Italian project harnesses e-democracy for education
An award-winning project from Italy that makes use of online discussion and debate techniques to teach young people about science is looking for local authority and other partners to develop the concept across Europe.
"Active Science" was one of three to win a 'European Best Innovations in University Outreach and Public Engagement' award earlier this year from the Oxford Internet Institute. The project links panels of scientific researchers and experts with students and teachers, who can ask questions, share documents including videos and images, and engage in debate with each other.
Over three years, 4,000 students have debated topics including energy and climate change; pollution; water use; nanoscience and stem cell research. Each year the work builds towards a final discussion in order to reach a common agreement and statement, followed by a formal vote.
Active Science is run by the Centro Interuniversitario Agorà Scienza, a multidisciplinary collaboration between four universities in the Piedmont region of Italy. So far, it has received 95,000 euros of funding from the provincial council of Turin and the philanthropic Cariplo Foundation to run across five regions of Italy, but Andrea De Bortoli, Scientific Secretary at Agorà Scienza, says the scheme could easily be expanded across Europe, given the right partners.
"The web platform is ready and is open source, so we just have to find the necessary funds, find international partners and establish a network of schools and panel of researchers in each country", she says.
The project uses techniques more commonly associated with online politics and democracy in the educational sphere. "The combination of deliberative democracy and the web is a winning one because it allows us to engage a large number of participants at low cost," Bertoli says.
The process is proven to develop students' ideas, she says: surveys before and after the year-long debate in 2010 on renewable and non-renewable energy found 16.8% of participants had changed their opinion about using these sources of energy in some way; 15.8% reported a changed intensity opinion; and 4% had changed from "uncertain" to "certain" about some view. "The process can move beliefs."
Ultimately, there are broader social benefits as more people are engaged with debates about major new projects such as the particle physics work at CERN, she says.
EngageU Awards www.engageawards.org