When students using the Ask a Biologist Web site ask questions of a fictional character named Dr. Biology, they are actually accessing the combined knowledge of more than 150 volunteer experts in the field of biology and related areas.
“That’s why Dr. Biology is so amazing,” says Charles Kazilek, who created the Web site. “He’s the most brilliant biologist on the planet.”
Kazilek’s site, which attracts 3000 to 4000 visitors a day during the school year, has been selected to receive the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) for its engaging question-and-answer approach, as well as the corresponding materials on the Web site, the majority of which have been requested by users.
“The site blends science facts with intriguing content, imaginative graphic elements, and a real connection between a questioning public and scientific experts,” says Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science.
Science magazine developed the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) to spotlight the best online materials in science education. The acronym SPORE suggests a reproductive element adapted to develop, often in less-than-ideal conditions, into something new—indicating that these winning projects may be the seed of significant progress in science education, despite considerable challenges to educational innovation. Science publishes an article by each recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The article about Ask a Biologist is in the journal’s 26 November issue.
“We’re trying to advance science education,” says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “This competition provides much-needed recognition to innovators in the field whose efforts promise significant benefits for students and for science literacy in general. The publication in Science of an article on each Web site will help guide educators around the globe to valuable free resources that might otherwise be missed.”
For his part, Kazilek says he feels the SPORE award is giving credit where it is due—to the hard-working volunteers who answer questions with individually tailored, grade-appropriate answers.
“It is so nice to see that the volunteers’ efforts and time are being recognized,” he says.
Ask a Biologist began back in 1997 when the Arizona State University (ASU) School of Life Sciences was creating a Web site. At the time, the model for the public to ask questions about science was telephoning a reference librarian or a local university. “That was cool,” Kazilek says, “but it wasn’t something that would scale well.”
Kazilek wanted to create a system that would work similarly, remain personal, and yet not require that a person sit by a phone. Search engines like Google hadn’t taken off yet. But even as search engines have gotten more sophisticated, Ask a Biologist holds its own for several reasons, Kazilek says. The human interaction it provides is crucial, especially when a student doesn’t know how exactly to phrase a question. Ask the wrong question of a search engine, and the answer will often be confusing or utterly off track. But with Ask a Biologist, students are often guided in clarifying their questions, in itself a learning process.
Also, while search engine results offer multiple answers, often including ones that are conflicting, incorrect, or out-of-date, Ask a Biologist customizes each answer. If a user asks a question that has already been asked, Kazilek and his teaching assistants may offer an answer that has been offered previously. If they make changes to it, they send the question back to the volunteer who originally answered the question so it can be reviewed.
Kazilek’s own background inclined him toward the communication or presentation of science information. As an undergraduate in fine arts, he took a job producing medical films, which ultimately led to his earning a graduate degree in the sciences.
“I consider myself a devout artist who was either seduced or enticed by science,” he says.
The system he developed for Ask a Biologist includes an e-mail form on which users ask their questions of Dr. Biology. Then, Kazilek or a teaching assistant directs the question to the appropriate expert. A main goal is to avoid overwhelming any one expert. Kazilek points out that no one is complaining.
“Quite frankly, the questions are addicting,” Kazilek says. Sounding like old-time television show host Art Linkletter, Kazilek says, “Kids ask the darnedest questions.”
He gives a few examples: Who would win in a battle between a sea anemone and a jellyfish? Why do ants huddle up like penguins? Why do your fingers get wrinkled after a long bath?
“You might get a ‘silly’ question, and before you’re done, there’s quite a bit to it,” Kazilek says. “It’s a challenge. I know someone really understands their science when they can communicate it to a fifth-grader.”
Visitors to the site are in fact primarily students (at 60%). Parents and lifelong learners account for 20%, and the remaining 20% are teachers.
The question-and-answer format keeps site users in close touch with the site team. The users request that certain kinds of information be included on the site, which has resulted in 2500 pages of interesting science-related activities, games, quizzes, and experiments. “Meet Our Biologists” profiles allow students to imagine themselves working in science and help them know how to prepare, although that path is not presented as rigidly determined. A podcast on the topic of becoming a professional scientist emphasizes that people of all kinds arrive at science careers through as many different avenues. Also among the site’s “cool tools,” as Kazilek refers to them, is a “zoom gallery,” which allows visitors to observe objects at different levels of magnification as though they were using sophisticated microscopes.
Kazilek says he cherishes the input that users provide. “If you can get the public to engage with you, that’s like gold,” he says.
The volunteers who answer questions for Ask a Biologist are coming from an expanded pool of sources as part of ongoing development of the site. Originally, they were primarily from ASU’s School of Life Sciences, but they now include, for instance, an MIT graduate student and a biologist in France. At the same time, the site and all of its materials are being translated into French and Spanish, also by volunteers.
Kazilek thinks the idea of Ask a Biologist is ripe for a kind of no-cost “franchising,” and he hopes that receiving the SPORE award and publishing in Science could encourage that.
“I like the idea of people from other institutions seeing it,” he says.
Visit the prize-winning Ask a Biologist site.
Read the Science essay, “Got a Question? Ask a Biologist,” by SPORE winner Charles Kazilek.
Learn more about the monthly Science Prize for Online Resources in Education, or SPORE.