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Learning Curve

A relic of science education goes offline

Tony Wagner Mar 5, 2015

Argonne National Laboratory, a non-profit research lab operated by the University of Chicago for the Department of Energy, last weekend shut down one of the nation’s oldest online educational tools, one that pre-dated the Internet itself.

NEWTON Ask A Scientist had been online in its current form since 1991. It offered a platform for students to ask science questions long before you could simply Google a query like “Why is the sky blue?” Answers were written by vetted scientific experts, who did their best to provide uncomplicated responses to complex questions such as “How long did the big bang last?”

Occasionally – when Pluto was reclassified as a planetoid, or when the Higgs-Boson particle was discovered – the site took on a newsy feel. Most of the time, however, it was a place where students indulged their curiosities by asking general-knowledge questions.

“You’d think over 25 years all the questions had been asked, but heck no,” says Nathan Unterman, a 39-year Illinois high school science teacher. Unterman moderated the site with another, now-retired teacher, Steve Sample. They were employed as part-time staff at Argonne but mostly served as volunteers during the more than two decades they ran the site.

By the time Argonne finally pulled the plug, more than 110 volunteer scientists had answered questions, which were still coming in a steady stream. Still, the site was “limping along,” says Meridith Bruozas, manager of educational programs and outreach at Argonne.

The institutional and funding structure that created NEWTON are long gone, she says, plus the site and the technology behind it are outdated. In an email, Sample said the high cost of updating the software was a factor in shutting the site down. Argonne spent about $10,000 per year on NEWTON over the past few years, spokesman Christopher Kramer said in an email, but to keep it running “is akin to supporting the telegraph in the era of smartphones.”

Indeed, many Argonne’s educational efforts now live on social media, and are centered around the lab’s current research. Argonne now hosts Google Hangout tours, offers Reddit AMAs, posts lectures online, produces a series of videos called “Ask Argonne” and more.

“So instead of random questions on any topic, like ‘Why is the sky blue?’ we’re actually talking about ‘What does the next generation battery look like?’ and ‘What does supercomputing look like and how does modeling look like when you’re crunching big data?'” Bruozas says. “Those are the things that kids need to be focused on now… because that’s our the next generation of scientists and researchers.”

Still, there was some value in the question-and-answer style, Unterman and Sample say. Often multiple scientists would chime in, arguing and adding to each other’s responses. That type of dialogue isn’t easily replicated with a Google search.

“Let’s say you want to describe a cow. A very, very first attempt might be ‘Well, let’s make it a sphere.’ That might be the level for a kindergartener, or a third grader. Another scientist might come in and say, ‘Well, that’s not really so,’ and they’d start adding a head and legs. And somebody else might say, ‘You could look at it that way but really…’ and they’d start adding a tail and ears and horns and all of that,” Unterman says. “Just how far do we simplify it, and have we simplified it to the point that it’s just no longer true? We had some interesting interactions like that, which were stimulating and enriching.”

Both teachers said they are grateful for impact the site had were disappointed to see it go, but ultimately understood its time had come. Unterman notes that if Argonne let the site simply stay online, the information could become outdated and NEWTON would be doing more harm than good.

Still, for those who still want to poke around, this relic of early ed tech lives on via the Internet archive.

“There were real people behind [the site]. There are all kinds of facts and figures and numbers … and that’s great, but there’s also a human side to it, which – while it lasted – was great fun,” Unterman says. “It’s a little bit of a time capsule, I suppose.”

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