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Thoughtful news consumption

UD students learn hands-on skills for sifting through scientific data to interpret media claims

Undergraduate students taking the course The Oceans, The Media, and Polar Science (HONR 267-080) received puzzled looks from passersby recently as they pulled professors Jonathan Cohen and Matthew Oliver and a teaching assistant around the University of Delaware’s Newark campus on sleds.

Adding to the confusion, many of the students wore white buckets over their heads while collectively attempting to follow directions from their classmates.

Based on a real exercise used by Antarctic researchers, this crazy scene was actually a hands-on way to demonstrate one lesson: “Computers do what you tell them to do, not what you want them to do,” said Oliver, the Patricia and Charles Robertson Professor of Marine Science and Policy in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

While computers are useful at processing information, they do not have the human ability to read between the lines. This means scientists have to communicate precisely what they want from a computer in order to receive meaningful information.

Acting out this human-computer relationship, with one student representing the computer and the other the scientists, students can learn how this process works in practice.

Students, including freshman Chris Ponticello, said they found the learning style fun and productive.

“Using your peers as resources and having a different set of eyes on things is definitely helpful,” said Ponticello, an Honors Program student studying pre-veterinary medicine and animal biosciences.

But how does this exercise relate to understanding media claims?

With funding support from a National Science Foundation, Cohen and Oliver are trying to create a more dynamic way to teach science to undergraduate students, inside and outside of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors.

In the course, students are learning investigative ways to challenge the surplus of information available in today’s media. The process begins with an article from a news source familiar to undergraduate students, such as BuzzFeed, The New York Times or The Huffington Post. Students search for technical evidence to evaluate the scientific claims made in the article, then visualize the data with an open source computer program called R.

“We are using a program called R to analyze polar data. It is really useful in taking lots of data and finding actual trends, which helps us understand what data are really going into the claims made in media sources,” said Alana Duke, a freshman majoring in biochemistry.

Why polar data?

Cohen and Oliver both have active research projects in the polar regions and they recognized its heavy presence in both popular media and empirical research.

In an age when many people have become accustomed to accepting headlines as facts, thoughtful news consumption is more important than ever. Rising temperatures, sea ice loss, and species extinctions are regular hot topics in news and politics. By learning to access and interpret scientific data, students can develop their ability to create their own reliable answers to environmental questions.

Oliver explained that often news sources and even classroom learning present science as a set of facts rather than a process.

“You look at the science section of a popular news source and it’s usually just a collection of facts, but that’s not what science is. Science is a way of thinking,” said Oliver.

“We want students to play an active role in their intake of data rather than becoming passive consumers of the media.”

According to Cohen, this more dynamic relationship with information also teaches students critical reasoning skills, which are applicable to any field.

“We want to get students introduced to science in general and help them become educated citizens no matter what they do for a career,” said Cohen.

Piloted this spring with Honors Program students, the professors will be offering the course to all students in spring 2018.

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