Here’s a really good network effect story for you – out of Brad Graba‘s Illinois high school biology classroom. Mr. Graba decided to modify an oft-used student project for his unit on the cell. In the typical “organelle project”, students pick a cell organelle (the nucleus, the mitochondrian, etc) to promote and (working in teams or as individuals) they wage a campaign for their organelle to be elected President. Their stump speeches contain the rationale for the organelle’s importance to the cell – what their “job” is, what happens to the cell if they are out of action, how they relate to the other organelles, etc. The project culminates in an “election” where the class votes to choose a “President Organelle”. Teachers typically do this activity in the fall (around election time).
Mr. Graba decided to add a social media twist to the project and encouraged his students to use Twitter to get their organelle’s stump speeches out there. Students signed up for Twitter accounts in the names of their organelles (e.g. MightyMito), with identifying photos (many used iconic micrographs) and started posting their messages. Students composed some really interesting and funny messages, adding to their posts with images, drawings, and links. Within 12 hours the Twitter stream caught the attention of a couple of cell biology researchers, including Anne Osterrieder, from Oxford Brookes University in the UK. She blogged about the student project here and suggested that the students use Storify (a site that facilitates storytelling through the curation of social media) to assemble their various tweets, images, and other resources for each organelle. Check out this one on the Revenge of the Nucleus (“May the Nuc be with you, young eukaryote”).
More scientists tuned in, adding to the tweets, giving students suggestions, articles to read, other sources of information, and actually weighed in on the vote. John Runions (@JohnRunions), aka Dr. Molecule in the weekly BBC Radio show, caught wind of the project and suggested the hashtag #organellewars, to make it easier to find all the posts. The interest of the scientists and the BBC, of course, spurred the students on. Bam. Network effect.
What great work. This teacher did it right. He picked a meaningful assignment, selected the right tools for the job, made the expectations/goals clear, provided all the necessary scaffolding, and then turned it over to the students so that they were the producers – not passive consumers. Once they caught fire and started producing good material, others noticed. The students now have pride of ownership, a sense of what real, working scientists do, a deeper understanding of cell structure/function, and a compelling record of their work – and Mr. Graba has a few new tools in his tool box.