Brexton Pham, 18, has had a love of science for as long as he can remember. “I find myself reading science articles just for fun,” he says. “There’s nothing I’m more passionate about.” But Brexton, who just graduated from Kennesaw Mountain High School in Georgia, admits that a lot of science concepts are complex. In fact, he notes “I don’t always ‘get’ the material.”
When he went hunting for explanations, he found a lot of science already being written for non-scientists. But he was still disappointed. “The people who write the science literature are professionals targeting higher-education, science-enthused audiences,” he says. “But shouldn’t we be targeting the youth the most — the ones who will be deciding whether or not to pursue a career in STEM? I wanted to expose more of the masses to the awesome world of science.” (Too bad he didn’t check out Science News for Students!)
The teen saw a problem. One bored evening this past January, he decided to solve it. With the help of a few friends, he launched The Wannabe Scientist. This website explores scientific topics that range from cell phones and Stonehenge to the machinery of the heart. What’s behind the name? “I wanted to pick a name that conveyed the sense that, although all of us don’t know much, we’re all here because we genuinely want to learn about science,” Brexton explains.
Its articles are for students, and written by them. The site already gets around 6,000 hits per month and its writers keep a tough schedule. They add new posts roughly twice each day. Editor and fellow Kennesaw student Corey Fog, 18, emails out a weekly assignment. Writers respond, sending their work to editors. Once the pieces are in final form, those editors post them to the site.
The site is clearly off to a good start. But while it might be a good place to pique a student’s curiosity, it’s probably not a good source for looking to explore a topic in depth. It’s often very difficult to tell whether the information being covered is old or new. The authors don’t yet make a habit of linking to the original papers they are writing about, or to any other sources. And while most of the science is well-explained and interesting, some of what they cover could use a more skeptical eye. The site is great place to read fun bits on science, but it’s not “real” science reporting.
Science journalism involved answering six questions ̶ the “who, what, when, where, why and how” of some topic. Who writes The Wannabe Scientist? What do they do? When do they do it and when did they start? Where are they located? Why do they exist? How do they write their articles? These are the questions I set out to answer as I wrote this piece. Right now, The Wannabe Scientist’s articles answer some, but not all of these questions. Some pieces talk about recent studies. Some seem to focus on older data. And it’s very hard to tell where the information comes from. Linking to specific studies and sources of information is the next logical step. Talking to scientists themselves will also help increase their credibility. Indeed, getting researchers to explain their work or answer specific questions will help a writer understand if he or she seems to be on the right track.
For now, once visitors see a topic that catches their interest, they should look elsewhere to learn more — and validate that The Wannabe Scientist had accurately portrayed the research and concepts. But there’s plenty of room for this lively site to grow, and all of the students are learning on the fly.
High school and college students are the site’s main audience, Brexton says. But soon, he hopes, everyone will find it worth a regular read. “My philosophy essentially boils down to: Would you click on one of our links on the homepage?” he says. The site has attracted more than readers. It also has pulled in other high school writers from across the United States.
“In January, I saw a post asking other students if they would be interested in joining The Wannabe Scientist,” says Hai Vu. This 17-year-old recently graduated from Perris High School in Perris, Calif. She used to edit papers for friends. Now she’s also edits Wannabe postings.
Hai recalls that when she first found the site, “I eagerly messaged Brexton. And within a few minutes, I became a member!” The teen, who describes herself as “a science fanatic,” says she loves how each writer brings his or her own personality to an article. “Their work ethic is amazing and their passion for science — and STEM in general — is absolutely inspirational,” she says.
Site administrator and writer Anurag Banerjee, 18, manages the site. He also writes technology articles for it. But the teen, who just graduated from Druid Hills High School in Atlanta, Ga., says he waits for inspiration before he tackles a new story. It may come from comments in science class or a research paper he just read about. Whenever he encounters an idea that ignites his curiosity, he writes it down. “I wanted to try something a bit out of my comfort zone, and The Wannabe Scientist felt like a great opportunity for me to allow my passion for science to thrive while letting my interest in writing grow.” As a site administrator, he also has quickly become expert at using WordPress, the software used to organize and display the site’s content.
As the original founders move on toward college, they don’t intend to stop posting. In fact, they are looking for other students to join their expanding roster of writers. If you’d like to become one of them, check out the site, and help this enthusiastic team reach its full potential.
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STEM An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.