Distance education with an edge

November 17, 1999

The Why Files takes online learning to earthly plane

MADISON -- Mix an irreverent sense of humor and a little social insight with a good understanding of the details and nuances of science and you have The Why Files, one of the web's critically acclaimed science destinations.

Now, take the content of The Why Files, have it massaged and fleshed out by a pair of web savvy geology professors and you have the recipe for an online science course that promises to draw sciencephobes like claim jumpers to a gold strike.

That, at least, is the hope of a new University of Wisconsin-Madison online science course in geology based on the content of the popular Why Files site (http://whyfiles.news.wisc.edu) on the World Wide Web. The new Internet course, Geology 115, "The Science Behind the News -- The Universe Around Us," will be taught for the first time in the spring of 2000.

Intended for non-science majors, the course is the brainchild of Jill Banfield, a UW-Madison professor of geology and geophysics and the recent recipient of a prestigious MacArthur fellowship or "genius award." Banfield says mining the content of The Why Files -- a site that has sought to demystify for popular audiences everything from cloning to earthquakes -- would provide a natural matrix for an online science course.

"It's important that people are introduced to science and that content is accessible to the average person," Banfield says. "The Why Files does make science accessible in a very friendly way."

Moreover, says Banfield, The Why Files are rich in examples of interdisciplinary science, and for students who aren't science majors, they offer a powerful lesson in the benefits of collaboration between disciplines.

Banfield and colleague Phil Brown, also a UW-Madison professor of geology and geophysics, transformed a score of Why Files science features into a cybercourse that promises to appeal to not only the science wary, but also to teachers in search of continuing education credit, advanced high school students and others interested in how science influences their lives.

The overarching mission of The Why Files, according to Terry Devitt, Why Files editor and project coordinator, is to look at everyday events, dig beneath the surface and explain aspects of science, math or technology that influence or drive those events. The formula has been successful, attracting a consistent and large readership, and garnering acclaim from Web critics, teachers and others who evaluate Web sites.

Established five years ago with support from the National Science Foundation, The Why Files has sought to make science accessible. By weaving into its science features some sense of the culture and methodologies of science, not just a litany of facts, The Why Files has tried to show science for what it is -- a human endeavor that affects nearly every facet of modern society.

The new geology course, Devitt says, is a natural extension of The Why Files mission, and the course model developed by Banfield and Brown is likely to be extended soon to the biological and atmospheric sciences at UW-Madison to comprise a family of Web science courses.

And like The Why Files itself, the courses based on Why Files content, according to Devitt, will be natural laboratories for exploring the efficacy of the web as a learning tool.

"Not everyone is convinced that the Web is an answer to problems in education, and science education in particular," says Devitt. "But we know there's more than one way to learn and the Web, we think, is a medium that can help us break down some of the barriers to understanding science in meaningful ways."

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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