What is network science?

Network science is a new approach to answering difficult questions in many fields (e.g. social science, economics, biology, mathematics, and computer science). Network science is the study of connections that are often complex and hard to see. As a new field, network science is not widely known, and you may be surprised that it offers career possibilities and sparks discoveries that advance health interventions.

Why is network science so useful?

Network science makes visible the often hidden connections that shape health on many levels (e.g. cellular, organ systems, people, institutions, communities, chemicals, etc). Sociological network science can reveal human network structures that differentially advantage some and disadvantage other members of society, illuminating social forces that shape opportunities for health intervention.

Is network science part of Next Generation Science Standards?

Broad application and formalization of network science is fairly recent and is not explicitly part of Next Generation Science Standards. Yet network science does fit the Next Generation Science Standards guiding principle that “K-12 science education should reflect the interconnected nature of science as it is practiced and experienced in the real world.”  This “real world” grounding has high potential to spark youth interest in science-related careers, yet information about network science and related health careers are not yet incorporated in most pre-college science opportunities. Network scientists and educators need to partner to develop and implement more opportunities for youth to explore network science approaches to health before entering college.

Are many middle school youths likely to be interested in network science?

The idea of Worlds of Connections is that many youths would enjoy careers in network science, but few get a chance to find out about them. We will use two approaches of exposing youth to network science and engaging the basic ideas. We will begin with fun after-school activities in 21st Century Community Learning Center clubs. Through a partnership with the University of Nebraska–Omaha college student organization, we will offer clubs in both Lincoln and Omaha that have some biology and some network science activities each week. Learning from these in-person clubs, we will work with the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts at UNL to create augmented and/or virtual reality stories to engage youth with Network Science for health. The emerging media will be free to download and use on low-cost headsets that work with cell phones.

Are teachers involved in Worlds of Connections?

Yes, teachers on the advisory board will participate in annual Science Connectors at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln as part of professional development meetings.  We will seek teacher input in other ways as well, for example through surveys, summer professional development opportunities, and focus groups.

How will we know if the clubs and emerging media are engaging youth?

Worlds of Connections has an excellent learning research and evaluation team that will assess all aspects of the project. In addition to experienced researchers, the project will partner with the Lincoln Public Schools District Office to figure out the required and optional science classes that youth take in high school, and if the patterns of science course taking differ based upon the middle school that youth attended. We will later be able to study if youth in the schools with network science-focused clubs are any more likely to take optional science classes than youth in schools without network science opportunities. The learning researchers will also use observations and surveys to assess the clubs and emerging media.

Has UNL had other Science Education Partnership Awards?

The Worlds of Viruses and Biology of Human UNL comic book apps and books were funded by a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA). The Worlds of Connections project builds on prior expertise in informal science learning of team members at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska–Omaha. The current project will continue the successful partnerships with 21st Century Community Learning Centers, still focusing on middle school aged youth, starting with after-school activities before creating stories using emerging media, with a strong research component to the project. Judy Diamond, Principal Investigator on the previous SEPA projects, is leading the Science Connectors and is an important advisor on the current project.

Are scientists at the University of Nebraska using network science in their research?

Yes, there are several studies, many with National Institutes of Health funding, that use network science for health research at the University of Nebraska. Bilal Khan (Computer Science and Sociology) and Kirk Dombrowski (Sociology) use network science to study opioid addiction and the spread of HIV, alcohol addiction, and suicide. Our project is fortunate to have expertise from many fields (e.g. biology, computer science, mathematics, sociology, and learning research), college students, creative emerging media arts storytellers, evaluators, and 6-8th-grade teachers and curriculum experts to develop high-quality informal activities and media resources.

What are the main objectives of Worlds of Connections?

We will pursue two specific aims:

  • Specific  Aim  #1: Improve understanding of how informal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) experiences with network science can increase STEM identities, STEM possible selves, and STEM career aspirations among youth from historically underrepresented groups. Youth will discover the role of network science in STEM disciplines at the center of health science research.  (If you are curious about STEM possible selves, you can read more about the topic in this publication from Worlds of Connections team members: “Science Possible Selves and the Desire to be a Scientist: Mindsets, Gender Bias, and Confidence during Early Adolescence.”)
  • Specific  Aim  #2: Create emerging media resources (e.g. augmented and virtual reality)  to stimulate broad interest in and understanding of the role of Network Science in biomedical and public health research. We will leverage the framework of NE STEM 4U, a successful faculty-guided, near-peer-led, out-of-school program for underserved youth, to form a new cross-campus collaboration that adds Network Science activities to the existing set of  STEM topics.

By increasing opportunities for underrepresented minority middle school youth in high poverty schools to engage with Network Science through activities and emerging media, this project will pave new paths towards health careers of the future. In doing so, we will also advance the public’s understanding of NIH-funded research and the field of evidence-guided STEM learning by informing our understanding of how to effectively encourage youth to pursue careers in human health.

What is the overarching goal of Worlds of Connections?

The goal of the Worlds of Connections project is to create media resources that will overcome barriers to network science uptake among underserved minority 6-8th grade youth. The project will design learning activities and stand-alone media resources that incite interest in network science approaches to biomedical and public health research. The project will test a central hypothesis: the technology-rich and relevant field of network science will attract segments of today’s youth who remain uninterested in conventional, bio-centric health fields to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Why does Worlds of Connections focus on middle school youth?

Early adolescence is a critical time for identity development, career aspiration creation, and for declines in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics identities. The activities and stories that network science studies are often central to the lives of middle-school-aged youth (e.g. popularity, self concept, cliques, dissemination of information, and health). The focal issues that the project’s network scientists study and that will be part of our activities—including addiction, suicide, violence, and health disparities—exist in the communities of the high poverty schools in Lincoln and Omaha that will be central to this project. By focusing on relevant health issues in the lives of the youth who will participate, we expect to increase the potential for network science to bridge career gaps for underserved youth.

When was Worlds of Connections established?

Our project began in July 2018 and will continue through 2023.