With a few clicks, anyone in the world can step inside a biome of their choice. From a rare look into the cactus dwelling of a curve-billed thrasher, to a 360-degree photo of termite nest in a tropical rainforest, ASU’s Ask a Biologist website offers extensive resources for learning about science.
Predating Google, Ask a Biologist has been answering the inquisitions of curious minds everywhere since 1997. Charles Kazilek, the creator of the site and chief technology innovation officer at ASU, said he was inspired by a question hotline at his local library in his small hometown in Colorado.
Using simple programming, he created the first version of Ask a Biologist where people submitted questions: Why is milk white? (light reflection); Could vampires evolve? (no); How many types of cells are in the human body? (more than 200).
Within a week of the site being up, he said he realized there was a gap in entertaining science material. He then set out to make biology more accessible to the public.
Now, Ask a Biologist not only answers questions but boasts games, comic books, podcasts and augmented reality features to aid the learning of visitors.
“We are storytellers. That's what's important,” said Kazilek. “If you don't tell a good story, it's hard to keep people interested – that's for any discipline – so we're storytellers.”
Funded by the University Office of the Provost, the School of Life Sciences and the Biodesign Institute, Ask a Biologist is the fourth most visited site on the ASU network – and nearly half of the traffic is international.
The site has gotten more than 50 million visits since its inception, Kazilek said. Its pages have been translated into 12 different languages, and the community of volunteer science experts who answer questions include many from around the globe.
Pierce Hutton, a Ph.D. student in biology and teacher's assistant for the site, works as the intermediary between question-seekers.
The most important function of the site is storytelling, he said, and he is passionate about the scientific outreach the site accomplishes.
“A kid in a classroom is being fed correct answers, and that's really not how biology works,” he said. “I think that the storytelling helps … It's just kind of keeping people interested and keeping people curious.”
In its early years, the site fielded around 50 questions a day. Hutton said that number is now eight to ten. He answers about 40 percent of the questions himself, and he sends the others out to volunteer experts — around 300 that help the site.
With the question count dwindling, many of the volunteers now help by writing the stories that are responsible for the majority of the site’s traffic or developing stunning visuals and games to keep people engaged.
Augmented reality is the most current angle the team uses to reach kids. Scenes from the world's biomes – rainforest, tundra, desert and others – appear on the site in 360-degree rotatable footage.
Karla Moeller, educational outreach executive coordinator and the managing editor for the website, said in conjunction with developing this technology, the next step is creating new websites.
“Next we're hoping maybe either Ask an Engineer or maybe Ask an Earth-Space Scientist,” she said. “It's a tested model. It does really well. … We know that teachers like it, we know that people like it.”
Moeller's first assignment working with the site almost ten years ago was to write a children's bedtime story about science. She wrote "A Monster Story," and it inspired many children's stories to come.
The Ask a Biologist team is working hard to continue its journey to bring science to all and to answer the questions of the curious. One of their efforts is to make the site accessible for all ages.
“It’s sort of a dual mode of learning, where we're trying to get both the young students and even their parents,” Moeller said. “We say that the site is for K to gray – it's for everybody.”
Correction: A previous version of this story quoted the website's managing editor Karla Moeller saying the site is "sort of a dual-motive learning." The story has been corrected to say "sort of a dual mode of learning."
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Ask an Anthropologist was created in collaboration with the Institute of Human Origins.
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