Why is Network Science so useful?

Network science is an approach to making visible the often hidden connections at many levels (e.g. cellular, organ systems, people, institutions, communities, chemicals, etc) that shape health. Sociological network science can make visible 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 (NGSS)?

Broad application and formalization of network science is fairly recent and is not explicitly part of NGSS. Yet network science does fit the NGSS 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. There is a need for network scientists and educators to partner to develop and implement more opportunities for youth to explore network science approaches to health before entering college.

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

The idea of WOC SEPA 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 afterschool activities in community learning center clubs. Through a partnership with the University of Nebraska Omaha college student organization, we will offer clubs that have some biology and some network science activities twice a week in clubs in Lincoln and Omaha. Learning from these in-person clubs we will work with the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts at UNL to create augmented or virtual reality (AR/VR) stories to engage youth with network science for health. The AR/VR media will be free to download and use on low-cost headsets that work with cell phones.

Are teachers involved in the WOC SEPA?

Yes, teachers on the advisory board will participate in annual “Science Connectors” at the University of Nebraska as part of professional development meetings, and in summer Network Science Institutes to interact with scientists, as well as to develop phenomena and curriculum using network science.

How will we know if the clubs and AR/VR are engaging youth?

The WOC SEPA 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 AR/VR media.

Has UNL had other SEPAs?

The Worlds of Viruses and Biology of Human UNL comic book apps and books were funded by SEPA. The WOC project builds on prior expertise in informal science learning of team members at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). The current project will continue the successful partnerships with Community Learning Centers, will still focus on middle school aged youth, will start with after-school activities before creating stories using emerging media, and will have 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 NIH 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 (e.g.AR/VR).

What are the big aims of the WOC SEPA?

We will pursue two specific aims:

Specific  Aim  #1: Improve understanding of how informal STEM experiences with network science in health research can increase STEM identities, STEM possible selves, and STEM career aspirations among youth from groups historically underrepresented in STEM disciplines at the center of health science research.

Specific  Aim  #2: Create emerging media resources (e.g., augmented 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 college student run and 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 lessons, activities, and AR/VR 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 the WOC SEPA?

The goal of the Worlds of Connections project is to create media resources (e.g. augmented or virtual reality (AR/VR)) that will overcome barriers to Network Science uptake among underserved minority 6-8th grade youth. This 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 to STEM careers who remain uninterested in conventional, bio-centric health fields.

Why does the WOC SEPA focus on Middle School youth?

Early adolescence is a critical time for identity development, career aspiration creation, and for declines in STEM 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, NE 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.