Transforming questions into conversations,
Responding with interest to e-mail inquiries

by Natalie Rusk

The following article appears in the September/October 1998 issue of the ASTC Newsletter. Natalie Rusk is director of learning technologies at the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul.

Remarks presented during "Beyond the hype," a session chaired by Natalie Rusk and Anna Slafer at the AAM Annual Meeting, May 12, 1998

by Thomas K. Simpson

Thomas K. Simpson is tutor emeritus, St. John's College, Annapolis and Santa Fe, and served on the Steering Committee for the ASTC Humanities Seminars in Science Museums program.

The museum is "doing its thing" when, in the tradition of the Muses, it's drawing out of us powers that we didn't know we had, to do things we didn't know we could do. How can any particular medium—including the computer—serve this function? We're on the wrong track when the computer is simply serving up information. We always refer to the "Information Age," and we've so identified the computer and all its associated paraphernalia with "information" that we speak that language as if it were the only one available. But I think we do not love "information." We need it, we use it, we require it, we search it out—but always for some further purpose.  

The museum is using the computer and all the media rightly when we're lifted out of the business of supplying information into that much more exciting role of storytelling, of activating the inquiring mind, of generating insight. In that sense it seems to me that when someone calls in a question which sounds like a request for information we should always be aware of the possibility that what she really wants to know is something much more than an answer to a question. She may be knocking on the door, hoping that the door will open to a conversation, to some sort of revelation, something exciting which she's searching out. In that sense, if we get a question and we simply answer it, that answer is like a bullet that kills a conversation. What we really want to do is use these media in ways that open conversations.

I seldom find myself taking on the job of responding to the science questions we receive through our museum web site. However, when I received the following e-mail regarding the fauna of Madagascar last February, I became interested and began to search for the requested information:

"I am doing a project for school, and chameleons are (not sure which species) endangered. I was wondering what their outlook on life is (i.e. is their population decreasing or increasing), what are things that are being done or can be done to help them, and what is causing them to be endangered."

First, I found a well-designed web site on chameleon conservation and shared this question. I also sent an e-mail to a professor from a university in Texas who had published a couple of papers on chameleons. Finally, I wrote back to the student, relating my process and adding: "I would be interested to know what level (or grade) in school you are currently studying—and any information you find."

Over the next 24 hours, I received numerous messages from the Chameleon Conservation Society listserv, mostly focusing on the debate over whether to feed chameleons live crickets. No one on the list responded to the question I had forwarded about endangered chameleons. And I never heard back from the professor. However, I did receive the following reply from the student inquirer:

"I'm only in 9th grade. :-( Thanks a lot for your help, though! It came in just in time. THANK YOU SO MUCH. I'm not doing too good in science, and I needed the grade. Thanks!"

Despite the appreciation expressed, I felt disappointed by the exchange. I had no illusions that I had helped inspire this young person's interest in science. I started wondering what I might have done differently. Several weeks later, in a humanities seminar at the museum, seminar leader Tom Simpson made a comment that stayed with me: "An answer to a question is a bullet that kills the conversation." (See sidebar.)

This got me to look back at Eleanor Duckworth's book, The Having of Wonderful Ideas. In a chapter entitled, "The Virtues of Not Knowing," Duckworth suggests that getting the right answer is in fact a passive transaction, and then discusses why she avoids offering explanations when her students ask questions. "Instead of explaining to the students, then, I ask them to explain what they think and why. I find the following results. First, in trying to make their thoughts clear for other people, students achieve greater clarity for themselves. Much of the learning is in the explaining. (Why should the teacher monopolize occasions for trying to make herself clear?)." She goes on to offer several other compelling reasons why she concentrates on getting students to develop and share their own explanations for subjects ranging from the moon to teaching.

In 1994, as part of the Science Museum of Minnesota's Science Learning Network team, I began working with Mike Petrich and Karen Wilkinson to develop web resources with the goal of inspiring young people, teachers, and their families to make personal connections to science. We spent hours over the course of years discussing, developing, defending, and revising our approach as we created Thinking Fountain, Windmills and Whirligigs, Inventions, and other unconventional sites.

Our process for developing the content of our web sites could have been thought of as the "stone soup" approach. We began with experiences, observations, and conversations that inspired our inquiry, and also invited others to add their own ideas, which then nourished further ideas and investigations. Ultimately, we designed the resources to have an open-ended, unfinished, playful sketchbook look.

When we first began to publicize the site, a message would arrive every several days: a suggested link from a graduate student; drawings from inspired third graders; and many science questions. Because we avoided information delivery, we hadn't anticipated that half our e-mail (now about 10 messages per week) would be requests for science information from parents and students as far away as New Zealand.

As lead creators of the web resources, Karen and Mike always responded to the majority of incoming e-mail. When they decided to attend graduate school last year, we agreed that, in their available time, both would continue to serve as e-mail correspondents. Nevertheless, my personal experience with the ninth grader's science question—coupled with Tom Simpson's suggestion that a person asking for information might actually be hoping for something more than an answer—has led me to take a closer look at how Mike and Karen have responded to the science questions we have received over the past year.

Each of their responses is personalized and varies, of course, depending on the subject and question. Yet, looking closely, I began to notice a pattern—five recurring elements occurring in different combinations. Identifying these elements has furthered my understanding of how questions might turn into conversations. Here are the five elements I noticed for both correspondents, with examples from Karen's e-mail:

In the messages, I saw plenty of evidence for another of Tom Simpson's suggestion that a person asking for information "may be knocking on the door, hoping that the door will open to a conversation, to some sort of revelation, something exciting which she's searching out." The hope for something more than information is clear in this message: "Dear Karen, We also raise Monarchs and we want to know if you are freezing monarchs, and if so, why? We live in Annandale, Minnesota. We are 12 and 13 years old. e-mail us back if you have time, we would really enjoy it because nobody else will e-mail us back. We keep track-- if they are boys or girls, and next year we are going to tag them. -- Heather and Jamie."

After Karen replied in a long message, they wrote: "Karen, Thank you for returning our letter. I have been raising Monarchs 4 years including this year. Heather has been doing it for two. Last year we each raised about 35 monarchs. So far this year we have 80 total. So far we have had by far more boys than girls. My 4th grade teacher taught me about monarchs, he teaches the whole 4th grade." If anyone has any questions that you want to or anyone else wants to ask us, just e-mail us. I have a question for you, though. I had a monarch caterpillar about one-fourth the size they should be before they make a chrysalis and it tried to make a chrysalis. It fell off before it was finished. Would it have made it and is there a reason that it went up there too early??? (it had lots of food in with it.) --Your Friends, Heather and Jamie."

I am interested to see Heather and Jamie invite questions, as well as ask one based directly on their own observations. So how do we respond? I think again of Eleanor Duckworth, who writes: "Surprise, puzzlement, struggle, excitement, anticipation, and dawning certainty—those are all the matter of intelligent thought. As virtues, they stand by themselves—even if they do not, specifically, lead to the right answer. In the long run, they are what count."

Eleanor Duckworth's book, The Having of Wonderful Ideas and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning, was published by Teachers College Press in 1987.

©1998 Association of Science-Technology Centers Incorporated. All rights reserved.