There was a decidedly social twist to this year's American Geophysical Union science conference in San Francisco. Along with presentations about night-shining clouds and greenhouse gases, a former JPL student intern earned a spot at the prestigious science meeting to discuss her research into "friending, sharing and tweeting" -- aspects of Web 2.0 and social media that can connect teachers and science educators with NASA resources.
Carlotta Pham, a freshman at the University of California, Irvine, spent 8 weeks at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the Summer High School Student Internship Program (JPL SpaceSHIP). The highly competitive program accepts high school students (16 or older) who live within 50 miles of the lab, which is located in Pasadena, Calif. All applicants must demonstrate a strong interest in science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics.
JPL: What did you present at the science meeting?
CP: I talked about the results of my research for NASA Space Place, which is a Web site with resources and educational games for upper elementary school students and teachers. My internship objective was to find if social media would be appropriate for Space Place to use, and if so, how.
JPL: What were your findings?
CP: The Space Place team really wanted to use social media sites to promote content. We decided to focus on Twitter and Facebook because of their user demographics. Twitter is used predominantly by people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. So on Twitter, we decided to target new teachers. We also thought our Space Place "Fact of the Day" would work well with the limited number of characters allowed per message, or tweet. The only caution is to avoid over-tweeting since excessive tweets can annoy followers.
On Facebook, we have a slightly different demographic. There is a higher representation of teenagers here than on Twitter. Most users are between 18 and 34. Knowing this, we can post more content and showcase more of our games. And we can still keep new teachers as an important target audience. There's no downside here. We do need to keep in mind that although Facebook has gained immense popularity, we may be coming in too late to make a big dent.
JPL: Have you launched the Space Place Twitter and Facebook pages? How are they doing?
CP: The sites were launched after I started college. But I've stayed in touch with my mentor and the sites are doing really well. We've made a bigger splash on our Twitter page, with about 2,000 followers.
JPL: How excited were you to make this presentation? Most of the presenters are scientists, right?
CP: Although this conference is mostly for scientists, it has a section that focuses on education and human resources. In particular, one of the topics was "Using Web 2.0 Technologies to Facilitate Science Communications."
I was extremely excited to give this presentation. This is the American Geophysical Union's biggest conference of the year and around 20,000 people attend. It was very fun to be involved with this excitement for science. Although I presented to a group of about 30 people, it was still thrilling to be able to share my findings at this event. I really enjoy the rush of excitement and satisfaction that I get after giving a great presentation.
JPL: What kinds of questions did you get from the audience?
The audience asked whether Space Place was considering using social media to target its elementary school student audience since our Facebook and Twitter pages are mainly targeted toward adults. This past summer we did discuss whether children were actively using social media. We found that Twitter users between the age of 12 and 17 represented only 1 percent of total Twitter users. Facebook had a higher representation of users between 13 and 17, but this group amounted to only 12 percent of users. We are under the impression that upper elementary school students are not using social media sites, which may be in part due to the fact that you must be 13 years old to set up an account. Furthermore, parents may be more restrictive of their chilren's internet use and not allow them on these sites. So we decided to target the teachers who serve elementary school age kids.
JPL: Would you like to keep studying science and communications?
CP: At this point, I have many options since I am an undecided/undeclared major. I greatly enjoyed my internship at JPL because it gave me insights into the field of educational outreach. Looking at the uses of Web 2.0 with Space Place applied many fields including science, education and sociology. All of these are fields that I enjoy and I particularly like the interdisciplinary aspect of this project. Next quarter I will be taking an education class that will touch on some of the concepts I worked with this past summer.
Applications are currently being accepted for JPL SpaceSHIP. For more information, visit http://jplspaceship.jpl.nasa.gov/index.cfm
For information about all student opportunities at JPL, go to http://education.jpl.nasa.gov