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Columbia Missourian

New York Times journalist Andrew Revkin talks about science communication

By Elizabeth Scheltens
October 23, 2012 | 3:54 p.m. CDT

*Bill Allen holds a joint appointment in the Missouri School of Journalism and the Science and Agricultural Journalism Program in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. An earlier version of this story gave an incomplete name for the program.


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COLUMBIA — After five years and 2,000 posts, Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin has a few thoughts on how scientists can change the world. 

"Don’t assume someone is going to tell your story for you," the former New York Times staff writer said. Revkin left the Times in 2009 but continues to write for its Dot Earth blog under a contract while teaching in the communication studies department at Pace University in New York City.

*"He’s the greatest American field reporter of our time," said Bill Allen, who holds a joint appointment in the Missouri School of Journalism and the Science and Agricultural Journalism Program in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. 

"Andy doesn’t just sit in a newsroom — he gets out there into the world, out where the issues are happening, and talks to the people who are affected," Allen said. 

Revkin sat down for an interview Tuesday morning before a noon presentation at the Journalism School. He was scheduled to give a talk about science communication at 5:30 p.m. in Allen Auditorium in the Arts and Science Building southwest of Ellis Library.

Revkin moved from the newsroom to the classroom, in his words, "to build networks, foster communication and help make the world a better place."

Journalism is shrinking, and science journalism is shrinking even more, Revkin said. That means scientists have the opportunity to convey their own message, which puts the onus on them not to oversimplify and to stay accurate, Revkin said. 

"This is going to shake up academia, but in a good way, I think," Revkin said. "More learning is going to spill out of the classroom."

An advocate of project-based learning, Revkin said instructors should find ways to connect their work and their students with the world outside the university. Hands-on learning has to start before students get to college level, he said.

Revkin sees as the country’s increased emphasis on standardized testing in K-12 schools has come at the expense of effective science education. If the focus is on memorizing facts and doing well on a test, he said, students aren’t encouraged to ask questions and are afraid of failure. 

"Science is all about failure, it takes a lot of experimentation," he said. 

Project-based learning, Revkin said, allows students to "find the little things they’re good at," which he says puts them in a good position in an increasingly specialized economy. 

"We’ve never had a greater power to share information. That has the potential for bad outcomes and the potential for good outcomes," Revkin said. The 9/11 hijackers coordinated online, he said, but farmers in rural Africa can get their crop prices before they go to the market so they don’t get cheated. 

"You can be in a slum in Turkey and watch free courseware at MIT if you know it’s there," Revkin said. 

Twitter has enormous potential for connecting researchers with the people who would benefit most from the work they’re doing, Revkin said. 

"It’s like for everything — you can connect people with very specialized, individual skills who can help each other," he said. 

Revkin made such a connection when he met an earthquake engineer at Purdue University who created a building design for use in poor countries. The engineer’s design used the same materials that builders there were already using but was far more resistant to earthquakes. Revkin put the engineer in touch with his son, an animator; his son designed a video demonstrating the design, then Revkin posted the video on the Dot Earth blog.

Revkin’s advice for educators who are curious about tapping into what he calls the "linked intelligence" of the web? Start small. 

"Bring in someone else in the field to talk with your class via Skype. Try to connect with someone teaching a similar class in a different part of the world,” Revkin said. 

"We’ve got to find ways to get information out to where it’s needed," he said. "That’s why campuses are still vital."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.