication)-feeds, email newsletters and social updates, among others.
Finally, while young people like colours and images, they prefer a site that is neutral yet efficient over a colourful, messy or overtly sophisticated one. Visually, the experts recommend that the websites be appealing without being too flashy or crowded.
The full report of these and other recommendations are available through the YOSCIWEB website.