Category: Projects

Voyage of the Beagle (Darwin!) Phylo Deck is now available for download and purchase.

Heads up!

The Voyage of the Beagle Phylo Deck is now available for free download, and/or for revenue neutral purchase (both as a boxed set, and a cheaper cards only option).

Many thanks to Karen James for her research work on which organisms to showcase (and where they were found), as well as the awesome artistry exhibited by:
Robert Ball (http://www.robertmball.com),
Golly Bard (http://www.gollybard.blogspot.com),
Simon Gurr (http://gurrillustration.com),
Rachel Ignotofsky (http://www.rachelignotofskydesign.com), and
Diana Sudyka (http://www.dianasudyka.com).

Note: For those, familiar with the game (note that there’s many other decks you can also download or purchase at revenue neutral prices), this game is slightly different in that the home cards are replaced by a voyage map, as well as each organism being coloured tagged according to where Darwin observed them during the voyage (i.e. in the dominoes game mechanic, you also have to make sure connections are matched geographically).

OK, now onto some images of the gorgeous cards:





















So I made a Harry Potter themed D&D campaign…

So, usually around Christmas time, my family and I play a lot of games – card games, board games, party games, and even on occasion, RPG type games. But because some of them are not that keen on the whole Dungeons and Dragons RPG thing, this year, I decided I would try to design a game based on D&D rules (5e) that would place the players in the world of Harry Potter. Partly because J.K. Rowling has done such an amazing job of world building, but also because my more D&D skeptical family members happen to be huge Harry Potter fans (i.e. maybe this “world” would better get them immersed).

Anyway, I have an edit ready to share. It’s not finished, and to be honest, I’m not sure when it will be finished, but there’s a good amount of play here (about 2 to 3 hours or a mini adventure) for those that might be interested. There’s probably a few issues with game balance (i.e. maybe some of the spells are too powerful or too easy, etc), but I think the nuts and bolts would hold up fine for a good session.

Part of the changes included modifying how spells would be cast, as well as a tweaking of the wizard character class so that it would seem a little more in line with how things are done at Hogwarts. I’ve put some of the spell card details below, just so you can get a glimpse of some of the changes I’ve incorporated (as well as where some of the details were referenced from)

Anyway, here are the links to the campaign document, as well as just the sheet containing the spells. I’m going to be playing it with my family tomorrow, but if you get a chance to try it out, let me know how it goes! It would also be cool, if there are others who would like to add to it (if so, let me know by leaving a comment – I could easily set up a google doc or something). Cheers, Dave

Link to Campaign document – Nathair’s Curse, and the Mystery of the Second Wand (25Mb pdf)

Link to Harry Potter Spell sheets – HPD&D5espells (0.2Mb pdf)

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Calling all artists with a soft spot for science geekery! Trading card game art commissions: Leave your portfolio link below.

These cards at the Phylogame website rock! And in case, you’re new to the Phylomon idea, it’s basically a crowdsourced art, science and gaming project that initially revolved around the reality of children knowing WAY more about Pokemon than they do about the flora and fauna around them; and has since sprawled into this multi faceted STEM based card game project here).

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 3.28.49 PM

Examples of Phylo Cards.

This is also a post to say that I’m on the lookout for artists to contribute to upcoming Phylo “decks.” In particular, we’ve got funding to seek out art contributions at about CAN$200 per image (currently roughly equivalent to US$150 per image), with a preference of hiring each artist to contribute at least 5 or so images at a time. Image copyright would remain with the artist, but we ask that the phylo project is allowed to showcase them online in card format in a non-derivative, attribution, non-commercial manner; as well as allow non-profits, museums, educational institutions to use the image (but only in the form of phylo cards) in physical decks that may be sold only for agreed upon outreach project fund raising purposes.

An example of a work in progress from the Voyage of the Beagle deck commission. Here Robert Ball decided to have a little fun with his task, and linked his commissions into one giant image.

There’s two decks that currently need illustrating. One is the Genetics Society of America deck – in particular, the cards representing the model organisms need images. And the other is a deck that will focus on awesome women in science and engineering (looking for folks good at portraiture here).

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For the GSA (Genetics Society of America) deck, there are a number of key model organisms that will need cards. These include some new imagery for the above.

Anyway, if you’re a freelance artist and the project (and the pay) sounds interesting to you, then please do leave your portfolio website in the comments below (we’re also going to contact a few artists who have already so nicely allowed us to use existing art). As well, just so you know, we’re looking for a wide variety of different art styles. Oh… And if you want to see more of our existing catalog of cards, then just go to http://phylogame.org/cards.

Game on!
Dave Ng
db at mail dot ubc dot ca
@ng_dave (twitter also works)

Here is a quick version of the scientific method: aside from the problematic diction, does it still work?

I just banged this out. I know it’s not the clearest (it’s not necessarily meant to be), but does it still more or less fit?

1. seeing stuff,

2. thinking (hard) about the stuff you’ve seen (see 1),

3. testing the thinking you’ve done about stuff you’ve seen (see 2),

4. seeing new stuff that your test shows, remembering that this is the test that tests the thinking you’ve done about old stuff you’ve seen (see 3),

5. asking your smart friends what they think about the new stuff from the test (see 4)

6. does this new stuff change how you think about the old stuff you’ve seen (if yes, go back to 2 but think harder; if no then go back to 3 and test harder).

The Women in Science and Engineering Card Game Grant: For your reading pleasure.

This amazing image by Ben Marriot

So, a couple of weeks ago, I tweeted the fact that my lab managed to secure some funding from WWEST to start working on a Phylo card game deck that revolves around Women in Science and Engineering issues. I’m just about to place an ad in UBC’s career site, in the hopes of attracting a stellar student team that will take on the initial stages of this project.

In any event, in the interest of being open, I’ve copy pasted the grant below so you can check it out. I’ve also been chatting with a few colleagues who I think would make great advisors on this project, but the entire endeavour is ultimately going to thrive on as much constructive feedback as possible. In this regard, leave a comment below if you think you might be interested in beta testing the deck when we have our first edit playable version.


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Organization name:
Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory (the science education facility within the Michael Smith Laboratories, UBC)

http://bioteach.ubc.ca | http://phylogame.org

Project dates:
January to April 2015

University of British Columbia (Post Secondary Institution)

AMBL (Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory) is a fully equipped research space dedicated to the development, delivery and research of projects that provide experiences in the realms of science literacy, science communication, and science education. Situated within the Michael Smith Laboratories, AMBL hosts a diverse range of programs ranging from authentic research field trip programs, provision of publication outlets for creative science writing, as well as projects that engage in the interdisciplinary intersections between science and other cultures (please see http://bioteach.ubc.ca for full details).

Currently, one of the lab’s more unconventional projects revolves around aggregating expert and non-expert activity around the creation of a trading card culture that focuses on science generally and biodiversity specifically. Called the Phylo Project (see http://phylogame.org), this endeavour has culminated in an open access process of card, deck, and game creation that has provided an invaluable resource for the education community at large. As well, the project has been in fortunate to include the support and collaboration from a variety of notable partners that span the academic (UBC), museum (London’s Natural History Museum, American Museum of Natural History NY, Beaty Biodiversity Museum), digital curators (Encylopedia of Life), scientific organizations (GSA – Genetics Society of America), publishing (O’Reilly), non-profit sector (The Beagle Trust), and education (various school classrooms) communities. Currently, two primary game mechanics have been devised and thoroughly play tested, whereby a variety of standalone and interchangeable decks are available in both free “print your own” online and purchasable print formats.

Leveraging the already available expertise and resources developed via the Phylo Project (and in particular, the work done on the soon to be released GSA deck which focuses on the “process of science”), AMBL proposes the use of grant funding towards the production of a playable card game that is explicitly designed to embed a variety of important learning objectives around the subject of women in science and engineering. The funding will essentially be used to hire a team of 3 senior undergraduate or graduate students who will work part time with the lab (wage at approximately $15/hour over a one semester timeline), and using existing resources and Phylo game mechanics. Specifically, this team will be given the following objectives: (1) to research, evaluate and design the content presented on the cards; (2) to determine whether modification of existing game mechanics is required; (3) to produce a playable and playtested beta card game; and (4) to create a number of prototype lesson plans that can be used with the resource in light of existing provincially determined IRP requirements.

AMBL in turn will provide additional in kind funding to commission professional artists and graphic designers to ensure that the aesthetics of the card game is pleasing to both the educational community and the gamer community at large. The final product, like all Phylo related materials, may be branded accordingly (for instance, it could be called the WWEST deck), and will be made available for both free online access and via revenue neutral purchasing modes of distribution. Beta decks are envisioned to be available by April of 2015, whereas final decks (with commissioned art) should be ready by late 2016. Furthermore, the lab is currently slated to use a variety of different Phylo card games to introduce “hackathon” principles in lesson plan design. This programming would be offered as recurring teacher professional development workshops, with the full expectation that this “Women in Science and Enginnering” deck will be utilized. This would provide a means for continued presence, promotion, and also creates circumstances where iteration and assessment of the card game can effectively occur.

Note that we are fully aware and sensitive to the nuances involved in broaching this complex topic. In fact, a crucial part of the project will evaluate what elements of the STEM/feminism culture do we tackle first, since some things are easier to do (i.e. highlight awesome female scientists/engineers), whereas some will take more nuance (i.e. highlight some of the challenging issues found within the women in science culture). Because the Phylo system is expandable, it is feasible to work on one facet first, as a stepping stone to tackle others. Overall, however, we will be cognizant of the card game working well somewhere in the curricula of the average North American K-12 system, but also want to make sure that we do not leave out elements of the game that provide the player some insight of the cultural challenges in STEM related gender roles.

This project is novel because it represents one of the few attempts at introducing game-based learning techniques to promote the objectives of the Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering Program (see objectives listed at http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Professors-Professeurs/CFS-PCP/CWSE-CFSG_eng.asp). Game-based learning is a relatively new and exciting form of pedagogy that many teachers are curious about, but are currently unlikely to adopt because of their unfamiliarity with available resources, as well as their lack of confidence in logistics and implementation. This proposal aims to produce a tangible freely available game that is ready for easy use, upon which the AMBL lab is committed to provide a mechanism for continued and teacher directed lesson plan development. This will hopefully enable teachers to address a variety of different learning outcomes including those around identification of “role models in technological occupations, including those that are sensitive to culture, gender, and physical ability.” (Grade 9 Social Studies IRP, British Columbia).

Impact for the project can be demonstrated in a variety of ways:

1. The project will result in the production of a high quality trading card game that addresses issues in STEM and gender equality. More importantly, this is a tangible resource that will exist in perpetuity. This includes making the game available as a freely available online resource. Furthermore, the Phylo project has previously worked out a system for revenue neutral distribution of purchasable decks. This set up enables the existence of high quality versions of the game, which does not require any additional administrative support. As a result, this project provides the opportunity to create a legacy product, which in turn could act as a conduit to other similar projects.

2. The three university students hired will be given the opportunity to deeply examine the intersection of STEM and feminism: This we believe will be a transformative experience, as it will obviously involve proactive reaching out to a variety of individuals with different perspectives and contexts. The AMBL lab is well place make use of its own significant network, but this will also naturally include the community that WWEST envelops.

3. Given the widely disseminated and often heated narrative of this topic, the card game itself is likely to elicit great interest culminating in potentially achieving a wide reach. In particular, due to its open access nature (free versions available online), we envision great uptake from various internet communities, more so due to the overarching crowdsourced nature of the Phylo project. As well, given AMBL’s commitment to directly involve teacher professional development programming with the project, the card game will also have a guaranteed audience within the educational community. At present, it is hard to predict final outreach numbers, but we do believe that this project has the potential to generate great interest from the education, scientific, and media communities.

4. This project represents a concerted mechanism to embed more gender and diversity related STEM issues in AMBL programming. This, we feel, will create a greater expertise base within AMBL, so that more similarly themed programs can be developed in the future.

5. Although formal research assessment is not currently within the scope of this funding request, several of AMBL’s previous collaborators have already expressed some interest in exploring a research query around the effectiveness of game-based approaches in delineating and addressing gender related STEM issues. David Ng is currently being proactive in exploring possible avenues of research in this regard.

Guided under the direction of Dr. David Ng, AMBL is a fully operational academic science literacy lab, that is situated within UBC’s highly lauded Michael Smith Laboratories. AMBL has full autonomy over its research lab space, and is managed via internal operating funds, as well as additional sources of revenue obtained from professional scientific workshops and a variety of successful education-based grants.

This card project should enjoy good sustainability because of the already established longevity and viral outreach of the Phylo project, as well as the lab’s long term interest in investigating game-based learning outcomes. This includes a proactive stance to incorporate use of these cards into our upcoming “hackathon” based teacher professional development programs (slated to start in the spring of next year). This will provide a more directed platform to introduce the game to the educational community, as well as provide a continuing mechanism for formal lesson plan development.

Games Learning Society conference 2014: a debrief. Although, in short, it was pretty cool.


So, I’ve just returned from the Games Learning Society 2014 conference, held in Madison Wisconsin, and I’m all abuzz with new and grand ideas! Essentially, I went in as someone new to the #gaming #learning #academia field (or a “noob” as the vernacular goes). And although their website only provides a peripheral description of what the conference is about (with only the briefest of blurbs on the GLS’ about page), this particular conference was highly recommended by Barry Joseph, a friend and colleague with whom I’ve been working with on the AMNH Pterosaur Phylo deck. As well, Barry is a highly respected member of the games and learning community, which is to say that if I accidentally refer to him as a “Yoda” in the field, I mean it only in the most positive of ways.

Anyway, a few months back, I literally asked Barry to pass on a recommendation to the following query:

“If I only go to one gaming conference to get my feet wet in this type of community, what would that most excellent conference be?”

And so here we are. Fatigued mentally and physically from last week’s intense learning and networking, but also most definitely inspired to contribute more to the community. This is actually part of the challenge: so many interesting discussions and ideas surfaced with this interdisciplinary crowd, that I’m a bit befuddled on how to proceed and what to focus on next. My work plate is already very full, nutritious and rich, so navigating new opportunities is a little intimidating to say the least. Which is why, I’m going to write this post to organize my thoughts, but doing so, I hope readers will also get a taste of the wonderful community as well as the general vibe (academic or not) of this conference, so as to consider why they might like to attend in future years. Anyway, with this in mind and in no particular order…


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one Firstly, I have to give kudos to Edge Quintanilla, Margaret Chmiel and Barry who graciously allowed me to play in their sandbox (as in metaphorically an accepted panel presentation/discussion – “Advancing STEM Learning with Games in Civic and Cultural Institutions: A Play, Critique, and Discussion Session“).

The workshop was both engaging for me (and I think the attendants), but I’m hopeful that maybe in the future the four of us can work on something together. I say this because I kind of think the four of us would make a good “SuperFriends” team, since Barry is from New York’s American Museum of Natural History (let’s say he’s “Superman”), Margaret is from the Smithsonian (let’s say she’s “Wonder Woman”), and Edge is from Chicago’s Field Museum (let’s say he gets to be “Batman”). What you’ll notice is that they inadvertently represent a trifecta of three of the most iconic (natural history) museums in North America. Maybe, I can act as that connecting, comedic, valued, but occasionally mocked (I’m o.k. with this) 4th wheel – or in other words, maybe I get to be one of the Wonder Twins. O.k. that came out wrong, but you get the point.

one I should point out that my official gateway to the gaming scene is via the Phylo Trading Card Game project. This (in case you didn’t know) is an open source biodiversity game project that is essentially attempting to crowdsource a flexible trading card platform that allows for games to be designed around real organisms (indeed, the brilliant but surreal crowdsourcing efforts to date were inspired by knowledge that children know way more about Pokemon than they do about real creatures). It was cool to see such positive reaction to the project, both in commentary, but maybe more importantly in the many people who “got it” right away and started discussing possible “other” uses of the platform.

This ranged from folks like Ariel Marcy who has developed a card game about evolutionary clade sorting (see this successful Kickstarter); to Owen Gottlieb who is thinking about card games that reflect on historical, as well a religious culture, content (I love that). As well, I had a chance to chat with Tom Toynton, and found out that he also has a biodiversity related trading card game that sounds awesomely in tune with some of the mandates of the Phylo project.

A quick chat with Scott Price from BrainPOP was also pretty interesting. Here, he mentioned liking the idea of adapting and improving upon an open trading card platform (such as Phylo) so that it may be more widely used by teachers and students. This was quite intriguing especially given BrainPop’s presence in the educational market. The one nuance that would need navigating, however, is to ensure that the Phylo brand and game mechanic remain open, even if used by commercial vendors. To that end, the Phylo project is currently in the process of determining the right legal framework to allow “for profit” entities to utilize Phylo resources (branding, game mechanics, use of cards, etc) in a way that protects the open philosophy of community driven resources, whilst providing an option for others to commercialize and copyright their own “edits.” In general, I’m hopeful this will add another layer of flexibility in the project, so that more resources can be created in both non-commercial and commercial contexts (p.s. if there are any intellectual property lawyer types that want to help with this, then do let me know).

Finally, at the conference I referenced the fact that Phylo’s DIY card making process would be greatly simplified over this summer (to the point where ideally a 7 year old can do it), with the intent that this would make it a lot easier for things like classroom decks to be created by teachers and their students (you can see examples here, here, here, and here). This proved really popular with the many teachers I chatted with. For those interested, the plan is that when this functionality is released (and note that you can do this right now – it’s just a bit complicated), we’ll likely beta test how it goes by only releasing 100 or so “teacher” accounts.


one Still related to the Phylo project, one of most interesting conversations I had, revolved around the possible use of ARIS. This is basically an open source mobile app platform designed to allow educators to tie in GPS and QR code functions into tour or game like immersion experiences.

In Phylo’s case, the discussion was around whether such a platform might be amenable to addressing one of the central criticisms of the Phylo card game – that is, if you want to educate and/or advocate for biodiversity concepts, wouldn’t it be better to simply make people go outside, and not stay indoors playing a card game? Now, there’s all sorts of discussion we can have about the validity of this criticism, but I have always thought that an app that somehow entices Phylo players to go “outside” would be a lovely endeavour.

In this respect, there seems to be a lot of potential, ranging from using the cards as a wildlife checklist, using the cards to navigate a physical tour within a defined space (like a park or a museum), or even (if we ratchet up the creativity) a game wholly developed that draws folks into the card world, whilst moving around an outdoor environment with markers, goals, and/or tasks. I was also of mind about seeing how ARIS could connect with the Encyclopedia of Life. Given the deep and scientifically sound meta data collected by EOL, it seemed like there’s a no-brainer in seeing how these two could somehow mix, especially with their similar open source philosophy. More so, since the Phylo project is currently working with EOL on something very cool.

Anyway, it was great chatting with David Gagnon (with whom I not only share a first name, but also apparently and strangely, identical fashion sense) and Chris Holden on this. It sounds like a follow up proper is best done with a bit of funding, but this is something that has great potential and I’m definitely thinking more about this.


one I also love that this was a conference where being an advocate for role playing games has an air of heroism to it. And being a former Dungeon’s & Dragon player, and more recently sharing this fine way of playing with my children, it was cool to see how some people were using RPGs as a portal to better learning. In particular, I had a chance to pick two remarkable brains, that being Trent Hergenrader and Kip Glazer. In their case, use of RPGs naturally flowed around deeper practices on narrative, storytelling, and creating richer context around such writing. It sounded really quite wonderful, with Trent using this innovative approach around creative writing world generation (see an example here with Hellwaukee), and Kip incorporating similar practices to get her high school students to not only better understand a work of literature like Beowulf, but to completely and wholly own it.

Anyway, I’m totally inspired to see if I can use a RPG based mechanic in my one undergrad course I teach – this would be ASIC200, a course with 2nd year undergrad students from both the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Science, all in together to learn about a few chosen global issues (climate change and genomics for instance). In particular, rather than ascribing learning objectives around writing skills, this would be more about somehow getting students to think, act and perceive the world view of the other (the whole art versus science thing I guess). As the token sciencegeek in the course, I’ll be chatting with Allen Sens (the humanities geek) on whether this might be doable, especially since we’ve been thinking about possibly moving towards a “flipped” class scenario, thereby freeing up a good chunk of class time.

one Kip is also something of a force of nature! We got to speaking about teacher professional development opportunities and from this, we discussed the idea of hosting a teacher hackathon. Here, the goal would be to host a day session with a good number of keen teachers (my facilities can easily accommodate such an event with anywhere between 10 and 90 teachers), and provide a structured but relatively open template where they’ll be charged to explore existing materials, and attempt to come up, or “hack” something better.

Specifically, Kip and I were thinking a session where teachers will come out with a number of fleshed out (and shared) lesson plans/goals/ideas, that could focus on game based learning and mathematics (Kip’s true love). Add to that, the beauty of a hackathons is that it also embody ideals where it’s o.k. if the lesson plans are not perfect or great even. The point is that they represent a viable prototype, and something that can be built upon, more so with this new network of teachers that you’ve just spent intense time with.

Anyway, Kip has already thought through a way to start this in earnest, and the first step involves putting ideas to paper: and why not under the guise of chapter proposal for a book? I’m currently working on seeing if I can bring her out to Vancouver for a visit, so fingers crossed.

no6 In the fall, I’m about to start a research project around children’s impressions of “science” and their impressions of “creativity,” with a mind to explore how they might intersect (or not). This, you can learn more about here, but what was cool was a chance to meet someone working on a research initiative with similar elements. This individual is June Ahn, who has this intriguing project called “Sci-Dentity” where they:

“…are creating an after-school program for inner-city, middle school youth in Washington DC Public Schools (DCPS) where students will create science inspired stories with different media (e.g. graphic novels, short stories etc.) […] A main focus of our research will be to explore how science fiction and other creative narrative projects can be designed and used to help young people imagine the exciting ways that science impacts us as human beings and shape who we are.”

This is especially cool for me, because the research that I’m involved with revolves around a fieldtrip program (the Science Creative Literacy Symposia) which essentially provides an informal educational experience that combines science experimentation with expository creative writing. Anyway, definitely will have to follow up with June to see where we might work together, and possibly even bridge research outcomes, given the potential overlap existing. This is also another example where twitter is proven to be a valuable tool – the whole discussion began via monitoring the #gls14 twitter feed.


no7 The description of the next potential project is purely tangential, in that it involves Pokemon and that this somehow relates to the fact that the Phylo project happens to reference Pokemon as a call to action. In any respect, this was spawned by a great conversation with Christian de Luna, a Pokemon devotee, which revolved around Pokemon’s mechanics emulating evolutionary concepts, and how that might be taken advantage of to, you know, actually look at evolutionary concepts proper. I have to say that this is very enticing to me especially as someone who is a geneticist and very familiar with evolutionary biology. How cool would it be to design something around this angle? Anyway, I’m totally game on as a collaborator (maybe from the content expertise angle, but also as a director of an educational lab where we can discuss elements of seed funding and certainly roll out betas to children of various ages), although I am most intrigue by what this grant proposal might look like, as well as where it would go!

no8 Finally, I have to mention that part of the reason of going to #gls14 was to immerse myself a little in the academic culture of people who research games for learning. And there’s probably no better way of doing this than hanging out with the amazing young researchers who shared their time with me. In this respect, I had a lovely time hanging out with folks like Olivia Stewart, Kelly Tran, Niels Quinten, Lori Ferguson, Christian de Luna, Andrew Jefferson, Jeff Holmes, Joey Huang, and Lien Tran to name a few. Thanks to all who were so generous with their time – definitely do look me up when you’re next in Vancouver.

Anyway… In the end, this whole conference was definitely time well spent, but now for the difficult part. Basically, I’m sold – I do want to dig a little deeper into games research, but the reality is that I can only pursue a few of these great ideas in earnest. This is both in terms of intellectual engagement (collaborative grant proposal anyone?) but also in terms of thinking about possible seed funding support. Regardless, I’m pretty sure the GLS conference is now going to be one of those conferences I try to attend on a yearly (or at least biannual) basis.

(Images from the #gls14 feed at Flickr)

Darwin Phylo deck in progress: Part 2. In which we show more graphical awesomeness! #darwindeck

So, we have a few more pieces of Darwinian art to show, continuing from our first look see. As mentioned before, all of this art is in preparation of a Phylo trading card game that revolves around the many species that Darwin took note of during his “Voyage of the Beagle.”


Above is a mock up of one of the “Event Cards.” This was drawn by Rachel Ignotofsky (website, instagram), which also came with the 3 new images shown below (to add to the 4 shown previously).


As well, here is another card mock up below, with another iconic inclusion, the HMS Beagle itself:


Here, the artwork was created by Robert M. Ball (website, instagram, twitter). Not sure if you remember from the previous “work in progress” post, but Rob has made his 8 commissions into this epic panoramic image. This you can take closer look at below (you can also click to get to a larger version), but essentially, re-imagine this lovely piece as 8 separate cards coming together.

Darwin Deck 2.6
(Click it, click it, click it… you won’t be disappointed!)

Anyway, the Phylo deck project is really starting to come together. Final artwork is coming in, (I’ve even personally bought some of the originals from Diana Sudyka as you can see below), and we’ve finally hired our last artist. This would be Simon Gurr, which is all the more special because this is the individual responsible for the Darwin graphic novel. With his addition, the Darwinian deck should have a total of 40 lovely pieces of art.

All in all, I expect the “Voyage of the Beagle” Deck to be ready around October or November of this year, where it will be launched by the UK Nonprofit, The HMS Beagle Trust, for their science outreach and advocacy programs. Game on!

(Note, you can see the rest of Diana’s pieces at this post).

Scientists say the Joint Review Panel Report that approves the Northern Gateway Project is flawed and ignores science.


It would appear that our (Canadian) Government is poised to once again abhor evidence based decision making. Here, scientists have looked over the Joint Review Panel Report that is being used to push forward the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project. In essence, they conclude (and for full disclosure, I am one of the signatories) that it “has so many systemic errors and omissions, we – the 300 signatories – can only consider it a failure.”

What are these flaws you ask? Well, the core problems have been outlined in a press release (see below for full press release), and are as follows:

1. The JRP failed to consider important impacts, such as the increased greenhouse gas emissions that could result from oils sands development and burning Northern Gateway oil products in Asia

2. The JRP reached conclusions contradicting the government’s own scientific evidence, including risks to large whales and other marine species.

3. The JRP unjustifiably dismissed the uncertain risks posed by diluted bitumen spills at sea as unimportant risks.

4. The JRP relied on an oil spill response plan that is not yet developed

5. The JRP relied on information from the proponent, without external evaluation.

6. The JRP failed to adequately articulate the rationale for its findings.

The open letter sent to the Prime Minister and asking him to reject the JRP panels can be viewed in full here. The report for the JRP can be downloaded here.

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I have to say that this continued anti-science behaviour from the Canadian Government is so devastating that I feel like the Harper Government now deserves its own meme: hence the silly meme above that is not only animated, but depicts the seriousness of the situation with an elevated facepalm category- the MEGAFACEPALM. Please share widely. (Note: a high quality animated gif can be found here).

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The full press release (June 3rd):


300 Scientists Denounce the Joint Review Panel Report
Their letter asks Prime Minister to reject JRP findings

Vancouver, BC (Tuesday, June 3, 2014) – Scientists from across Canada are asking Prime Minister Harper to reject the findings of the Joint Review Panel (JRP) in the federal decision to approve or reject the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project.

In a letter to the Prime Minister signed by 300 scientists from several nations, including fellows of the Royal Society and Order of Canada holders, they say the JRP’s recommendation to approve the oil sands pipeline was based on a “flawed analysis of the risks and benefits to B.C.’s environment and society.”

“The JRP report has so many systemic errors and omissions, we—the 300 signatories—can only consider it a failure,” says UBC associate professor Kai Chan, who led the initiative with SFU assistant professor Anne Salomon and UBC professor Eric Taylor.

“The report does not provide the guidance the federal government needs to make a sound decision for Canadians about the Northern Gateway Project,” Chan says.

The scientists express concerns the Panel omitted important impacts and considered unbalanced, and in some cases, biased evidence that led to a faulty conclusion in its recommendation that Northern Gateway be approved. The JRP assessment, they say:

· Failed to consider important impacts, such as the increased greenhouse gas emissions that could result from oils sands development and burning Northern Gateway oil products in Asia

· Reached conclusions contradicting the government’s own scientific evidence, including risks to large whales and other marine species.

· Unjustifiably dismissed the uncertain risks posed by diluted bitumen spills at sea as unimportant risks.

· Relied on an oil spill response plan that is not yet developed

· Relied on information from the proponent, without external evaluation.

· Failed to adequately articulate the rationale for its findings.

The scientists also point to the Panel’s failure to provide an explanation of how it had reached its conclusions, especially the central one, that the project’s benefits justify its risks and costs.

Download the full letter here: http://chanslab.ires.ubc.ca/?attachment_id=2632 (English) http://chanslab.ires.ubc.ca/?attachment_id=2633 (French)

For More Information, Please Contact:

Kai Chan, Associate Professor, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, UBC: 778-839-9820, kai.chan@ubc.ca

Anne Salomon, SFU Assistant Professor, Resource & Environmental Management, SFU

Rick Taylor, Professor, Zoology, UBC: 604-822-9152, etaylor@zoology.ubc.ca

Phylo game: Voyage of the Beagle deck update. #darwindeck #wip #whoa #soawesome

As many of you know, one of my stranger science education projects is a biodiversity themed card game called Phylo. This project has been especially interesting of late, with a variety of new elements being launched via a number of great open collaborations (AMNH, GSA, Muse, Keeling Lab, etc – see the Phylo blog for more details).

But there is also this “Voyage of the Beagle” deck (or just the “Darwin Deck, #darwindeck” as some have been calling it), that was talked about a couple months back. This is still a work in progress, but we have a list of cards (beta deck with commons images can be seen here), and most of the art has already been commissioned. It actually looks like we’ll need one more commission* (of about 8 images at $200 each), but I thought it would be cool to show you what the other amazing artists have done so far.

* If you’re interested, leave a link of your portfolio in the comments.

Robert Ball: website | instagram | twitter

Robert I actually came across by way of his very cool work on superhero drawings (I actually have his Avengers print on my home office wall). His first two pieces are below, but he’s also planing to link his 8 pieces into a final panoramic montage.


(click the below to enlarge)


Golly Bard: website | instagram

Diana (see below) did a great job of referring Golly to the project. These are Golly’s first drafts, but you can already tell that they’re going to look extraordinary.


Rachel Ignotofsky: website | instagram

Rachel has this great whimsical style (and some of her art has been shown here previously). She’s actually completed a couple already as you can see below!


Diana Sudyka: website | instagram | twitter

And finally, we have Diana. I’ve been a big fan of Diana’s work for a while now, especially since she worked on a picture for a piece at the SCQ. In any event, her lovely artworks (which were just finished) are shown below.





Anyway, I hope you are all as excited as I am for this #darwindeck. I’m thinking that it should be ready by late 2014 or early 2015. And don’t forget, it looks like we will need one more artist in the mix, so leave a link to your portfolio if you’re interested!

“What is Science Literacy?” A summary of responses from smart folks at #scio14

Things have been very hectic this semester (in a good way), and consequently, a number of things have lagged behind. One of which is my attempt to aggregate all the good discussion and activity around my “What is Science Literacy?” session at this year’s scio14 conference.

Anyway, with a bit of pushing from Emily Buehler (courtesy of the folks at scio14), here is what is available. I’m of the opinion that it’s worth checking out. Some of the comments are fascinating (you can download the pdf of the online survey responses here). Also, if you feel like leaving your two cents, you can still participate in the survey itself, and I can update this document accordingly.



Session 2B.
What Is Science Literacy?

Facilitator: David Ng
Session type: Discussion
Hashtag: #scioscilit
Session forum: link


This session aimed to explore “scientific literacy,” and how this concept can inform science communication efforts. It attempts to survey and address the challenges that come with a term that inherently sounds vague. Part of this is due to the concept itself being always in a state of relentless change – which has a lot to do with differing opinions from academics and on-the-ground experts; as well as the current information ecosystem, with its media challenges, a shifting science culture, and also (unfortunately) because of the subversive activities from the likes of L.P.W.L.T.B.L.’s (loud people who like to be loud), P.W.S.P.O.M.I.’s (people with strong political or monetary interests), and of course, the D.C.D.s (dangerously clueless douchebags). In all, the session will provide a guided outlet for folks to share their opinions and expertise on this topic, and whether such techniques are useful (or not) in a variety of settings (i.e. journalism, education, PR, advocacy, policy). Note that the session began with a 6 minute Pecha Kucha, presentation that provided a summary of common elements in scientific literacy.


Some themes are commonly discussed when considering what it means to be scientifically literate:

1. knowledge of the scientific process.

2. context-driven knowledge of a subset of scientific/technical facts.

3. appreciation of science culture and how it interacts with other cultural perspectives.

In this instance, David made introductory remarks by recounting an interaction he had with an inquisitive elementary school student. Here, the dialogue between David and student focused on three questions on the subject of unicorns.

Q1: Are unicorns real?

Q2: Could unicorns be real?

Q3: But, what if you saw a unicorn leap over a rainbow and make glitter?

These questions happen to nicely frame a good framework for the literacy discussion, given the answers provided. These were:

A1: There is currently no strong evidence to support this. This is an answer that pays homage to the scientific method or the process of science. This also leads to discussions with how society generally obtains information (media consideration, as well as elements of biological and social behavior). Basically, public needs to know that you don’t have to be a scientist to see merit in thinking like a scientist.

A2: It depends. If we are talking about what is simply a horse with a horn attached, then this arguably could exist. If, instead, we are referring to a unicorn that can make glitter from air and leap (in a single bound) over rainbows, then we would argue that such a unicorn could not exist. This would be very unlikely as such a unicorn would be breaking any number of scientific physical laws (i.e. 1st law of Thermodynamics being a good example). More importantly, this question segues into a facet of scientific literacy that considers the notion that involves knowledge of lists of technical facts.

A3: The frank answer here is that you would probably freak out. In other words, if strong evidence existed for such a fantastic unicorn, then one only has to imagine the historic significance of finding the existence of such a creature. Now try imagining the drama, the personalities involved, and perhaps most importantly, the scientific “creativity” required to make sense of it in existing frameworks of knowledge. All to say that science literacy is not just limited to the “process” or “technical facts,” but rather it should include a “science culture” angle, whereby it’s evident that science participates in society in a variety of perspectives. For example, other perspectives worth noting include those concerning politics and ethics.

Discussion Highlights

Note that discussion was framed around a set of questions. Below are collected thoughts from the actual discussion, as well as answers recorded via an online survey of contributing scio14 participants. A pdf of the survey can be found here.

Note that interested science communicators can still participate in the survey here.

1. As a science communicator, journalist, educator, etc – do you see merit in framing your translation of a science story by way of “increasing scientific literacy?”

The majority of the session attendees do, and all survey participants (n=16) also do.


2. As a science communicator, journalist, educator, etc – do you generally try to frame your translation of a science story by way of “increasing scientific literacy?”

(Hereafter, all online survey responses highlighted with description of commenter)

Yes. (librarian, parent; academic scientist, part-time blogger & writer; multimedia specialist, artist for health organization; science librarian; communications manager for scientific publisher; science communicator; science teacher; diversity in science advocate, science blogger; professor)

Depends. (college instructor, science blogger; physics professor, blogger, book author; higher ed. science teacher; science journalist, past scientist; science writer, designer, public information officer; editor)

No. (science themed artistic curator)

3. If you do see merit in this mode of thinking (and even practice it), is there a sweet spot of content delivery that you find works well?

There is a sweet spot of content delivery.

Finding and delivering it is an inherent challenge and a big project.

The journalist increases the reader’s interest.

Share your passion in the story.

Find the sweet spot by including things that the readers don’t know, finding an angle where the science makes them see something, and teaching them something to think about.

Scientists say that we should not have people in a story about science.

PIO’s try to get scientists to talk, but many shy away if the article is about them.

Who is this “general public”? Think about scientific literacy for __________. Think about the “who.” The audience changes depending on the content.

How much do you know about your audience at any given time?
Working with a non-profit: it’s a moving target with no best practices.

Pop culture influences can interest people. For example, “Finding Nemo” caused aquarium visitors to engage and ask questions. The “Mermaids” documentary/mockumentary: many people believed it was real. Using this video and the public reaction to it could be a strategy to debunk the media and to start a discussion and questioning.

For me, the sweet spot is focusing on process and approach to thinking.
(college instructor, science blogger)

It works well to demystify and explain science as a human endeavor, in such a way that my listeners feel they could possibly have done the work themselves. Also works well to include elements of critical thinking/information literacy in discussions of science news or articles.
(librarian, parent)

I try to leave out the process and focus on the ‘facts.’ I would like to shift more towards the process but this requires a conscious effort on my part.
(academic scientist, part-time blogger & writer)

Start from introducing science as a way of knowing, equal in weight to other ways of knowing.
(higher ed. science teacher)

I’m sort of stuck on this, as I’m not sure who the target of the “framing” is in the previous questions. Framing for who? The audience for the stories? The people who run ScienceBlogs? My faculty colleagues/ administrative superiors? My publishers? Myself?

I don’t really pitch what I do on the blog as “increasing science literacy” in the sense of telling the audience that that’s what I’m doing, but if you asked me to justify spending time blogging, I’d probably say something along those lines. My books are a little more explicitly aiming at increased scientific literacy, some more than others.

The “sweet spot” in terms of content is different in different media, and in different subsets of what I’m doing. If I’m writing about a new experiment published in a journal, the target level is different than if I’m writing about something I did myself for the purposes of posting about it on the blog. There’s yet another level for history-of-science pieces, and still another for academic-culture stories, and so on. 

In other words, this isn’t a well-formed question.
(physics professor, blogger, book author)

I’m currently working on story boarding a video series that will hopefully be my sweet spot for this kind of content. I haven’t gotten to the point where I can determine if it has worked well or not. But who knows?
(multimedia specialist, artist for health organization)

I see science literacy more as an understanding of the scientific process than necessarily conveying facts. I need to incorporate it into the story, but if there is something unique or revealing about the process that I can incorporate into the existing story. Such as the finding coming about from an unusual collaboration, or an unexpected fortuitous discovery.
(science journalist, past scientist)

The sweet spot from a librarian perspective, is balancing practical lessons on how to use the catalog, how to use scopus, with discussion on why these critical thinking and research skills are more important than for just finding articles for their papers, it’s about learning how to evaluate any information they come across, and learn to recognize, analyze and process information (plagiarism, peer review process etc).
(science librarian)

Something that’s fun and engaging/interesting is usually what works well.
(science writer, designer, public information officer)

Haven’t found it yet.
(communications manager for scientific publisher)

That would all depend on context. The most necessary thing is to make the subject relevant to the audience, and if not relevant, at least interesting to them.
(science communicator)

Presenting real examples that students relate to and giving them the opportunity to identify misconceptions or limitations of their thinking.
(science teacher)

Music. Talk about science using sing lyrics as analogy. (Connecting science to something most people like and defining terms around it).
(diversity in science advocate, science blogger)

Enough background to clarify the topic without unnecessary side discussion, with reminders of things readers may have encountered and pointers to more info as appropriate.

Content delivery is about wrapping the science up in a story or having a personal perspective to draw in the reader(s). It’s *never* about dumbing things down, but rather being clear and careful with terminology. I also think science literacy is (or should be?) more about the process of science rather than an end-point.

In our narrative work we explicitly set the line at, “Any exposition must be in service of moving the plot forward.” The corollary is that we look for stories where some bit of science is essential to driving the plot.
(science themed artistic curator)

4. In the same vein, what are the inherent challenges associated with finding or being able to deliver this sweet spot?

The biggest challenge is conveying thought processes that have become inherently more intuitive to me through science training into a clear explanation that can be understood by someone else.
(college instructor, science blogger)

Audience first needs to be engaged with the topic. It sometimes helps to address the topic through “big questions.”
(librarian, parent)

Having to define many terms without it turning into a text book. Losing the story by getting the details straight.
(academic scientist, part-time blogger & writer)

The biggest challenge is time. I have a day job with teaching and administrative responsibilities, and two small kids. Finding the time to refine material to exactly the right level is the biggest challenge.
(physics professor, blogger, book author)

Getting learners to disavow preconceived notions of what science is.
(higher ed. science teacher)

Yes. For me, it’s drawing people in with photos, video, graphics or other illustrations without confusing or distracting them.
(multimedia specialist, artist for health organization)

Generally being able to fit it into the story without sacrificing the story. And keeping in mind what a reader is actually going to want to hear and be able to absorb.
(science journalist, past scientist)

I don’t teach a semester long class, I usually only get one or two lessons within the context of a semester. I need buy in from faculty to make sure students take my lesson seriously and I also need to make the lesson interesting, which is HARD, I try to convey my passion about it but students often just give me the blank stare response. So I am constantly trying to find relevant pop culture type example,s to get their attentions.
(science librarian)

Translating jargon! It’s hard to take an academic paper and make it accessible/understandable to the public & kids
(science writer, designer, public information officer)

Money, changing tech, getting support & buy in from management
(communications manager for scientific publisher)

Working out unexpected or unforeseen relevance.
(science communicator)

The lack of scientific scrutiny in pop culture/media/general public. The misconceptions can be heavily ingrained and reinforced continually.
(science teacher)

Changes with audience. Audience is unpredictable.
(diversity in science advocate, science blogger)

Most notably, providing enough info without providing too much, respecting readers without talking over their heads, and trying to focus on the most relevant context.

Avoiding jargon. That is absolutely key. Also, big challenge in describing/writing about areas of science that don’t have an easy ‘catch’ for an audience. It’s easier talking about monarch butterflies because everyone can relate to butterflies. It’s much harder to discuss the process of, for example, epigenetics.

Boringness. So much boring.
(science themed artistic curator)

5. Is there a particular area of science literacy that is missing in the general public (process, facts, science culture)? Why is this and how problematic (from, say a civics point of view) is this?

The broad public misses that science is a human endeavor and that it is not infallible. Knowing this allows people to accept conflict without anxiety.

As a journalist, you don’t have the space to give the story and all of the information. You must use certain tactics for certain approaches.

The teaching is that science is linear (which starts early in school.) We must help to illustrate that science is messy.

The culture of science interacts with other cultures. But in some ways it can be exclusionary. Do we build a wall that pushes others out?

We want people to think like a scientist (without it being necessary to be a scientist or to be in the scientist culture). Imagine substituting “music” for “science”.

Is it getting worse? Undergraduates are entering university lacking a number of skills including science literacy.

– – –

Not understanding the process of building knowledge through the scientific process as a cultural construct distorts how people interpret the information they receive.

It is very problematic as the flaws in critical thinking this reinforces impact decision making in all fields.
(college instructor, science blogger)

– – –

The process and culture aspects are most often missing. General public science discourse has traditionally focused on technical facts. This can make science seem dry to some.

It’s very problematic that many citizens lack a basic understanding of what science is and does. Schools and informal science education environments both need greater focus on how we know what we know.
(librarian, parent)

– – –

Terms related to process and science culture. Elements concerning science culture is the least known in my opinion. Mostly because the science world is insular and those who are not science literate have no desire to learn about the culture.

It’s a problem because it creates a divide that reinforces a lot of class barriers
(academic scientist, part-time blogger & writer)

– – –

The process is probably the biggest point of confusion.

I think it helps to be explicit about the process, and about the fact that the general process of science is something everybody uses every day, often without really being aware of it. This is the topic of my next book…
(physics professor, blogger, book author)

– – –

That science is more than fact and the difference between fact, theory, and law.

Problematic because we can’t converse about science unless we are all using a common vocabulary.
(higher ed. science teacher)

– – –

I’m sure there is, or we wouldn’t have people who don’t know that the earth revolves around the sun.

Hugely problematic, and I think the solution is catching these folks when they are young and creating an interest in being scientifically literate in elementary school.
(multimedia specialist, artist for health organization)

– – –

The process often is left out. In some ways it’s inside the baseball. The general audience doesn’t necessarily have to care about this, so the challenge is finding ways to make it a relevant story that people outside of the bubble have some reason to care about.
(science journalist, past scientist)

– – –

Science culture is hard to get into and hard to leave. I grew up in it, it’s a privilege I often forget I have. I think it’s human nature to be comfortable in their privilege and to move out of it, whether it’s inviting others in, or stepping out of your zone. Change is hard!

It’s an issue for populations that need the science! And it also means that we are possibly missing chances to gain perspective from the benefit of diverse minds. I think being online and technology are greatly increasing access and spread of information, but we need leaders and groups who are making an effort to be sure globalization of information is not only free but fair.
(science librarian)

– – –

CULTURE and support from government and industry to encourage science learning

Education is the best way, but this has problems of its own – mostly because the US has lots of education.
(science writer, designer, public information officer)

– – –

Disconnect about value, cost , usefulness of research in bigger picture. Loss of meaning in smaller stories. Loss of threads… Connecting to related content.
(communications manager for scientific publisher)

– – –

Yes, there is. Neuroscience and psychiatry tend to be under-reported, since these areas are enormously complex, even for those who consider themselves very scientifically literate.

It is very problematic. Take for example the very widespread public ignorance about dementia, and the myths surrounding it, ignorance shared by many medical professionals.
(science communicator)

– – –

Yes. School curriculums mainly focus on content of science and little on the inquiry of science. Also, the inquiry aspects should be included in most other core subjects, if only as a way of scrutinising knowledge within that subject.

Very problematic. The media should take some responsibility in promoting critical thinking.
(science teacher)

– – –

The process overall. People don’t broadly understand why the process lends to credibility. And when the process is misunderstood or undervalued, science can seem unproductive or lacking in credibility.
(diversity in science advocate, science blogger)

– – –

(Side-note: Not sure I’d count science culture as part of literacy. Gut reaction, though, so no well thought out reason.)

I think process & culture are more or less completely missing. No one reason — harder to describe, of less practical import to people, less obvious emotional impact (vs. smoke causes cancer, say).

How problematic? Somewhere between very and not at all? Reasons it’s a problem are talked about a lot.

Reasons it’s not a problem — or rather is maybe unsolvable: there are a *ton* of things you could potentially expect people in society at large to know. What’s the culture of art curation? The process in international manufacturing? It seems impossible that everyone could know all of them.

How to get around that? I think normalizing the idea of science within the culture is the way to go. (Of course, I would.) Point being to get across: “Generally competent human people do these things, and other human & competent people know about and check their work. You might know about some of them, the others work more or less the same way.” The trick, of course, is to do that without, “trust us.”
(science themed artistic curator)

– – –

Perhaps science writers focus to quickly on asserting the findings without identifying the conditional nature of those findings.

Without an understanding of uncertainty, and more specifically, probabilities, the civilian lawmaker or voter will tend to see issues as two sided, yes or no, good or bad, not relative and adjustable.

– – –

Fundamentally, there are just not enough scientists entering discussions with people outside their own area of expertise.

Not sure how problematic this is –> it may just take time as the upcoming generation of scientists have a different approach (and in many ways, a better one)

6. If you don’t communicate science with a strategic view to “increase scientific literacy”, why not? Or put another way, what might be the detrimental effects of overanalyzing this facet of science content delivery?

There is a whole body of literature on “the science of science communication.”

You are trying to engage readers, not to promote science literacy.

Reading is the base level. Not every project requires science literacy.

It depends on the goal. Literacy is very important, but it is also important to convey the joy of a scientific approach to questions and the human-ness of scientists. If the goal is one of the latter two, then always placing a focus on literacy may detract from the effectiveness of the piece, potentially in relation to both goals.
(college instructor, science blogger)

It is most important, first and foremost, to engage the reader/viewer/student.
(librarian, parent)

You spend too much time analyzing ill-formed questions and don’t do any actual communicating.
(physics professor, blogger, book author)

I don’t think that everything I do tries to increase scientific literacy. I think it’s easy to give excuses like “not every story is strong” or “as communicators we are being asked to do too much with little resources” but when it comes down to it, we have to make an effort in making this kind of thing a priority.
(multimedia specialist, artist for health organization)

I think there’s a danger in trying to make the communication so “perfect” — from an accuracy or literacy point of view — that it eventually becomes something that no one wants to actually read.
(science journalist, past scientist)

I usually think over analyzing can feed into burn out and the loss of ‘fun’ in what people are passionate about.
(science librarian)

You lose the magic of the science, and the excitement
(science writer, designer, public information officer)

You might be dumbing down the content.
(communications manager for scientific publisher)

Spend too much time explaining or defining rather than telling the story.
(diversity in science advocate, science blogger)

Nobody likes to be talked down to. Treating all writing as “teachable moments” may sound a lot like preaching. Furthermore, arguing a point with straight facts and logic often helps to solidify the listener’s point of view as they review their reasons for believing what they do. Rather than simply focusing on “increasing literacy,” writers might consider ways to share stories in a way that increases empathy with scientific perspectives.

I always communicate science with a view to increase scientific literacy. I see very few detrimental effects *except* the scientists must have his/her credentials – in other words, the science communicator has to have a program/background that provides real credibility.

It gets in the way of other goals. We’re trying to do an exploration of what it means to be human in a scientific world. Putting in literacy goals will distort that.

Of course, that doesn’t mean literacy-aimed projects can’t be all good.

They might be bad, for exmaple, if the focus is on how stupid people are for not knowing things. I think that approach does a lot of damage.
(science themed artistic curator)

7. At what point does considering scientific literacy become a stepping stone towards science advocacy? Is this a bad thing? Or, in other words, is it for everyone? Should it be for everyone?

Literacy is how you intellectually access scientific thinking or awareness.

If I encounter information and I question it, where do I go? How do I be a skeptic?

Would it be interesting to discuss scientific literacy in an unconventional format (such as a debate or a guided game)?

Literacy and advocacy can exist separately. Advocacy without literacy is potentially damaging in the long run. Literacy should be paired with material to also present the process as joyous.
(college instructor, science blogger)

Science as a career or hobby isn’t for everyone, but everyone should have a basic “science appreciation” — an understanding and appreciation for what science is and does.
(librarian, parent)

It’s not a bad thing. Music and sports journalists are allowed to like their topics…
(academic scientist, part-time blogger & writer)

Science absolutely is for everyone, or should be.
(physics professor, blogger, book author)

I say advocacy is good – it means we are passionate about what we say. It should be the basis for communicating science, not the other way around.
(higher ed. science teacher)

I think it’s hard to separate the two. But no, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
(multimedia specialist, artist for health organization)

It doesn’t need to be for everyone. There are many different types of outlets and stories, they don’t all need to be doing the same thing.
(science journalist, past scientist)

Everyone plays a part, and it’s good to be cognizant and be an ally. But there is also the risk of having too little information, and hindering instead of helping. I also think sometimes it feels like a responsibility which has been placed on you rather than something you volunteered for. It’s a personal choice to be an active participant, but I also think if you aren’t going to take an active role, you should be willing to be open and help ‘spread the word’ when asked to be a support.
(science librarian)

Not a bad thing.
(communications manager for scientific publisher)

The problem is not so much science advocacy, as unconscious fallacies in it, such as appealing to a mythical objective morality in the guise of science.
(science communicator)

Scientific literacy in societies in general has been increasing constantly since the dawn of humans. It seems there is no other way and if there was, ironically, it would be a scientifically literate society that finds the other way. Unless, of course, we follow a N Korean model (which we did in some way or another). Therefore, the question of advocacy as a negative thing is only relevant when talking about specific scientific issues (especially politically charged ones).
(science teacher)

It is science policy from the moment it conveys a need for something. Not bad. But not for everyone.
(diversity in science advocate, science blogger)

I suppose it’s a bit naive to operate as if a reader must understand the context and background of every point to qualify as understanding anything at all. If using stories can elicit empathy, writers may find it possible to share science without ensuring, or insisting, that the reader will become literate.

It’s not for everyone because not everyone has the right skills for all forms of communication, but those willing to enter this discourse should and should be supported in doing so. But too few people do… and that’s a problem. E.g., it’s ALWAYS the same 2-3 profs in my Department doing this -we need our peers to take part more actively.

Haven’t thought much about it. Based on the thoughts above the answer to the last question is probably no..
(science themed artistic curator)

8. How does the literature in PUS (public understanding of science) help you become a better communicator? (Or does it even?) How does it compare to other tactical devices? Are there defined metrics that allow analysis of the utility in different scientific communication methods?

There is a scholarship to teaching and learning.

Talk to your librarians. They are passionate about literacy and can connect you to resources about literacy.

I’m not well familiar with PUS research. In my limited familiarity, I have found discussion of PUS to be very thought provoking about my approach.
(college instructor, science blogger)

I am not familiar with this literature.
(librarian, parent)

Not familiar.
(physics professor, blogger, book author)

I’m not familiar, but I would like to be.
(multimedia specialist, artist for health organization)

Not familiar
(science journalist, past scientist)

The PUS literature can be very helpful indeed – but then so can too a study of rhetoric and the history of rhetoric, or the history of narration..
(science communicator)

Sorry, have to leave this blank.

It doesn’t for a very frustrating reason. All the journals are closed access, so I almost never read them.

I honestly think this is the biggest barrier, by far, to the theory-> practice movement. The articles need to be available, or a lot more translational work needs to be done.
(science themed artistic curator)


Storified here by ScienceOnline

The conversation continues.


Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits, The National Academies Press, 2009. link

“Science for All Americans,” Project 2061, AAAS. link

Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education. http://informalscience.org/

Science Festival Alliance. link

“Can Doctors Be Taught How to Talk to Patients?” Well (a New York Times blog), by Timothy D. Gillian, M.D. and Mikkael A. Sekeres, M.D., 2014. link/

Questionnaire (post survey): link

Who wants to design a genetics themed card game? Summer positions for UBC students available at my lab.


So, first things first – you have to be a UBC student (undergrad or grad) to be eligible for these (two) positions. As well, I’d be keen to extend the positions beyond the 20 hours per week to a more full time scenario if that works for the successful candidates.

Anyway, the link you need (and you’ll also need to enter via UBC’s CWL system) is:


Full details are as follows:

Title: WL (Work Learn) S14 Science Literacy Lab Assistant

Salary/Wage: $16.10 per hour. Minimum 20 hours per week. Approximately 15 weeks during summer months.

Anticipated Start Date: May 5th, 2014

Contact Details/Employer: Dr. David Ng, Michael Smith Labs – more details about his lab at http://bioteach.ubc.ca

Apply by: Appointment paperwork needs to go in by April 19th, and I’ll definitely want to be interviewing the best candidates – so maybe by around April 11th is best.

Description: The AMBL science education facility within the Michael Smith Laboratories is looking to hire a senior undergraduate student or junior graduate student who is both passionate about biodiversity research and science education. In short, this student will be part of a team tasked to design an educational card game that focuses on a variety of learning objectives aimed to explore the science and genetics of model organisms (i.e. e. coli, yeast, drosophila, xenopus, zebrafish ,mouse).

This will be built around existing trading card culture mechanics from the PHYLO project (http://phylogame.org), and slated to be offered as both a freely accessible online resource, as well as stand alone product for physical printing and distribution within educational contexts.

For this stage of the project, the student hired will have a significant role in both the design, and the play testing of the final card game, which is slated for a late 2015/early 2016 launch.

Qualifications: Life science background (particularly in molecular genetics) is a plus, though not necessary. Interest in societal and historical issues that encompass science and technology topics is beneficial. Given that the project uses a variety of digital avenues for card design and production, comfort around various blogging platforms and graphic design software is also beneficial. Interest in game development, and general engagement with “games” is also a plus.

Learning Outcomes: Students will receive a variety of training on science literacy advocacy, game development, science pedagogy, as well as skills related to use of online tools, and some graphic design.

Students will be asked to work in both collaborative and independent contexts, with frequent meetings to assess needs and progress. Mentorship would likely involve contact with relevant experts in both the science education sector, as well as those in model organism research (many of which can be found at the Michael Smith Laboratories). One of the learning objectives examined in the project, will be to see if these cards can be used in both public school setting (high school in particular), but also whether this resource can play a role in undergraduate teaching as well.

In terms of expanding networks, the Phylo card game project has a number of collaborations in the mix (including those with major natural history museums, such as the American Museum of Natural History, and London’s Natural History Museum). This particular model organism deck will be aligned with the Genetics Society of America.

For further details, please feel free to email me at db at mail dot ubc dot ca. You can also apply via this route (I’ll need your CV and a cover letter).

Game on!


Heading to #scio14: a short to-do list.

Things have been pretty busy of late, but I’m looking forward to heading out to my third Science Online (or Science Online Together) conference.  Like last year, there are a few things on my “to do” list.

If you aren’t already aware, this conference represents one of the best places to network and mingle with like minded science communication, education folks – more so if you have a mind on exploring new projects and new collaborations.  As a personal example, my discussions with folks last year, led to a variety of new projects, most notably this one (on gaming) and this big one (on impressions around science and creativity).  Furthermore, it has led to a number of great new contacts, many of which I now consider colleagues and friends.

Anyway, without further ado.  Here’s my “to do” list below, and do say hello even if the below doesn’t strike your fancy.  I’m always game to geek it up!


 Most pressing of my duties is prepping for my “What is Science Literacy?” session.  This will be held on Thursday at 12pm in room 2B.  (sched link | forum link | #scioscilit).

In brief, the description reads:

This session aims to explore “scientific literacy,” and how this concept can inform science communication efforts. It atempts to address the challenges that come with a term that inherently sounds vague. Part of this is due to the concept itself being always in a state of relentless change – which has a lot to do with differing opinions from academics and on-the-ground experts; as well as the current information ecosystem, with its media challenges, a shifting science culture, and also (unfortunately) because of the subversive activities from the likes of L.P.W.L.T.B.L.’s (loud people who like to be loud), P.W.S.P.O.M.I.’s (people with strong political or monetary interests), and of course, the D.C.D.s (dangerously clueless douchebags). In all, I’m hoping the session will provide a guided outlet for folks to share their opinions and expertise on this topic, and whether such techniques are useful (or not) in a variety of settings (i.e. journalism, education, PR, advocacy, policy).

General plan goes as follows…

12:05 – 12:10 
Short introduction by way of Petcha Kutcha (Yes! this forces me to only spend about 6 minutes on the intro) format. This will essentially be a rapid fire overview of some of the most commonly discussed themes when considering what it means to be scientifically literate (with reference to the secret keyword: “unicorn”).

Note that generally speaking, this usually defers to three areas: (1) knowledge of the scientific process, (2) context driven knowledge of a subset of scientific/technical facts (see session 3D); and (3) appreciation of science culture and how it interacts with other cultural perspectives (see session 2D3A5D).

12:10 – 12:55
Which begs a number of interesting questions that hopefully the audience will engage in (I’ve also tried to link to other sessions that would broach similar themes):

1. As a science communicator, journalist, educator – do you see merit in framing your translation of a science story by way of “increasing scientific literacy?” (Yes – go to 2) (No – go to 3)

2. If you do see merit in this mode of thinking (and even practice it), is there a sweet spot of content delivery that you find works well? (see session 7D9F) In the same vein, what are the inherent challenges associated with finding or being able to deliver this sweet spot (see session 4D). For instance, as it pertains to general media constraints. (Go to 2A)

2A. Is there a particular area of scientific literacy that is missing in general science public discourse? Why is this? How problematic (from, say a civics point of view) is this? Is there a way to circumvent this? (see session 2A3G4G)

3. If you don’t communicate science with a strategic view to “increase scientific literacy”, why not? What might be the detrimental effects of overanalyzing this facet of science content delivery? When is it a useful framework, and when is it unnecessary?

4. How does the literature in PUS (public understanding of science – hands down worse acronym EVER by the way) help you become a better communicator? Or does it even (i.e. PUS* thinking shouldn’t always win)? How does it compare to other tactical devices (for instance psychology of motivation. See session 4E). Are there defined metrics (possibly adapted from PUS* work) that allow analysis of the utility in different scientific communication methods? (see sessions 6A7A)

5. At what point does considering scientific literacy become a stepping stone towards science advocacy? Is this a bad thing? Or, in other words, is it for everyone? Should it be for everyone?

12:55 – 1:00
Wrapping up…

(* told you it is the worst academic acronym ever).

I’ve also prepared a questionnaire form for folks to fill out (if they so desire).  This is to see if we can capture additional, and possibly more thought out responses to the questions brought up in the session.  As a bit of a bait, I’m offering some geeky science game cards as prizes for those who participate (and note, you can fill this out before, after, and even in lieu of attending the session).   Click here for more details and to go to the questionnaire!


 Have any of you heard of the AWESOME FOUNDATION?  This is essentially an ad hoc funding agency, that usually exists city by city.  The basic premise is to find 10 folks who can each contribute $1000 towards a central pot of funding.  This money (a total of $10000), in turn, is then used to provide small grants to fund small projects (where a project application generally needs $1000) – this, of course, is all deliberated by the 10 individuals involved.

I always thought it would be cool to set up a SCIENCE IS AWESOME FOUNDATION where we can do the same thing but with an emphasis on funding science outreach projects.  Anyway, my lab is game to be one of the 10 involved – I might see if there’s general interest in this fun idea within the larger #scio14 community.


  And last but not least… I’m always on the hunt for artistic types to get involved with the Phylo project, as well as natural history museums types that think their institution may want a go at a Phylo deck!  Give me a shout if you want to learn more. (see http://phylogame.org)


So what is this science literacy thing anyway? #scio14

O.K. Just in the preliminary stages of thinking a bit more about how I might want to moderate my session at the upcoming Science Online Together 2014 conference #scio14. For now, I just wanted to make sure I reprint my pitch (from here), so that I have it on popperfont.


“Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about “science literacy. A small part of this is because I’m trying to write a book on this very topic: a bigger part is because I’ve discovered that thinking about such things turns out to be far easier than writing about such things.

Anyway, what I (and many others) have surmised is that the concept of science literacy is very much a moving target. What you think it is, what the general public assumes it to be, and what academics make of it, tends to vary significantly. Benchmarks will differ enormously if you query a scientist, a farmer, an artist, a teacher, or even that family member of yours that can’t help but tune out whenever we science types open our mouths.

Part of the problem is that science literacy always sounds uncomfortably vague, like something you’re pretty sure you’re familiar with, but then on closer examination, realize that maybe you’re not. It’s a bit like asking someone whether they know what a computer is: they’ll always say yes, but ask yourself – do they really? It also doesn’t help that the concept itself is always in a state of relentless change – which has a lot to do with information ecosystems, with media challenges, with shifting science culture, and also (unfortunately) because of the subversive activities from the likes of L.P.W.L.T.B.L.’s (loud people who like to be loud), P.W.S.P.O.M.I.’s (people with strong political or monetary interests), and of course, the D.C.D.s (dangerously clueless douchebags).

And as if this doesn’t already sound a little hopeless, it turns out that plenty of research is suggesting that our biology is not very good at thinking scientifically anyway! So how about a session that digs a little deeper into all of this science literacy stuff? And also what our community tends to think about it? It seems to me something that could be quite interesting, possibly a bit eye opening for some, therapeutic for others, obviously interactive and in the best case scenario, useful overall. Useful, because ultimately, it’s not a bad way to piece together a big picture, and illustrate the nuances involved (it is a moving target afterall), all with a mind to help us understand why and how we might want to communicate science.”

More on this later, but for now – game on!

Keep Calm and Carry A Pipetteman: The T-shirt. #molecularbiology #geekwear


T-shirt now available in honour of my lab’s Molecular Biology 5 day professional workshop (next one held in Vancouver from Feb 17th to 21st, 2014 – more details here). Note that all revenues go towards my lab’s outreach programming, which can be surveyed here.

Anyway, if you’re a scientist in need of a quick refresher in these techniques, or someone in a parallel field and want to learn more about the various methodologies that keep infiltrating your research discipline, then take a peek and consider signing up (or pass along to a colleague).

Also, if you’ve got a friendly neighbourhood bulletin board nearby, it would be AWESOME if you could put this poster (pdf) up somewhere.

T-shirt available for purchase here.

Registration open for next molecular biology workshop. February 17th to 21st, 2014

Via my lab’s website (bioteach.ubc.ca)



Registration is open

To inquire about registration, please contact Dr. David Ng at db@mail.ubc.ca

Dates: February 17th to 21st, 2014 (5 days: Monday to Friday)
Price: CAN$1400 (does not include room or board)

Reviews and testimonies from our last workshop (June 2013)

“Excellent workshop! Very good review of the molecular biology techniques. Dave makes the theory very clear and interesting. Also takes time to answer specific questions/issues regarding personal ongoing projects. The workshop will definitely help for future troubleshooting. Thanks!”
Chantale André, Environment Canada

“Fabulous teacher, well organized, gives a good introduction into the field. I enjoyed it! Thanks!”
Michael Fischer, Department of Chemistry, University of British Columbia.

“I found it to be a nice combination of review and new material. It was well paced, with each day balanced with lecture and hands-on work. Dave does a great job with getting the information across in an easy to understand manner, and was energetic and entertaining to boot.”
Jeremy Johnson, Okanagan Specialty Fruits

“Excellent workshop. Got lots of information. Activities were great. After this workshop, I got a direction for my acquisition of knowledge to proceed in my area of specialization. This workshop has benefited me extremely.”
Poonam Singh, School of Horticulture, Kwantlen Polytechnic University

More testimonials can be found here.


DESCRIPTION: This intense 5 day workshop will focus on a myriad of different techniques used in the molecular manipulation of DNA (general cloning, transformation, silica kits, pI kits, PCR, qPCR), RNA (isolation, reverse transcription) and protein (SDS-PAGE, 2D gels), as well as lectures that will describe some high throughput technologies such as SNP analysis, and next generation sequencing. Primarily aimed at researchers who are new to the area, familiar but require a quick updating, or would like more practical bench training.

PHILOSOPHY: Whilst molecular techniques have evolved at a blindingly fast rate over the last few decades, the underlying biochemical principles behind the vast majority of them have actually changed little. This workshop therefore combines opportunities to perform the latest, as well as commonly used older techniques, with particular attention to the chemical nuts and bolts behind them. In all, this allows the researcher to not only gain needed familiarity with the techniques, but also achieve a comfortable theoretical level to allow for both (1) that all important skill of troubleshooting, and (2) the often undervalued skill of judging the utility of “tricks” that aim to speed up, or lower costs of a given methodology.

NOTE: You can also see our June 2013 editions of our lecture notes, and lab manuallab manual for a frame of reference.

Located in the heart of the UBC campus, the Michael Smith Laboratories is a testament to the vision of its founding Director, Dr. Michael Smith. Under his leadership, a gifted team of young scientists were recruited. These scientists have gone on to develop internationally renowned programs of research and training. The second and third floors of the new building are dedicated to the research facilities of the former Biotechnology Laboratory. The Stewart and Marilyn Blusson Education Forum is located on the ground floor and is open to the public. The molecular techniques workshops are held in the teaching lab, room 105 of this forum.
(click here for detailed directions)

Registration is essentially through first: an email inquiry for space (contact Dr. David Ng at db@mail.ubc.ca), second: a verbal commitment and then third via payment. Your place is essentially secured with payment, which more or less equates to a first come first serve mechanism. This payment would be a CAN$1400 cheque (or equivalent) payable to “The University of British Columbia” and sent to

Dr. David Ng
Michael Smith Laboratories
301-2185 East Mall,
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC, CANADA V6T 1Z3

If you prefer us to send an invoice, please let us know and we can arrange that accordingly. Note that we can accommodate a maximum of 16 clients, but on occasion up to half of these spaces are already reserved for predetermined group clients. Therefore, it’s best to put your name down as soon as possible if you are interested in the workshop.

Your spot in the workshop is secured when we receive your payment. The deadline for receipt of payments is 2 weeks prior to the workshop start date. Unfortunately, we are unable to issue any refunds after this deadline has passed.

Workshop will begin each day at 9am sharp and usually end between 4pm and 5:30pm. A detailed final schedule and syllabus will be released to clients as the date draws nearer.

All paper materials will be provided on the first day of the workshop. Downloadable versions will be available about 3 weeks before the workshop begins. Whilst we do not require the clients to “study” these documents, we do ask that clients take a moment to peruse the first day practical materials. All safety gear (including lab coats) is provided at the workshop.

Here are some accommodation options that are basically on campus. Costs involved would vary (I think the most budget option would be the Vancouver Youth Hostel which is about a 15minute bus ride away). The closest would be those of Gage through UBC conferences. The others (except for point grey house) are all a relatively short walk away.

International Youth Hostel at Jericho Beach
UBC accomodations (on campus – note there are only 47 available)
St. John’s College (on campus)
Green College (on campus)
St. Andrew’s Hall (summer only)
Point Grey House (off campus, but only 10 minute bus ride away)

Alternatively, Downtown Vancouver offers a variety of accommodation options, but would entail about a 30-40minute bus ride each way. Depends on your preference since the Campus is pretty quiet at night time, whereas other areas would be more interesting. Go to www.expedia.ca, and select:

hotel > near an attraction/vancouver > type in “University of British Columbia”

Usually the out of town clients make use of a little extra time after or before the workshop in visiting some of the sights Vancouver has to offer. I often strongly recommend this since the city and surrounding locale are really quite spectacular. In particular Whistler-Blackcomb is a world famous ski/outdoor resort, and is only a 2 hour drive away. Ski season usually opens in mid November (click here for more info)

You know it’s all good, when you have to read Wookiee research papers. Wookienomics: it’s a thing… #starwars


Note: eventually, some of these (I suspect) will be published in full at the Science Creative Quarterly.

Announcing the “Voyage of the Beagle” trading card game. Plus a call for some crowdsourced goodness!

The Phylo project is hard at work on preparing the next high quality Phylomon* deck, and this one will revolve around Charles Darwin and his wonderful 5 year voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle.  

At this point in time, we’ve enlisted the help of noted Darwinian aficionado, Karen James, who has nicely narrowed down the list of cards that are needed for this endeavour (see original google doc here). In turn, I have a group of folks in the backend of the phylo website, who have produced a number of nice looking “beta” cards that can be used to test things out (they used images from vintage natural history prints, many of which were actually produced by folks on the voyage itself – i.e. John Gould for example).

These “beta” cards can be found on the phylogame website, but we’ve also produced a handy dandy 10 page pdf of the putative deck for easy printing and cutting (click on the image below to download – 11.5Mb pdf). Note, the rules for the game can be downloaded here.


Click on the cards to download the beta deck pdf (11.5Mb)

That being said, because this is a crowdsourced project, we would love to hear comments from anyone interested, and with that community incentive in mind, here is a list of things to consider:

1. The next two weeks, I’m hoping that some folks out there in the world wide web will print out this “beta” Darwin card set and give it a try: this way, we can finalize what the deck list needs to be. The reason why there is a time crunch on this, is that this finalized list will allow us to start the process of seeking out and commissioning artists for the production of lovely card art.


Click on the cards to download the beta deck pdf (11.5Mb)

2. The species used are all species observed and noted during that fateful voyage. For now, they’ve been grouped according to certain legs of the trip (kind of by geography if you will). This was mainly because the actual sea voyage had a lot of going back and forth, so Karen thought that going with a temporal theme would be too tricky. Here you’ll note that the geography categorization is mentioned in the card text (i.e. “Galapagos to Auckland), but we’ve also coordinated the background colours of the cards themselves, to make this easier to see (some cards have a reddish background, some brownish, etc).


Click on the cards to download the beta deck pdf (11.5Mb)

3. With the geographical mode of categorization, and because the H.M.S. Beagle itself traversed a significant part of the globe, it turns out that when one plays this game, there will often be cases where an organism can be played adjacent to another where the compatibility rules work, but that they would never actually be in the same part of the world (i.e. technically, some connections would not be grounded in reality, as usually decks are organized around locality unlike this one). Here, players will need to make a judgement call on how important this is. In other words, I’d like to hear people’s opinions on what they think about this. We think the cards can still be played in a scientifically literate manner (i.e. using the background card colour to help guide these more “real” connections), but that being overly strict will likely make the game much more finicky. Perhaps there are options out there where the scientifically literate connections (i.e. via background card colours) are worth more points, or are immune from event cards, etc. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

4. The current list of “Event Cards” were pretty hastily made and largely influenced by availability of cool vintage paintings. Since the final deck will involve art commissions, we’re actually a lot more free to come up with much more clever event cards. Would love to hear more ideas here.


Click on the cards to download the beta deck pdf (11.5Mb)

5. And since we’re asking for help generally, there is also a much bigger challenge at stake. Karen and I are very intrigued by the idea of tweaks to the current rules that allow folks to follow the voyage in a “temporal” manner. i.e. the possibility of “history cards.” Mostly, event cards change the food chain connections, or alter the game play where someone has a logistical advantage or disadvantage (i.e. The pdf you’ve been provided with is pretty much the usual ecosystem type building game, which we know works pretty well). With the possibility of “history cards” we want to see if there are elements to the game that can illustrate things in a time dependant (i.e. historical) manner. This is actually why the pdf has a number of blank cards. These have been included in case anyone out there has a cool idea they want to test out, since we currently have no idea what this might look like, or know how doable it is. Furthermore, we’re not even sure if it’s something we want to try to sort out now, or perhaps later with the release of Darwin themed expansion packs (i.e. no rush to do this, but super mega bonus points if someone does have a go).

Anyway, for folks who do help out, please leave commentary somewhere for us to find (if not in comments sections, then maybe at the forum, or via email – db at mail dot ubc dot ca). Anybody who comes up with some excellent suggestions/commentary will be eligible to receive the Darwin deck when all is said and done (and also the Beaty Deck as well). Note if the contribution is outstanding, we’ll also make sure you’ll be properly attributed in the final version of the deck itself.

Game on!

Digging into Phylo, a Science-Based, Crowd-sourced Trading Card Game: An Interview with some dude.

O.K. technically, that dude is me, and this is about the Phylo project.

Anyway, this was an interview that I did with Barry Joseph, the Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, at the American Museum of Natural History. Essentially, we’ve been chatting with each other on a collaboration between the Phylo project and the museum, that will involve pterosaurs (yes, that’s right! These things!).

The interview also works well as a pretty thorough overview of some of the things the project aspires to achieve.  Read on…

– – –

David, How did you ever wind-up leading an on-line, crowd-sourced game development project to teach science?

I head a science literacy lab at the University of British Columbia where one of my principle interests is looking at science from interdisciplinary as well as creative perspectives. The Phylo project has a lot of that so it definitely makes sense for my lab to engage in this sort of stuff. Plus, it’s just kind of an awesome idea.  As for specifics? Well… it all started because of a bit of serendipity really.

I was aware of Andrew Balmford’s paper which compared children’s knowledge of Pokemon to their knowledge of wildlife, and even used this research every now and then as an interesting (and disturbing) factoid in class. At the same time, my lab was also hosting an online science publication called the Science Creative Quarterly, and as a result was enjoying a fair bit of online clout. With that web reach, I started wondering if the act of creating a biodiversity trading card culture would be best achieved by relying on online crowdsourcing, especially given the multidisciplinary nature of the task at hand. Anyway, this led to checking up with Andrew for permissions to “have a go” and the rest, as they say, is history.


1. Here was the initial design for what the cards could look like (January 2010)

Are you a gamer?

At the beginning, I didn’t necessarily consider myself a “gamer”, but the project has been interesting for so many different reasons that now I do. It turns out that many elements of gaming fit really nicely with my lab’s interests. One of these days, I’d like to look formally at being more involved in research around games.

So how is the game played?

Let’s see… Basically, it’s a trading card game (TCG) that also happens to be freely available. Just go to phylogame.org, and you can download a starter deck to print out and you and a friend can start playing. You can also build your own decks, because the website has been designed to allow you to choose other cards (about 500 are available to date). In many respects, this is similar to other TCG systems, except the collectability element is different (you print your own, as oppose to buying packs).

In terms of “how” it is played, maybe the best way to describe it, is to say that it is played a little like dominos. In other words, the game is played by placing species cards on the table and adjacent to each other based on whether a “match” occurs.  Unlike dominos, Phylo cards can be connected in four directions (the four sides of the cards) instead of the two ends of a domino piece; and the “match” is achieved by a card having at least one connection to another card with the right habitat (terrain and climate) as well as right energy source (i.e. what it needs to eat or get its energy from). By relying on this, you essentially create a sprawling network of cards that represent various food chains – kind of like an ecosystem.

This is how you get points – the larger your networks, a.k.a the more cards you can place on the table, the more points you get. The other element, however, is that there are cards that can modify your opponents’ food chains. The most common example is an “event card”. For example, a “wildfire” card might remove one of your opponents plant card; there’s obviously a loss of points due to the removal of the card, but depending on how strategic this is played, the opponent may now also have an herbivore card with nothing to eat, which in turn could be a problem for the carnivore that relied on that herbivore, and so on.  In effect, there could be downstream consequences to this one action which: (1) demonstrates the importance of keystone species, or the strength in redundancies; and (2) illustrates some of the strategic elements of the game itself.


2. This is, more or less, how the cards appear in their free online format (April 2010)

Since Phylo was launched, what are some of the activities around it that have interested you the most?

This is where things have been really cool, and also totally unexpected. I have to admit that I find this project a bit surreal at times! I would say that our initial goal has been more or less accomplished. In other words, we have figured out a way for sustainable production of freely accessible new cards that appear on the website, and that these cards can be used in enjoyable and educational ways. This seems to be working, although the rate of new cards is a bit sporadic, they’re still appearing so that there’s usually something new to see every week or so.

But now one of the most promising aspects of the project concerns the production of high quality cards or high quality decks.  In this case, we had a general sense that the “print your own” cards were pretty cool, and even potentially useful (from an educational point of view), but members of the community kept saying that whilst the cards are great, at the end of the day they’re only as good as the printer you use to print them. As a result of this kind of commentary, we had ideas sprout around the possibility of “hosts” sponsoring decks, which in turn could be sold, and therefore could push the production values of the project to a higher level.

The exciting thing here is that if this works, then we have a mechanism that further adds new phylo cards, and allows the purchase of high quality cards (where hosts can also control things like rarity).  Not only that, this system sets up a way for artists to be paid fairly, as well as provides a mechanism for fund raising for the host involved. Basically, it seemed like a win win situation!

The only issue, of course, is that there is an initial investment in making the deck (usually by way of the art commissions). This is why my lab has been active in providing these small grants – i.e. we’ll take that initial risk, at least until we have some data on how the cards perform (so as to make it more likely for groups to front that funding themselves). The ultimate goal here (and this would be so AWESOME) is to consider the question: what if every natural history museum decides to host a deck? What if environmental NGOs want to host a deck?  What if wildlife artists want to host a deck?  What if scientific groups or organizations want to host a deck? As you can see, it sets up an opportunity where the immensity of biodiversity can truly be reflected by thousands (if not more) cards!


3. How they can look when a host undertakes the production of a “high quality” deck. This one is from Vancouver’s Beaty Museum (July 2013)

And the diversity of the games to be played increases as well.

Right! This “hosted” deck idea has now resulted in the design of additional elements that can make the game part more interesting, or at least explore a different facet of biodiversity (not just the main ecosystem building idea). For example, we’re working on a Darwin themed deck right now, and the question there is: how do we incorporate historical elements? We’re also working on a deck that showcases chemicals derived from botanical species, and so that team is asking: how do we introduce that notion, and still make it work with the general game? A dinosaur deck could tackle the question of extinct creatures, or organisms that have a very specific temporal factor involved.

Then, there are deck ideas that are less about environmental literacy, but more about using biodiversity as a general source of inspiration, and these decks are different because of some logistic involved. For instance, how would a fancy deck look if the art was produced by children? What about a deck that tries to link species with a famous animal protagonist in works of literature? What if a deck was hosted by a publishing house known for having animals on its covers? How about a deck supported by a biotech firm whose products are predominantly derived from certain organisms? It’s kind of crazy, but my point here is that the fluid nature of the project is resulting in all sorts of different ideas surfacing. Not the least of which is an idea being pursued by the Amercian Museum of Natural History – i.e. what if a host decides to host a children’s workshop that is charged with designing a deck, so that the final deck is actually only a small bookend to a rich educational experience?

What does it cost for an institution to have to consider making their own Trading Card Game?

Essentially, the grants I’ve been offering are usually around the $5000 mark. This entails art commissions for 25 pieces at $200 each. It’s hard to say how long a deck will take to make, because it depends a lot on existing factors.

– Does the institution already have deep knowledge on what that deck makeup will be, or will it take a long time to research what that list of 25 cards will be?

– Will the deck be a conventional ecosystem game (we have some basic pointers on what the cards should be to make it work relatively well), or will it highlight something a bit novel (in which case, a new mechanic may need to be looked at)?

– Does the institution already have an existing collection of art, or an in house art department where the procurement of graphics is relatively straight forward?

– How does the institution plan on distributing the deck?

– Does this include a mechanism to generate revenue, in which case legality tends to be more complex and involve other departments in the museum?

And so on.

Regardless of the specifics, my lab is there to help in any way possible – usually this includes volunteering to playtest the species list to see how it works (we do this with undergrads, but also with kids coming through my lab for various events/activities). So far, we have two (almost three) fancy decks ready – one took over a year, whilst the other took about 3 months. The third took about 6 months, but involved an art competition element as well.  Also note, that another option is to work on “booster sets” instead of full starter deck – i.e. let’s make a small set of cards that can be added to the system for extra gaming flavour, primarily to tackle specific outreach or learning objectives.

It is hard enough to design a game that is fun, but you also want a game that can teach science. How do you know if the game is having an effect as an educational tool?

This is a key question. For a while, I’ve been aware (anecdotally) that folks (young and old) think that the project is pretty “cool.” However, I really have no idea how “useful” it is – are people actually learning stuff when they play, and maybe more importantly, are they learning it better than other means? This would be very interesting information to have.

Consequently, my lab is also keen to embed the project more fully into the educational spheres. This was actually why the DIY card section was added about a year ago – it opened up a possibility of decks being prepared by anyone with access (say a teacher or students in a class), which in turns provided the option of “classroom decks.” We’ve piloted a few of these, with much success, but I should add that this again is anecdotal success. I’m hoping in the next year or two to court a collaboration where we can have some proper research done on this matter. I even have a small pocket of funding to help this facet along if any readers are interested (say education graduate students looking for an interesting project).


A sampling of some of amazing DIY cards produced by children.

You are not a game designer, and most museums don’t have one on staff. So how are the games getting “balanced” so they are both engaging to play and educational?

I think the project is doing a pretty good job on making sure the game is fun to play. This is attributed to the passion of the gaming community who really picked apart the game mechanics, especially in the early stages of the project. As an example of how immersed they were with the project, a week after the first rules were posted someone then went on to post a ten page critique, saying how those rules were flawed. He did this by outlining an unbeatable deck!

From there, the rules have been playtested extensively at gaming conference, scifi conferences, etc., until we arrived at the version of rules that we currently ship with the fancy decks. I guess this is the beauty of crowdsourcing, especially when there is also the luxury of having a project that is not so business minded, but more idea driven – we didn’t need a perfect game right from the start, but we have managed to create a pretty awesome set of rules over the course of the project. In terms of balancing the educational piece, it would appear to have some educational value as teachers tend to like it, and the kids in class as well, but as mentioned above, the scientist in me is deferring this question by saying that technically we don’t have any strong evidence for this yet (although I would love to find out).

Are decks interchangeable?

Ideally, yes. This should work. The common factor is the existence of species cards, and they’re marked with some pretty basic information (size, habitat, what it eats, some phylogeny info, etc). This is what makes the project very flexible – it’s like you have this potential for all sorts of “expansion packs” or “booster decks” (if I can stick with trading card vernacular!)

When the real world is simulated within a game, decisions have to be made. How does Phylo balance game play versus the reality behind the scientific content?

This is another good question, and there are two issues that have come up with Phylo. First is at a very philosophical level: How important is it to be scientifically literate all the time? This question can take the form of “Can the art be cartoony?” “What about a game where someone has figured out how to combine Phylo cards with Pokemon cards?” For this angle, we’ve decided to be accepting of pretty much anything as long as it doesn’t overtly try to pass pseudoscience off as real science. I think we can do this, because as mentioned before, this isn’t a business proposition where we’re tied to focusing our efforts on one strategic possibility. Still this acceptance of breadth is challenging for different reasons: For instance, because the project is from crowdsourced activity, we need to have enough people to participate so that all levels of scientific literacy can be entertained. In other words, if we have a big enough community involved, then maybe we can have groups focused on a cartoony deck, but also have another group working on the photo (ultra realistic) deck too.

Then, there is scientific literacy issues simply due to trying to translate the whole of biodiversity into a game mechanic. In short, this isn’t easy because a game mechanic thrives on simple intuitive rules. Unfortunately, biodiversity is anything but simple, and often it’s actually very complex. As a result, the rules focus on very simple attributes of the organism (it’s name, what habitat it likes, where it gets its energy from, and whether it can move). Still, even with these simple parameters in place, there are occasions where things can happen “in the game” that would never happen “in real life.” For example, according to the rules of the game, a polar bear card might feed on a penguin card. Biologically, this is actually doable, but in the real world they are found in different parts of the planet.

Because of things like this, there exist small “hacks” in the rules: for instance, the “call your bluff” rule. Here, if the rules say it is okay (to play a card), but the reality would suggest that such a thing would never happen (like the Polar Bear example), then you can do a Scrabble-like “calling it” mechanic where the validity of the card placement can be tested. In our deck with the Beaty Museum, a handy dandy food chain connection chart is available for this very purpose.


What does that mean that you crowdsourced Phylo? What does that look like, and why did you take that route?

I’ve thought a lot about crowdsourcing over the last two years (I’ve even given the odd talk on the subject: Things I Learnt from my (Unscientific) Experiences with Crowdsourcing). Crowdsourcing, technically, is a term that describes a kind of outsourcing of tasks, where informal, undefined groups of people participate, and usually with incentives that are outside of traditional means (for instance, payment, accreditation). In other words, it’s a way to galvanize a community (or many communities) towards a project that they simply believe in, and in doing so, you hope the community is large enough that many small acts of contribution can lead to a greater whole.

For this project, crowdsourcing was utilized primarily for pragmatic reasons. To create an amazing biodiversity trading card culture under conventional conditions would simply be an intensive, all consuming, cost-prohibitive, and frankly unrealistic endeavour for a small lab. It would require expertise from many different areas, including biodiversity science, visual art, gaming, website design, computer programming, and education. As well, hindsight has told me that help also came from unexpected and unforeseen areas: folks knowledgeable in publishing, intellectual property, and museum culture have really stepped up and contributed significantly.

So crowdsourcing was a low stakes way of “having a go.”

That sounds great but there must be problems with crowdsourcing, no?

Yes, lots. A big one is uptake. By definition you need “groups” of people to participate. The larger the group the greater your reach and potential contact with the skill sets you need. But getting this reach isn’t a sure thing. We had help, in that we had the relatively good traffic of the Science Creative Quarterly on our side. Just as important, the SCQ afforded us strong connections with the rest of the science blogging community at large. In particular, we had a strong support from Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing, and he promoted the project during its early stages. It’s hard to second guess, but I think having this initial digital influence on our side was very important, at least for getting the ball rolling.

Another example is the exploration of cards in high quality form – in other words, the whole angle where art can be commissioned (as opposed to relying on donations) towards the production of a purchasable physical deck. The ideation for this was strategized by the community, but actually getting it to go required a champion (a host, say a museum or other group, that would be interested in creating their own special deck) to invest in the art commissions. In the end, my lab decided to step in, and see if we can offer grants to pilot this possibility. The intent here is to see how this might work with less risk to the participant given that my lab will front the funding. This works for the project, because this type of funding is realistic for my small lab, and also worth it because we hope to gain data on the relative merits or dangers of such an investment. The end effect is to assess whether future hosts might feel confident that their own investment is worth it afterall. If it is, then this is where the project might explode with many new independent decks appearing.

One final example I can offer about the disadvantages of crowdsourcing is that because your incentives are less formal, you don’t really have a lot of control over outcomes. For instance, there might be something that just needs to be done, and it isn’t necessarily onerous from a time or resource perspective, but for whatever reason it doesn’t strike a chord with anyone in the community. Editing the write up for the rules comes to mind with this issue – it’s been made clear that this is not easy to do well (the writing of the rules always sound way more complicated than when you play the game itself), and I still think the written rules continue to need more work done.

Finally, in terms of crowdsourcing nuances, I should point out that there was a lot of activity at the beginning, when things were being sorted out and developed. There’s definitely less action these days from a crowdsourcing perspective, if monitoring the forums are any indication. A lot of the newer directions tend to be host deck specific, but I think that makes a lot of sense – the main nuts and bolts of the project seem to have been worked out. Nowadays, efforts are primarily revolved around one high quality deck at a time.


DIY beta deck preparation for a Darwin themed “Voyage of the Beagle” set. More on this later, but you can take a gander by checking out the testing cards at phylogame.org/tag/voyageofthebeagle

The gist of some new research directions. On impressions around science and creativity, and the space between them.

This is just a heads up that my lab will be “having a go” at some new research queries. Specifically, one that examines the interspace between impressions of “science” and impressions of “creativity.” In fact, tonight I’m heading to Calgary to meet up with Marie-Claire Shanahan and take a crack at the first draft of the grant proposal. In the meantime, however, you can stay in the loop with our progress at our open research blog. Below is a quick (grant-speak-ish) write up of what we hope to do.

Science is a creative endeavor. This is obvious to many who actively participate in scientific research as they see their work as a continuum of creation, whether it leads to product or discovery. Similarly, the notion that science is creative is also obvious when viewed under the lens of those who study “creativity,” a term that is rich with diverse interpretations but often abridged as “the ability to create work that is both novel and appropriate” (Sternberg and Lubart, 1999). Despite this clear agreement, public perceptions around science, including those perpetuated in classroom settings, almost universally exclude the role of creativity (Braund, 1999). As a result, this detachment leads individuals away from an authentic view of science, which not only creates false impressions, but could also lead to a loss of scientific identity (where one considers “who we think we must be to engage in science”, Calabrese Barton, 1998, p. 379). This, in turn, could culminate in an unintended estrangement.

Under this context, this research will aim to explore notions and impressions of both authentic science and creativity, and the effect of science educational programming that actively promotes their connection. Here, the aim is to build research queries around the activities of a science education lab that: (a) operates within, and therefore has unparalleled access to, a highly regarded multidisciplinary scientific research unit – the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia; and (b) has already shown an inclination towards programming that relies on collaborations between scientific and artistic communities. Given that this programming also extends over a variety of school grade levels (elementary and secondary), takes place in a state of the art genetics research (authentic) space, involves participant numbers in the 1000s, and is malleable towards specific research interests; this collaboration and this research is viewed as an unprecedented opportunity to delineate the effect of the science and creativity disconnect in public perception.

Since, we’ve set this up as an open blog and all, we’d love to hear what people think. Check it out here.

Vancouver folk take note: The Beaty Biodiversity Museum @phylomon deck is available for purchase (and they look AWESOME!)

In case, you’re new to Phylo, it’s basically a crowdsourced art, science, education and gaming project that revolves around the unfortunate reality of children knowing WAY more about Pokemon than they do about the flora and fauna around them. This, of course, is problematic since one might suggest that it’s not a bad thing for children to want to know a little more about the real environment around them (a more detailed description of the project can be found here). Up to now, the Phylo project has been largely about collecting and playing with a continually pool of very cool and free print-your-own cards.

But now, I’m happy to announce, we finally have our first high quality deck, available for purchase!


So let me introduce the (DUM DUM DUM!) Beaty Biodiversity Deck, currently available at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum gift shop*. It’s on sale for limited time (10% off from $12.99, until September 1st), so if you live in the neighbourhood and want to pick up one of the first available sets, head on over to the museum!

This is the first purchasable deck, but stay tuned as we have a few more slated to be released in the near future. For now, here are some close ups of the Beaty cards!

Art Lindsay Chetek, Kyu HwangBrandy Masch, Kyle McQueen, Victoria Heryet , Derek Tan, and Alexandria Neonakis.

*The museum is also working on making the deck available for online purchasing, so check out this link for more information!

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