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Using Twitter Hashtags for Science Education

David ShiffmanFeb 7, 2017

Click to Enlarge ImageIn my first article for American Scientist’s Macroscope, I wrote about how Twitter can offer numerous professional benefits to scientists who properly use this powerful communications tool. Twitter can also be a fantastic tool for public education and outreach. Science communication hashtag games can be both educational and fun, resulting in high levels of engagement from the interested public. Scientists and science communicators have used Twitter hashtag games to debate which animals have #GreatScientificNames and which have #StupidCommonNames, have discussed which dead animal has the #BestCarcass, and asked #DoesItFart of countless animals. There are four of these hashtags that I think are great examples of how they can be used for science education and outreach.

1) #NotACopperhead

David Steen, an assistant research professor at Auburn, has been called the “best biologist on twitter” by Slate magazine for his snake outreach. “I answer a lot of questions from people that have found a snake and want to know what kind it is,” Steen said. “I also want to find people that have questions about snakes but don’t know who to ask, so I use Tweetdeck to identify tweets with certain key words like “what kind snake” and some commonly misidentified snakes such as copperheads and cottonmouths. These two animals in particular are misidentified so frequently that I began using #NotACottonmouth and #NotACopperhead to tag my replies. I figured this would allow people to gain a better understanding of how often snakes are misidentified and to begin to learn how to distinguish these two venomous species from other snakes.”

Steen is pleased with the feedback he’s received so far. “People seem to look forward to my snake identification tweets,” he said. “As the popularity of the hashtags increased, lots of folks have started using them for themselves. If you click on them now you’ll see lots of people making jokes, identifying snakes, and showing off the creatures they’ve found. I believe the use of these hashtags has helped people refine their snake identification skills and that has been very rewarding.”

2) #ButtOfWhat

Jason Bittel, a freelance science writer, has recently started an outreach project focusing on animal butts. “I post a camera trap picture of an animal's backside, ask people to guess what it is, and then reveal a ton of info about that animal's behavior, biology, or interactions with humans,” Bittel said. “I thought, ‘Hey, you can do a lot with a butt.’ Not only can you get people to learn the animals in their backyards better, but you can also talk reproductive anatomy, digestion, defensive strategy, locomotion, and on and on. So I just went with it.”

Bittel believes that while #ButtOfWhat may appear silly, it can still be a useful public education exercise. “I know some scientists are annoyed that topics like #DoesItFart and #JunkOff get media attention while the Arctic is melting and species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate,” he said. “And I get it, because I care about those things, too. But we can have both kinds of stories about science. The Internet is not the evening news. No one is saying, “Cut that story about climate change—the focus groups say people want farting millipedes instead!" In fact, maybe you’re reading the story I just wrote about #DoesItFart because you think the idea of animals farting is funny, or you always wondered if they could, or whatever, and you learn that the gas emitted from cattle actually contributes to climate change. Do you stop eating meat as a result? Probably not. But maybe learning that one little thing knocks over another domino.”

3) #DamOrNot

Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley, a researcher at the Paul Sabatier University in France, uses #DamOrNot to teach people about human impacts on freshwater ecosystems. “Every Tuesday night at 10 PM my local time I tweet an image or images of a landscape where a river is present, most typically from here in France, and I ask Twitter followers to identify any dams, weirs, roads, or other potential manmade structures on the river,” Januchowski-Hartley said. “I then follow up with questions about potential impacts of those structures. I also ask followers what limits their certainty and ability to identify structures. Followers respond back to me through tweets, and we document both the questions and answers using #DamOrNot.” So, participants take a moment to step in an ecologist’s shoes and to think about the joys and challenges of doing scientific work, while learning about water systems in the process.

Januchowski-Hartley says that participation in #DamOrNot has exceeded her expectations. “I honestly thought there was no way that anyone would ever be interested in identifying dams, weirs or other infrastructure from satellite imagery, but it turns out that people love it,” she said. “Our knowledge about dams, weirs and other infrastructure impacts on freshwater ecosystems remains very limited, and so sharing current knowledge can be very exciting and rewarding. I also find it extremely rewarding to see how quickly people pick up knowledge and skills to identify the relevant infrastructure and to deduct potential impacts.”

4) #CougarOrNot

Michelle LaRue , a research associate at the University of Minnesota and Director of the Cougar Network, shares camera trap photos to teach people about cougar ecology with the hashtag #CougarOrNot. “Each Friday I post a real photo of an animal that was sent to the Cougar Network to review as a potential cougar,” LaRue said. “Sometimes the photos are cougars, but most of the time they are house cats and bobcats. Sometimes the animals in the photos are impossible to identify.”

LaRue told me that her followers really enjoy this game. “In addition to their answers I often get stories of their own, questions about cougars, and it's usually pretty light-hearted and fun,” she said. “I find the people who respond are often just as fun-loving and sarcastic as I am, and it's fun to connect with people on that level.”

If you’re interested in learning how to use Twitter to communicate science to the public, I encourage you to check out these and other scientific hashtag games, and to create your own!

This post is published in Macroscope

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