Geeking Out With Digital Media

Geeking Out With Digital Media

Kids these days: they spend a lot of time texting, twittering and instant-messaging. All that hanging out online can’t possibly be good for them.

But what if kids aren’t just hanging out, but “geeking out.” “Geeking out” is the term used by the Digital Youth Media Project, a $50 million study funded by the MacArthur Foundation that concluded that digital media actually can teach kids a lot: technical skills, how to get along with other people, and how to maintain an online public identity. Some kids, the study says, take those skills a step further by geeking out, which is a mode of learning that is peer-driven, but focused on gaining deep knowledge and expertise in specific areas of interest.

Few virtual places can claim to geek out more than, an online community for geeks — gifted middle- and high-school students — who love math and science. On Cogito, kids from all over the world gather to talk to each other about such subjects as black holes, extrasolar planets, epigenetics and oceanography.

Cogito was developed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth in partnership with other leading centers serving gifted students. The John Templeton Foundation provided initial funding for the website. Most of the site is open to the public, but the interactive areas, including the discussion forums, groups, and blog creation, are for members only. Membership is by invitation; at this time, partner organizations and affiliates will nominate members for Cogito. Other pathways to membership may soon be added.

The name of the site—“Cogito,” Latin for “I think”—was chosen by students. So far, Cogito members come from more than 70 countries, and the site is looking to expand further internationally.

Through Cogito, students have geeked out with Terry Tao, 2007 recipient of the Fields Medal in mathematics (the Nobel Prize equivalent on that subject), Johns Hopkins stem cell pioneer Doug Kerr, and geophysicist Allen West, whose theories about the extinction of the great mammals were featured in NOVA on PBS.

"I've never seen a site like this before, where such talented kids can get together without being pressured by homework and just talk about academics — really talk," said Jeffrey Lin, a recent Johns Hopkins graduate who is now writing a life-after-college blog for Cogito.

What did the world’s most promising young scientific minds—the target group for Cogito—do on their summer vacation? They started new blogs on cryptology and early entrance to college. They started a journal club where the first online outing was to read and discuss a professional article about antibiotics in food production.

They’re also writing—for Cogito.

Upcoming pieces include an essay by a student who volunteered in a hospital in India, and a story by a high school student who won a national science competition for his project that looked at mitigating pollution caused by waste from coal mines. Another student has reviewed a book about Joseph Priestley, the English chemist credited with the discovery of oxygen.

The students are also tackling current topics. On tap for summer’s end is an online summit on H1N1 featuring guest expert Trish Perl, an epidemiologist and physician at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Questions Perl could answer could include: “What’s the big deal?” “What’s a pandemic?” “Is closing a school actually a good way to prevent transmission?” and “What goes into creating a vaccine?”

Students on Cogito say the engagement with real scientists boosts their interest and helps them think about career choices. After environmental chemist Alan Stone gave an online talk and answered questions, a Cogito member exclaimed, “Now, I think that might be something I want to have a career in, and I am amazed that I had never heard about it before the interview with Dr. Stone on Cogito.”

According to the Digital Youth Media Project, peer-based learning offers “unique properties that suggest alternatives to formal instruction. [For example], youth respect one another’s authority online, and they are often more motivated to learn from peers than from adults.” Cogito members even created “I Learn, I Teach,” an online forum where students teach one another.

One final advantage to digital learning, and Cogito especially: You can talk all you want about H1N1 on Cogito, but you won’t catch it there.

Who “Cogitorians” Geeked Out With This Summer

Below is a list of guest experts with whom Cogito members talked via discussion forums and/or online interviews:

Walt Robinson: Atmospheric scientist researching what climate change means for the day-to-day weather and climate
Ainsley Seago: Entomologist working in Canberra, Australia. (She’s also a cartoonist; we held Cogito’s first caption contest for a cartoon she did in honor of Darwin’s birthday.)
Anika Mostaert: Marine biologist using nanotechnology to study how algae and invertebrates attach to surfaces in different habitats.
Luis von Ahn: Professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellow who researches Human Computation, which harnesses the combined computational power of humans and computers to solve large-scale problems.
Franklin Chang-Diaz: NASA astronaut and CEO of Ad Adastra Rocket Company
Kiran Kedlaya: MIT mathematician and 13-year participant in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament
Dylan Mahalingam: Teenage founder CEO of Lil’ MDGs, who engage young people around the world in the effort to achieve the Millennium Development Goals
Preya Shah: High-school senior and Intel Science and Engineering Fair awardee headed to Harvard in the fall who has been conducting research on cancer drugs
Heather Horst: Anthropologist and author of an upcoming book on how kids use digital media in their everyday lives
David Saltzberg: UCLA physics professor who is advises the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”
Karen Smith: University of Michigan mathematics professor and author of "An Invitation to Algebraic Geometry"
Panel from Brookhaven National Labs (BNL): Group of six scientists who worked at BNL did a group discussion forum on gender issues and being a scientist

Upcoming Experts Appearing on Cogito:

Michael Wong: Rice University chemist working on cleaning highly polluted groundwater. One of Smithsonian magazine’s “37 under 36: America’s Young Innovators” series
Ellen Silbergeld: Johns Hopkins Environmental Health Sciences professor named one of the “Women Taking the Lead to Save Our Planet” by Library of Congress
Joseph Harrington: professor of economics and author of book on game theory
Stephanie Majewski: particle physicist at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research)
Jason Bardi: science writer and author of The Calculus Wars and The Fifth Postulate