Home > News and Events > 2000 > Launch of "Ask Prof. Science" Web site Finds Success with Steady Response

Launch of "Ask Prof. Science" Web site Finds Success with Steady Response

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Spurred by a desire to offer a helping hand to high-school students and the general public, some Penn State professors have created an on-line resource, the "Ask Prof. Science" Web site, which provides answers to questions about science and engineering.

Physics professors Milton Cole and Paul Sokol created and launched the Web site, http://askprofscience.psu.edu/, in late July. They enlisted the assistance of other Penn State faculty members from several colleges and the all-volunteer, interactive Web site quickly became popular — for both those asking the questions and those answering them.

A total of about 40 Penn State faculty members from 10 different departments participate in the project. "We answer questions about science for our children, for their friends, or for people we know all the time," Sokol said. "Really, that's how the project got its start. We were talking about finding a way to help more people get answers to their questions, and we also wanted to help build a resource for that information. We wanted to put it together in an organized manner that can grow." The Internet provides just the right medium for the project.

The idea itself grew quickly. Less than a week after an initial conversation between Cole and Sokol this past summer, plans for a Web site were in motion. A couple of weeks later, with numerous professors ready to participate, the program made its on-line debut. With the expertise of Penn State professors and their commitment to offer a helping hand for high-school students — although questions from anyone are encouraged — the site has been working well.

"There is a lot of information available on the Internet, but sometimes it's hard to find information regarding a specific question, or to really know the quality of the source from which you're getting your answer," Cole said. "This site provides answers to specific questions from teachers, high-school students, or anyone else. Plus, users know the answers are coming from a reliable source."

So far, Cole and Sokol coordinate a varied group of volunteers who can provide expert answers to questions on topics ranging from astronomy to psychology and biology to nuclear engineering. Individual questions about specific topics allow the professors to provide answers in as much or as little detail as necessary. Questions clearly come from a broad range of people, with some topics fairly elementary and others more involved. Reaching across a broad range of experiences and levels of understanding provides a worthwhile challenge for many professors who volunteer for the program.

"It is crucial that practicing scientists take the time and make the effort to help educate and enlighten the public about what we do, and about the world around us," said Stéphane Coutu, assistant professor of physics. "While participation in the program does require a certain investment of the professors' time, it can be rewarding and even just plain fun. Sometimes the easiest questions to ask can be the hardest to answer in layperson's terms, and it can be a fascinating challenge."

Professors who already participate in the project enjoy its structure. Although the site's individual approach could be cumbersome if done incorrectly, Cole and Sokol developed a user-friendly format similar to a message board that serves its purpose well. When a visitor to the Web site submits a question, all the professors who have volunteered to serve as consultants in that specific field receive a copy of the question via e-mail. Those professors then provide an answer, or perhaps answers, to the question and post it on the Web site. Because the professors themselves do not consult with each other before answering, one or more might respond to a question.

"It's possible a professor could see that an answer was provided and decide not to respond," Cole said. "Or, someone might add a second response with a slightly different perspective on the problem. Or, the professors might disagree on their answers."

All that interaction makes the site vibrant. Both Cole and Sokol envision the site as an additional resource for students, something that can be utilized in a partnership effort with school districts in the Centre Region and beyond. They hope to encourage teachers to use the Web site and, in turn, hope those teachers have a positive experience and will want to encourage their students to use it.

Other colleges and universities have inquired about the Web site, as well. Many have requested permission to link their Web sites to "Ask Prof. Science" in an effort to better serve their users. Neither Cole nor Sokol knows of another college or university that conducts its own program similar to "Ask Prof. Science."

On the Web site, ten individual subject areas are separated, making it easier for visitors to submit questions about specific topics. Also, the site includes both information about the professors who are participating in the project and links to recommended scientific and technological Web sites elsewhere. Many of the participating professors have children, and their desire to support educational opportunities for children — as well as their love of science — represents a big part of their interest in the project.

"High-school science teachers do a wonderful job. They know how to reach students in ways that some of us who do more theoretical things do not," Cole said. "This Web site just provides another resource to get information that might help boost or complete what's already happening in high-school classrooms."

Because many students in elementary school and high school have a strong level of comfort with computers, the professors believe the "Ask Prof. Science" approach could grow quickly. They expect the project to become cumulative rather than cumbersome. Already, the site has piqued the interest of administrators. Both Daniel J. Larson, dean of the Eberly College of Science, and Norman Freed, associate dean of the Eberly College of Science, have offered their support of the outreach effort.

"In a sense, the more it gets used, the better it is for us," Sokol said. "We'll have the opportunity to create a database with the questions and answers. With that information, we'll have more resources available. If it proves successful, we might have more resources in terms of interest and support in general."

In addition, Sokol notes that most questions get quick responses. Because all faculty members have access to computers at work and most have similar access at home, questions submitted after the initial launch of the site were answered in about a day. As the site grows and consultants become more familiar with the process, he thinks the response time for answers could be as short as a few hours.

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