“Grades should serve the learning process”

“When I’m lecturing, my goal is to teach, not to sort students,” states Assoc. Prof. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari in a recent interview after being selected as an award recipient of the Yanai Prize for Excellence in Academic Education. “If all my students were to receive an ‘A+’ I would have a great sense of achievement.”  

Assoc. Prof. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari receives the Yanai Prize for Excellence in Academic Education

Assoc. Prof. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari receives the Yanai Prize for Excellence in Academic Education

Two years ago, Associate Professor Ayelet Baram-Tsabari was invited to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, which operates the world’s largest particle accelerator (Large Hadron Collide (LHC)). As an expert in the field of science communication, she was interested in the newly emerging challenges created by rumors of a “black hole that would be created by the LHC accelerator which will swallow the Earth.” Although similar rumors previously surfaced leading up to the operation of other particle accelerators, this time a new factor entered the picture causing far reaching hysteria – social media turned them into viral raging prophesies.

“This end-of-the-world hysteria confirmed my view that although information must be made accessible, it is sometimes not enough,” says Assoc. Prof. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, a faculty member in Technion’s Faculty of Education in Science and Technology. “This is a further case in point of the insufficiency of typical high school science education in developing sufficient scientific literacy among its student population and critical reading skills for interpreting news reports on controversial science related topics. Farmers living in the vicinity of Geneva hearing about these apocalyptic prophecies can have no tools with which to assess the scientific claims of the development of a black hole. Similarly, the general public has a real problem making decisions based on news reports about vaccinations and climate change.”

From the Life Sciences to Science Communication

Assoc. Prof. Baram-Tsabari, among the founders of the science communication field in Israel, began her academic career in an entirely different discipline; she started out in the excellence program of the Faculty of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University. “I quickly realized that despite my noble aspirations to leave a mark in the field of cancer therapy, I didn’t enjoy lab work and preferred my student job as a journalist.” In a recent interview after being selected as an award recipient of the Yanai Prize for Excellence in Academic Education, Baram-Tsabari revealed the defining moment in her career where she decided to harness her media experience, aquired during her military service in the IDF magazine ‘Ba Machane’ (Hebrew for ‘In the Compound’) and later in ‘Ha-ir’ (Hebrew for ‘The City’), in favor of promoting science in the media. “During my PhD studies in the Department of Science Teaching at the Weizmann Institute of Science, I participated in a European student training program at the University of Leeds, UK. There I exposed for the first time to the emerging ​​research field known as science communication. It was my moment of enlightenment. I discovered that there are other people out there who understand that the main encounters of the general public with the scientific world is through the media, and that this is something worthy of examination! I immediately realized that this is the research area I wanted to be involved in.”

The audience’s perspective

At that point in time the term “science communication” had yet to be coined in Hebrew. There were only a few people involved in this field in Israel and there were virtually no libraries carrying key journals on this subject area. “I decided to study how people use science in their daily lives and the role of the media in discourse related to scientific knowledge. It was very important for me to explore things from the audience’s perspective, from the reader’s point of view, and to try to understand what s/he really wants to know about science. In my dissertation I asked what children and youth want to know about science, and how the curricula address their questions.” During those years, Baram-Tsabari wrote science columns in the ‘Globes’ business newspaper and ‘Blazer’ men’s magazine, and worked as an deputy editor and scientific advisor for the newscast “Science News by Tal Berman” (on Channel 8); she also served as a commentator on scientific topics in morning shows  on the national Channels 2 and 10.

When she completed her doctorate she joined the Technion’s Faculty of Education in Science and Technology as a faculty member and in 2010 went as a visiting researcher funded by the EU’s Marie Curie program to Cornell University’s Department of Communication for the purpose of developing this field in Israel. “When I returned I had a clear goal: to bridge the public’s right to know with its ability to understand. In a democratic society the public should not only be able to make personal decisions but also to participate in setting national policy, and in both these areas it is important that decisions are based on evidence. In the last decade there has been a dramatic turnaround in the media world with the rise of blogs and social networks weakening the influence of mass media. This process shifts the task of assessing the reliability of sources from editors to readers – a situation that poses enormous challenges to the scientific community in engaging with the public.”

She is not leaving these tasks to others: this year will be the ninth time her course “Science Communication” is being held. This course, open to all Technion students, teaches participants how to make scientific topics accessible to the general public using variety of traditional and new media.

Science communication is a relatively developed field in the US, UK and Australia, in terms of research and training of scientists, yet in Israel the Technion course is the only one of its kind being offered in the country. “I hope this will change soon and that training and the development of skills in science communication will become commonplace,” remarks Baram-Tsabari. “Technion students are tomorrow’s scientists and engineers, and they must understand that learning how to make science accessible through contemporary channels of communication does not tarnish scientific discovery but rather the contrary – it is part of their professional and civic duty. Science communication is not a ‘handout’ doled out by the scientific community to ignorant citizens as a noble act. The pursuit of academic study is generated largely through public funds, so if the public does not understand the point of purchasing a microscope in millions of dollars, or the need for animal testing advancements in medical research, science could not progress.”

Escaping the Ivory Tower

According to Baram-Tsabari, the change of attitude among scientists is no longer a distant dream. “We are already seeing a welcomed change in the attitudes of Israeli academics. Many scientists are exposed to and are talking with the public. More people understand that engaging the public is not a favor that we are doing for the public but rather a favor we are doing for ourselves.”

While teaching and training scientists about science communication, Assoc. Prof. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari initiated a series of conferences on science communication topics in collaboration with the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. According to Baram-Tsabari, these conferences, which she heads today in her role as the head of the academic committee, reflect a marked improvement. “The Israeli science communication community is fast growing with excellent individuals who are coping with difficult challenges, such as the ever increasing presence of pseudo-science in public discourse.” Baram-Tsabari was recently appointed the Chairman of the Research Committee of The Second Authority for Television and Radio, the regulatory body supervising the broadcasting commercial channels. Within this framework she aims to promote processes that will transform Israeli media into a more reliable source of information about health and science issues.

Her research examines ways by which to engage students and citizens in scientific issues based on their interests and needs, and to this end develops tools that will help scientists engage with different publics.

Assoc. Prof. Baram-Tsabari has been selected to receive the Yanai Prize for Excellence in Academic Education, which has been granted by the Technion for the fifth year through a substantial donation to advance higher education. The prize was initiated by Technion alumni Moshe Yanai, who contributed 12 million dollars towards this effort. Yanai established this award in order to encourage Technion faculty to invest more in their teaching. “The dear people who are recipients of this award are true altruists. This is not a prize for the ‘nicest’ lecturer but rather for hard work and a real investment in education and in the preparation of learning materials and its presentation.”

According to Baram-Tsabari, the Yanai Prize symbolizes the importance of teaching to the Technion. “This goes to prove that the portrayal of attaining the highest number of scientific citations as the only goal was exaggerated. All along I was told that the academic world is only justified through the publication of papers, but I refused to believe this mindset and instead invested in advancing science communication in Israel through the education and training of early career scientists and science teachers.”

Her philosophy on education does not seek a normal distribution of scores around a ‘B’ average. “I worry that at the Technion sometimes we forget the difference between grading and teaching. It is a mistake to think that if everyone is succeeding then we have blundered along the way or vice versa – if everyone is doing poorly then the course level is very high. My goal is to teach so that everyone understands. If all my students were to receive an ‘A+’ I would have a great sense of achievement.” She implements this ideology in a number of ways. “Wherever possible, I make sure that coursework will be handed in twice – once as a draft for the purposes of peer review in the class, and only following revisions for grading. Peer assessment is an excellent tool that contributes both to the provider and the recipient of the feedback. When this is not possible I try to give a lot of small assignments throughout the course to promote gradual and continuous learning during the semester.”

“Throughout the term of the course it is important for me to engage students in intellectual and creative thinking, and in hands-on learning. I don’t believe you can acquire skills without putting them into practice. Looking back I think that I’ve managed to match my educational vision with the learning process, my teaching methods, and methods of assessment.”