Science talk: ASU grad says there are no easy answers

August 11, 2010

EDITOR'S NOTE: What motivates a scientist? How does research today affect the universe tomorrow? These are the questions that keep the students of" target="_blank">Triple Helix awake at night. This article is part of a series that looks at the work being done by Triple Helix, an undergraduate science forum.

"I have quite possibly the greatest degree ASU offers," says Ellen Dupont, a recent graduate who now holds a bachelor's degree in biology and society from ASU. Download Full Image

The degree, which emphasizes scientific study in historical, ethical and political contexts, was well-suited for Dupont, who also led the ASU chapter of Triple Helix – an international, undergraduate-run organization that explores, through written articles and, more recently, podcasts, the intersection of science, society and law. Its 800 students hail from leading universities across the United States and abroad.

To listen to the latest Triple Helix podcast on what it means to be human, click" target="_blank">here. 

"My first Triple Helix article grew out of a paper I wrote for one of my elective courses in biology," Dupont says. "It examined problems associated with the way genetic research is presented in the mass media. Instead of an extracurricular competing for time with my coursework, it often felt like they were two pillars of the same education. I loved writing that article, and I toyed with pursuing a career in science journalism."

Although Dupont eventually chose to abandon the idea of becoming a journalist, she remains committed to the pursuit of creating open dialogues about the processes and implications of science, and plans to work in the public health sector for developing nations as both a practitioner and policymaker.

"The coexistence of Western medicine and traditional healing practices in some cultures will make communication absolutely key, and I hope to put my Triple Helix lessons to good use!"
Thinking about science in broader terms

Triple Helix is not just about science. As a sophomore psychology major, Dupont took her first class from a faculty member affiliated with Center for Biology and Society. It was a class that challenged her views of science and technology, and offered her new tools to understand them.

She immediately changed her major.

In writing her first article for Triple Helix, Dupont discussed the importance of framing and reframing science.

“I was bothered by some newspaper headlines I read that said things like ‘Gene for Alcoholism Identified’ and ‘New Hope for Victims of Disease,’” Dupont said. “Science journalism is a touchy subject for both sides because science moves slow and news moves fast, but oversimplification and hype when it comes to fields such as genetics can be a serious problem. Were we promoting genetic determinism, the idea that genes determine everything about us, from disease susceptibility to personality traits? Were we fostering ‘new hope’ in families whose loved ones had genetic diseases, when in fact cures were years, even decades away? If so, who was responsible for the miscommunication, and more importantly, how could we do a better job?

“I had to consider the conflicting motivations of scientists and journalists, the way science is perceived as proceeding versus the way it actually proceeds, and the human element of it all – the scientists, the journalists, the readers – that often gets lost amid assumptions of ‘scientific objectivity.’ And there were so many other directions I could have gone with that article, all of which the Triple Helix would encourage: What does it mean that private companies can patent genes? That health insurance companies might demand a copy of your genome if you get it sequenced? So a simple observation led to a complicated investigation, and I learned that there were no easy answers, but that asking the questions and keeping an open mind can challenge the way we think about science and the people who practice it and who benefit or suffer from it.”

For Dupont, her area of undergraduate study, along with her Triple Helix work, have all taught her that science has never been “just science.”

“There have always been – and always will be – social, philosophical, ethical and political implications of what we do in the lab,” she said. “The question is whether we examine them fully enough, and who’s doing the examining.”

The Triple Helix podcast series was recorded in the" target="_blank">Grass Roots Studio, in the School of Life Sciences, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences – features the scientific expertise of students, researchers and professors at ASU.

Britt Lewis

Interim Communications Director, ASU Library

Awakening the 'tech' in girls' brains

August 11, 2010

Fifteen-year-old Rosenda Rivera is gradually watching her Akimel O’odham language fade away. Just 8 percent of the people in her Gila River Indian Community know it and most are elderly. Rivera is producing a video that explores this language loss to raise awareness of the issue.

An hour away in downtown Phoenix, Aimee Angulo, 13, has watched girls in her community face the challenge of unplanned pregnancy. Through research, she is learning that having a baby at such a young age also presents challenges for the teens’ parents as well as the community. Using an animation program called “Scratch,” she hopes to show others how the impacts of teen pregnancy ripple outward. COMPUGIRLS mentor-teacher and student working at a computer Download Full Image

Rivera and Angulo are participating in an innovative program, developed and led by Arizona State University Professor Kimberly Scott, which fuses learning of advanced computational skills with key areas of social justice. Called “COMPUGIRLS,”">">“COMPUGIRLS,” the goal is to create aptitude and interest among adolescent girls in technology and computer science.

“Unlike most technology programs, COMPUGIRLS is very focused on having the girls identify and research a social or community issue that is important to them,” Scott said. “The technology becomes a means to that research, to analyze that issue and ultimately come up with and present a solution.”

A 2007 study by the National Science Foundation reports that only 18.6 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women, and only 10 percent of middle-school girls rated the profession as a “very good” choice for them. This is despite the fact that teenage girls are now using computers and the Internet at rates similar to their male peers.

According to Scott, part of the problem is that computer science is often seen as programming, which is oftentimes boring to girls. They don’t see how technology can be used to create, discover or solve a problem.

“Girls, in general, prefer projects that are socially relevant, prefer learning by doing, and enjoy working in small collaborative teams,” she said. “This is not typically taken into consideration when designing curriculum.”

Scott, who teaches in ASU’s School">">School of Social Transformation in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, developed the program in 2007 and secured a $850,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to bring it to 60 girls in underserved school districts in the Phoenix-metro area, including at the Gila River Boys & Girls Club in Sacaton, part of the Gila River Indian Community.

The girls, who are predominantly Hispanic, Native American and African-American, can begin the program as eighth graders and participate in six distinct courses, meeting four times a week for five weeks. In addition to advancing techno-social skills, they learn to improve their writing, conduct interviews, draft proposals, and research using the Internet, as well as ASU’s online library.

As part of the program, COMPUGIRLS loans each participant a laptop, digital camera and digital camcorder. Podcasting, Teen Second Life, Sims and Scratch are a few of the applications that the girls learn throughout the program to showcase their social justice issue.

The curriculum is designed by the ASU research team in tandem with mentor-teachers from Gila River, the Phoenix and Tempe Union High School Districts, and Roosevelt Elementary School District. COMPUGIRLS is an opportunity for them to advance their skills in applied technology.

“We get intimidated by technology; they're ten steps ahead of us,” said curriculum specialist Cynthia Mruczek, a doctoral student in ASU’s educational leadership and policy program. “They are developing high-level math and computational thinking skills, and they love it because the topic is important to them and their communities. They’re more confident and interact with technology differently when there are no boys around.”

Trish Ladue, an English teacher from McClintock High School in Tempe, agrees.

“The assumption is that boys are better, but the girls discover they are just as bright,” Ladue said. “This awakens a whole new part of their brain and makes computers cool to them. They haven’t thought it was an opportunity open to them, and then they discover they’re really good at it.”

Ericka Martinez, 14, is a quick study. She is using Scratch to bring some pretty sophisticated animation to her project on girls in juvenile detention, adding sound, music and characters to tell her story.

“It’s very new to me – using technology in a good way to convey information,” Martinez said. “It makes you think a lot because it’s not just a game, and I’m learning to be patient with technology and myself. It’s a good feeling when you can help others change their minds and opinions with something you’ve created.”

Learning to use technological skills while exploring a social issue has been an intriguing process for Davina Pratt, 14, as well. She eventually plans on going to college and majoring in a technological field or criminal justice. Her father, David Pratt, is proud of what she has learned.

“This is a large field,” he said. “It can be a good way for her to make a living.”

Written by Julie Newberg and Sharon Keeler

Sharon Keeler

associate director, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering