How does blogging about science benefit students?

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Sandra Porter

Why should students blog about science?  Don't they have enough to do already?

Last Thursday night I participated in a panel discussion about science blogging (see the video) at ScienceOnline Seattle (#scioSEA)(video) and mentioned that we have two students blogging for us at Bio-Link.  A question I saw afterward via Twitter, from @NurhafizPiers was this:

what is the purpose of the blog for the student?

I didn't get to answer the question Thursday night, so I'll answer now.

We're doing an experiment.  My student bloggers and I are going to try and figure out if their blogs help them get jobs when they graduate.  This probably won't work for everyone, but this is a pilot project.  You could say we're doing the "Proof of concept" experiment.

My hypothesis: My hypothesis is that a science blog for a science student can serve the same purpose that a portfolio serves for an artist or a set of articles serves for a writer.  Your blog can be your record of accomplishments.

Not only can your blog document your work, your blog can show that you can write, that you can spell (not a skill to take for granted), and can give you a chance to describe what you've done.

 

Background & Rationale

When I taught biotechnology students full-time, I had them keep an industry-standard laboratory notebook throughout our year-long course.  Not only did this practice teach them about working in a GMP environment, the notebooks were a great asset in a job interview.  They could pull out their notebook and show graphs they had made in Excel.  They should show photos of agarose gels, dried protein gels, or calculations for making buffers or counting cells.

The feedback we had from students and success we had with employers validated the idea of keeping good notebooks and bringing them along to interviews.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, I had a really hard time getting my first job in a lab.  I would go to the job office every month and scan the openings but all the jobs seemed to be restricted to work-study students.  Since I didn't have work -study (or know what it was for that matter), I didn't think I was eligible to apply for anything.

One day, I did hear about a potential job. It was a summer internship doing microbiology at Land of Lakes.  I applied and got called for an interview.  I was so excited!  An actual job doing microbiology in real life!

But I wasn't prepared for the interview at all.  The interviewer asked me what equipment I had used in my coursework.  I was speechless.

"Uh, um, a microscope?"  I stammered.

Needless to say, I didn't get hired.

Nor did I forget.

I don't want students to be in that position.  Having some kind of prop like a notebook, or a blog, is really useful.  Instead of talking about yourself, you can blind 'em with science.

Show them your notebook.

Take them to your blog.

Do anything that lets you focus on something else, relax, and show what you can do instead of how nervous you can get.

 

Our Methods:  Photos, tagging, and of course the blog

Blog:  Our students describe what they've been doing in lab and add photos as documentation.  One student even adds protocols!  Check out her list of skills learned!

Photos:  Photos are your proof that you did what you say did.  If I were still teaching biotechnology, I would have students photograph everything!  I'm grateful that my our two student bloggers, Jennifer Newsted (Portland Community College) and Mandy Hunter (Madison College, WI) seem to know that intuitively.

Tagging: Tagging is a tool that can help you organize your work and find the posts that describe what you've done.  One concern biotech employers always have is: to what extent did you really do all those techniques that you claim to have mastered on your resume.  Sure, you say you know HPLC, but how does your interviewer verify this?

Guess what?

This is something you can do with your blog.  Many blogging platforms allow writers to tag their posts.

Our student bloggers add tags for their lab techniques.  The tags are listed after the posting time.  If I click a tag, I can see a list of posts that reference that technique.  Then, I can look at the posts and see what they did.  Here's an example below.

Jennifer_bradford

 

We still have a few bugs to work out.  Tagging has to be consistent if it's going to work.  If you spell E. coli as "E. coli" one day and as  "Escherichia coli" on another, you're not going to find both posts when you click the tag.

But, I think there's potential.

 

Our results:

I tell our student bloggers to put their blog URLs on their resumes. And, I'm looking forward to finding out how it works when they reach the end of their biotech programs and start interviewing.

But right now, this is an experiment in progress and we don't know if this will work.

All I know so far, is that I've enjoyed reading what the students have to say.

 

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