Science Literacy Starts with Accessibility

A guest post by: Shayna Keyles, Outreach Coordinator, Science Connected

Science is a broad term that covers numerous disciplines, from paleontology and particle physics to medicine and mechanical engineering. Nutritional recommendations, architectural limitations, and football-throwing specifications are all guided by science—as are birth, death, and everything in between. So where does Science Connected fit in with all that?

Science Literacy Starts with AccessibilityScience is vast, and for many around the world, it’s a foreign concept. Many factors contribute to its inaccessibility: teaching methods or curricula that are less than ideal; prohibitive expenses of higher learning; difficulties in understanding scientific concepts or applying them to real life. Reports and findings are frequently written with technical, jargon-filled language that can shut out even the most curious lay reader.

According to the National Science Foundation, only 21 percent of 12th grade students perform at or above grade level in science. While on the surface that sounds like 79 percent of students are just having difficulty solving chemical equations or reciting the Krebs cycle, it really means that over three-quarters of all 12th graders don’t have a firm enough grasp on the earth sciences to understand the causes of climate change or its harmful effects. It means that high schoolers don’t have sufficient understanding of what makes up the food they eat, how exercise helps the body, or how the reproductive system works.

That’s where Science Connected comes in. This nonprofit exists to make science more accessible by creating equal access to science education, responsible science journalism, and readily-available research. When science is accessible and available, science literacy goes up, and with increased science literacy comes a more informed, more engaged, and more responsible citizenry.

Access to science means many things:

  • Easy-to-read, well-researched information
  • Hands-on experiences that don’t require lab access or expensive materials
  • Nearby science programs and activities within an engaged community
  • Educational resources that bring more science into classrooms

Science Connected improves accessibility to science in all these areas. Through the organization’s flagship publication, GotScience Magazine, the team works closely with researchers, journalists, universities, and industry leaders to provide cutting-edge research findings to people of all ages and backgrounds, as well as publishing classroom materials for teachers to use for free.

As a member of the Citizen Science Association, Science Connected also promotes community-organized projects and independent experimentation. Crowdsourced research, individual experiments, and self-published materials are all essential contributions to greater science literacy.

Science Connected is running an IndieGogo campaign to expand its free online magazine,, and to continue making science more accessible to learners of all ages.

Running an open-access magazine requires writers, editors, bandwidth, and public relations, as well as ongoing relationships with science journalists, researchers, and media organizations. While many of the contributing writers and editors volunteer their time, donations are still important to maintain the organization’s infrastructure. Here’s what funds raised through the Indiegogo campaign will be used for:

  • Membership in scientific organizations to make sure sources are all accurate
  • Writing stipends for GotScience journalists and researchers
  • Maintaining the Science Connected and GotScience websites

An assortment of thank-you gifts have been prepared for campaign supporters. For a donation of $5, you’ll get a social media shout-out. For $10 to $150, the range of gifts includes handwritten thank-you notes, exclusive photographic prints, stickers, mugs, and stainless steel water bottles. A $250 donation brings you all of the above and a highly visible, public thank-you on the website.

This is an incredibly important campaign, especially in this uncertain era of science skepticism, threats to public education, reduced funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, and an unfortunate distrust of expertise. With only a month of the campaign left, Science Connected needs to raise $3,000 to meet the goal. Every dollar helps. Your contribution doesn’t only help Science Connected—it helps everyone with a passion for learning about science.

Donate now:


What is a sunburn? Featuring Olympic Gold Medalist Misty Hyman


Misty (left) and me getting ready to swim

In this two part series, I partner with my friend, Olympic Gold Medalist Misty Hyman, winner of the women’s 200 meter butterfly in the 2000 Australian games.  Misty currently coaches private lessons, leads swim clinics, and gives motivational speeches around the world.  Misty was also recently named the senior assistant coach for the Arizona State University swim team. In her spare time, Misty extends her passion for swimming into the community as a spokesperson for FitPHX and encouraging everyone to learn how to swim.

Swimmers, as opposed to scientists, spend a lot of time outside.  Whether in the pool, by the pool, or in and around the beach, swimmers have a thing for the outdoors. With the outdoors, comes the sun.  With the sun, comes the possibility of a sunburn. And in Phoenix, where there are nearly 300 days a year with sun, a sunburn is even more likely. We all know that you should wear sunscreen to avoid getting a sunburn, but most people don’t know what a sunburn is or why you want to avoid it.  That’s what I’m going to talk about today.

sunburned_hubbySo what is sunburn? Sunburn is a response to the UV light of the sun.  The UV light is a damaging agent to DNA, the genetic code within each of your cells responsible for making your cell function properly. If there is a lot of DNA damage caused by the UV light – if you are in the sun for too long – this is a trigger for these damaged skin cells to commit suicide in a process called apoptosis. Before your cells die, this damage induces an inflammatory response, which is what causes the redness and the heat that accompany a sunburn. A few days after the sunburn, your skin starts to peel – this is the layer of skin cells that committed suicide peeling away from your body.  To summarize – sunburn is essentially a form of radiation poisoning to the skin that kills an entire layer of skin cells because the DNA was too damaged for the cells to live.


Taken by Nick Sherman and used under the Creative Commons License

Now as you and I both know, you don’t always get a sunburn when you lay in the sun (or a tanning bed, which also using UV light and has the same affect as the sun’s UV rays). Instead you could tan.  Tanning is a defense mechanism of your cells against the DNA damage caused by the sun’s UV rays.  How does it work?  The UV triggers special cells in your skin called melanocytes to redistribute or darken a pigment called melanin.  This pigment absorbs the UV light and protects the DNA from the damaging effect of UV.  If you are naturally darker skinned or already tan, the melanin absorbs the UV light so you are less likely to damage your DNA and less likely to sunburn.  But this doesn’t mean that you should just spend all of your ‘working on your tan.”  The melanin isn’t a fail safe UV protector and DNA damage still occurs.

Now that you know how sunburn and tanning works, maybe you’re thinking about how you’re out in the sun all the time, but you don’t get burned or you burn every once in a while but not all the time, so you must be okay. Maybe not.  When the UV light damages your DNA and you don’t burn, your cells still have to repair this DNA damage.  If the DNA damage isn’t repaired, you could end up with permanent mutations in the DNA of of your skin cells. These mutations may change the function of a protein and affect how your skin cells function.  Let’s say for example that you get a mutation in a gene that prevents your skin cells from dying next time they are hit with too much UV from the sun. The next time you get a sunburn, this cell will get damaged, it won’t die, and it will grow and divide with this mutation. Mutations then have the opportunity to accumulate and at a certain point will have enough mutations that the cells grow out of control and form skin cancer.

This can all be avoided in a number of ways.  You could become a scientist and never have the time to go outside because you’re always in the lab (or in my case, because your office is in the basement).  Since that likely won’t happen, you do have the option to avoid UV exposure by covering your skin with light clothing, a hat, or sunscreen.  You can also avoid spending long periods of time in the sun or limit your exposure to times of day where the UV rays are not as strong (when the UV Index is low).  Either way, the DNA mutations accumulate over a lifetime of exposure, so decreasing exposure or protecting your skin at any age will provide an added benefit and decrease your risk of skin cancer.

Misty’s Message: In the 4th grade, Misty did a science project on sunscreen and won the elementary school science fair.  Clearly, avoiding sunburn has been an interest of hers from early on.  Her advice is still the same as her science fair conclusions in the 4th grade: ” no matter what time of day it is, you should always wear your sunscreen especially when you’re in the pool.” The one exception is swimming at midnight – then you’re okay.

Why is water so interesting? Featuring Olympic Gold Medalist Misty Hyman


Misty (left) and me getting ready to swim

In this two part series, I partner with my friend, Olympic Gold Medalist Misty Hyman, winner of the women’s 200 meter butterfly in the 2000 Australian games.  Misty currently coaches private lessons, leads swim clinics, and gives motivational speeches around the world.  Misty was also recently named the senior assistant coach for the Arizona State University swim team. In her spare time, Misty extends her passion for swimming into the community as a spokesperson for FitPHX and encouraging everyone to learn how to swim.

I met Misty five years ago in Valley Leadership as members of Class 32 (Best Class Ever!!) We became fast friends, even though you may not expect a scientist and a swimmer to have much in common.  To be honest, I’m not much of a swimmer, though I do love my pool and my technique improves every lesson I take with Misty.  Misty, on the other hand, is quite a scientist. Part of her swimming success came from a careful, scientific analysis of every aspect of her stroke. As we were talking one evening, we starting thinking about what we could discuss together on my blog.  What cool things in science would also be interesting to a swimmer? My first thought – WATER!

I remember the first time I really learned about water was in my freshman year of college in my intro to chemistry class. I was amazed that an entire chapter was devoted to the physical properties of water.  I knew that water was incredibly common: 71% of the planet is covered in water and humans are 65% water.  There are 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.  So what makes this incredibly common, important and useful substance so freaking cool and worth devoting an entire textbook chapter to?


By OpenStax College [CC BY 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Lets start with the molecular structure. Water is made up of one oxygen (O) and two hydrogen (H) molecules, which is why the abbreviation for water is H2O (two Hs and one O).  The oxygen is connected to each of the hydrogens by covalent (permanent) bonds. Because of the way that the electrons within the oxygen and hydrogen atoms are distributed, the oxygen is slightly more positively charged and the hydrogens are slightly negatively charged.  This essentially makes water a weak magnet.  In chemistry, we call that “polar“. This polarity is the reason that water has so many unique properties, but I’m only going to talk about one that directly relate to swimming: surface tension. To learn more about water polarity, check out this fabulous TedEd talk.


A great example of surface tension thanks to Pixabay

Surface tension is best described by examples:  filling a glass of water over the top, rain beading on your windshield, or bugs walking on the water of the pool.  The water doesn’t spill out of the glass, the rain doesn’t turn in sheets and the bugs don’t fall under the water and die because of surface tension. More accurately, these things happen because the polar (aka slightly magnetic) water molecules are attracted to one another and stay together.  Or to be even more scientific –  the water inside the glass or raindrop or pool is surrounded by other water molecules that can move around each other.The water molecules at the top of the water glass or pool or raindrop don’t have water molecules above them, so they are pulled inwards toward the other water,  creating surface tension.

Interestingly, surface tension directly relates to swimming.  Just take a look at this amazing photo of the effects of surface tension on the 2012 Olympic 200 meter backstroke winner Tyler Clary.  He eventually does leave the water – but he will need to use energy and force to break the surface tension at the top of the water.  This is why swimmers can swim faster underwater than on the top of the water – they aren’t fighting surface tension (plus there are other physics “things” in play like less less drag and less energy wasted with splashing underwater).

Misty’s Message: Although she would LOVE to encourage everyone to just stay underwater, that’s not realistic because we don’t have gills. However, most kinds of tension – including “surface tension” – should be avoided at all costs especially while swimming. Instead of focusing on the reality that you have to break the surface tension in order to breathe, focus on reducing drag because “not being streamlined – that’s a drag.”