Active Science – Young people engaged in science

Optional Abstract: 

“Active Science” is an innovative tool, but already widely tested, of public engagement and scientific citizenship. Almost entirely based on the use of the web, the project is founded on the dialogic processes of deliberative democracy to engage young people on current scientific and technological issues. It makes students the protagonists of the learning process by stimulating their curiosity, creativity and critical thinking. Active Science links the world of scientific research - researchers - with the schools - teachers and students - thanks to the wide-ranging panel of experts who offer their expertise with materials and the dialogue with the participants. Similarly, the project supports teachers in continuous training and knowledge updating. The use of the web can involve a large number of teachers and young people as well as offering the opportunity for continuous dialogue among the participants. The three editions that have already occurred involved over 4000 students.

Science and technology have an important role in modern life. More and more often people demand to be involved and not just informed about scientific topics and the general consensus is that (young) researchers are the best carriers towards this goal. For several years many European countries have been testing new deliberative democracy instruments, especially through public debates. Active Science applies the same methodology to project recipients and objectives.

Active Science is a project of public engagement with science of Agorà Scienza. The aim is to increase the awareness of high school students on topical issues of science and technology. It is a master plan of deliberative democracy and scientific citizenship, which uses the web as the main instrument to inform, diffuse and communicate. A scientific committee identifies the themes of each edition collectively. A panel of experts is then set up for each topic; each expert can and will interact with students, thus providing a direct link between education and research. Every year a new theme is added and one from the previous year is removed and archived. This way a large archive is generated. The method adopted by the project stimulates scientific inquiry together with autonomous and critical thinking.

Topics

First edition (2009/10): Energy, Atmospheric pollution.
Second edition (2010/11): Water, Energy and climate change, Stem cells.
Third edition (2011/12): Nanosciences, Stem cells.

Objectives

  • To encourage active involvement and scientific citizenship feeling of high school students
  • To promote direct dialogue between high school students, their teachers and researchers
  • To co-operate with local institutions (culture, education, formation, innovation)
  • To promote scientific careers and encourage equal opportunities
  • To make young people aware of the scientific issues involved in the public debate
  • To increase scientific opportunities for schools using innovative instruments
  • To foster and make use of the most modern techniques of communication
  • To go from “pilot” to “large scale” projects in high school involvement

Website

The Italian website (www.scienzattiva.eu) is the key instrument for information and diffusion which makes it possible to increase the interaction among participants. Students find large pedagogical material on the web site: documents prepared especially for this project by researchers to help and instruct the students. Students can ask questions to researchers through the web site, talk with each other, share knowledge and experience. Students can also create new documents (including video and images) and share them with others.

The Four Steps of Active Science

Active Science is articulated in four steps:

  • Pre-knowledge: summary of what the students know about the topic before the project starts.
  • Information: group work and dialogue with the experts to build a scientific knowledge about the topic of choice.
  • Proposals: group work and dialogue with experts in order to hypothesize future scenarios.
  • Final live meeting: a final discussion in order to reach a common agreement and statement, followed by a formal vote. The deliberation will be brought to researchers and the local authorities.

Training for teachers

Training meetings for teachers are organised before the activities begin. The training is dedicated to deliberative democracy methods and to the scientific aspects of the topics to be investigated.

Impact

In the years 2009/2012 Active Science has involved more than 4000 high school students. Its initial local-scale approach (Piemonte Region) was expanded in 2011 with the involvement of other Italian regions (Lombardia, Emilia Romagna, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Sicilia) as an important test towards a National and possibly European scale approach. Active Science is a highly innovative project from the point of view of the method of learning science and the implementation of deliberative processes to scientific and technological issues. In this framework, the Agora Science Team, supported by social scientists, has launched a study on the impact of the project. For this purpose, during the final events, questionnaires were delivered to participants before and after the deliberative process, designed to detect changes of preference with respect to the proposed recommendations. In addition, we asked the students, after the event, to self-evaluate the deliberative process on the basis of a series of statements.

Delivery of questionnaires for the collection of preferences was scheduled a few minutes before the start of the workday and at the end of it. The objective is to understand whether and to what extent the views of young people change following the presentation of different points of view offered by the experts and the discussion that occurred between the students themselves. We note – like in other empirical studies conducted in Italy on the deliberation issue – that the deliberative process acts on the organization of individual preferences, even when they are not significantly modified.

In the three events so far examined, this change has been considerable; all changes considered (opinion and intensity) it is on the average between 30% and 48%. As regards the self-assessment we have observed a significant satisfaction in the participants to the deliberation for a variety of aspects (dialogic and reflexivity).

Sustainability

Active Science is almost entirely built on the web through an open source platform developed specifically. This aspect makes the design easily and economically exportable for use by other organizations. Steps are being taken to make it a national endeavour and, if at all possible, to test it on a European scale. The web allows involving a large number of participants while maintaining high interaction between them.

Conclusions

The project has proved itself capable of achieving the objectives set out for the involvement of young people on current issues in science and technology with communication and training tools different from the traditional ones. Students appreciate the method and the various phases and in particular the opportunity to dialogue among themselves, with other classes and with researchers and to tackle a “school” project as protagonists and not just recipients with innovative tools offered by the web. Teachers appreciate the work method and believe that this over time is very productive.

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